Why Do We Offer Masses For The Dead?
This column responds to a call from a reader.
“I have asked several people I know from our parish,” the caller told me, “and no one seems to know why we offer Masses for the dead. So I thought maybe you could publish something about it in The Message.”
I yield to Father Allain Caparas from the East Coast. He wrote a column about this that I have seen posted in a number of places online. What follows are excerpts from that column. If you would like a copy of the full text, email me; I’ll get a copy out to you.
Father Capras writes:
“I would guess that there are many people out there – while they recognize the Mass as something important – do not fully understand why offering a Mass for someone, especially the dead, is so important – not only for those who grieve, but for the person who died.
“First of all, we must never forget the infinite graces that flow from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – graces that are directed for the salvation of all humanity. After all, the Mass is the sacrifice of Christ Himself. It is Christ Himself through the ministerial priesthood, who makes the benefits of His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension present to us in the here and now. By our full and active participation in the Mass, we offer our own sacrifices and our very lives in union with Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, something mystical and something extraordinary happens to us at every Mass!
But something extraordinary (also) happens to the entire Church – here on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical "Mirae caritatis" (1902), emphasized that there is a connection between the deceased and the living members of the Church (the Communion of Saints), and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He wrote:
"‘Faith teaches that although the [Mass] can be offered to God alone, it can nevertheless be celebrated in honor of the saints now reigning in Heaven with God, who has crowned them, to obtain their intercession for us, and also, according to apostolic tradition, to wash away the stains of those who died in the Lord but without yet being wholly purified.’
“Hence the Mass is the means through which we, the church here on earth (the Church Militant), together with those in heaven (the Church Triumphant), offer our intercessions or prayers on behalf of the dead (the Church Suffering). Catholic teaching affirms that our prayers on behalf of the dead, particularly the offering of the Mass, actually are beneficial for the souls of the dead.
"When a priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, he has three intentions: first, he offers the Mass reverently and validly according to the liturgical norms of the Church. Second, he offers the Mass in union with the whole Church and for the good of the whole Church – both living and the dead in purgatory. And third, he offers the Mass for a particular intention, such as the repose of the soul of someone who has died.
“The Catholic Church teaches that the effects of the Mass bring certain benefits or fruits. Generally, the fruits of the Mass are bestowed upon the entire Church – to the living faithful and those souls in purgatory. That is why, in the Eucharistic Prayer, you might hear a special mention remembering both the living and ‘those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.’
“But the special ministerial fruits of the Mass are applied to the particular intention of the Mass, i.e. ‘for whom the Mass is offered.’ That is the reason why the priest or commentator might mention the name of the person ‘for whom the Mass is offered’ or you might see a person's name recorded in the bulletin for a particular Mass. Most of the time, it's for a deceased person, but it could also be for a person living who might have a special intention (anniversary, thanksgiving, illness, etc.).”