Amy Dixon of Peoria, Ill., was 31 years old when sorrow introduced her to a longstanding, though sometimes misunderstood, practice in the Catholic Church.

Seven years ago, on Dixon's birthday, her youngest brother died at age 28 in a work-related accident. Her mother died the following year.

The family's grief was profound, but when Dixon received cards saying that people were having Masses said for her mom and brother, she experienced a deep consolation.

“I was overwhelmed,” Dixon says. “It wasn't even like immediate family and friends. Some friendships were not even that close and people were having Masses said. They were people I didn't necessarily know that well, but my mom knew them, or Joey did.”

Dixon, a lifelong Catholic, began having Masses offered for her mom and brother and, over time, has made the gift of a Mass for the living as well as the dead a regular and meaningful part of her own life.

“It's filling a need to do something special for them, directly to the Lord,” Dixon says.

For some Catholics – and even some non-Catholics – the popular practice remains a mystery. What does it really mean to have a Mass said for someone, and how is it done? When did it begin? And if a monetary offering is given in exchange for the Mass, isn't that simony?

To begin with, there is no better way to pray for someone than in the Mass, according to Dominican Father Vincent Serpa, chaplain for Catholic Answers in San Diego.

“The Mass is the same sacrifice as the sacrifice on Calvary,” Father Serpa explains. “It is brought down through history into our very lives, so that whatever we are praying for is united with the prayer of Christ to the Father. It is the most perfect prayer.”

When a person requests a Mass, he or she gives an offering to pay for the bread and wine used and, as a result, the priest remembers their particular intention, according to Father Serpa.

“This does not rule out any other intention being made at the Mass by those that come to the Mass,” Father Serpa adds. “[But] this assures the person that the priest's primary intention for celebrating the Mass is for the benefit of whatever they've asked. Certainly the Mass is limitless in terms of the effect of the Lord's passion and death.”

The Gift of Grace

The practice of Mass offerings has been continuous since the first centuries of Christianity. In the early Church, the people brought the bread and wine for the Eucharist along with other gifts. What was not needed for the celebration was given to the poor and to support the priest. Over time, monetary offerings replaced the gifts of bread and wine.

To guard against simony, the illicit exchange of temporal goods for spiritual ones, the Church has laws regarding Mass offerings, specifically Canons 945 through 958. They require, for example, that no more than one offering be accepted for any one Mass, that a requested Mass must be said for even a small offering and that, when no offering can be made, priests should offer Mass for the intentions of the faithful, especially those in need.

The revised 1983 Code of Canon Law even prefers the word “offering” to the more common “stipend,” which could imply the Mass is being purchased for a price.

There are two common ways to request a Mass: Ask at a local parish, or ask missionary priests, who depend upon and often solicit financial support to continue their ministry. Also, some Catholic nonprofit organizations invite their supporters to request Masses and, with a priest's agreement, any offerings are given as a donation to the cause.

A parishioner wanting to have a Mass said at his or her parish goes to the parish office to request a date on the Mass calendar and makes a customary offering of $10, $5 or less. Pastors and parish secretaries are careful to explain that a person is not “paying” for a Mass.

“There are times when the people can't afford (the requested) amount of money. The Mass can be offered anyway,” Father Serpa says. “I remember a child who came in with 50 cents. We celebrated the Mass for his mother. That was all he had to give.”

For many parishes, the Mass calendar for the current year is filled before the year is half over, and requests are scheduled for the following year. A smaller parish may have only one daily Mass available; larger parishes may have more Masses but also more requests.

Some parishes and dioceses regularly donate extra Mass stipends to the missions, which may have few other sources of income. Missionaries readily offer Masses, and some provide cards to donors to send to loved ones to let them know that a Mass will be said.

That way of supporting the Church appeals to Olga O'Reilly, a longtime Catholic in Point Pleasant, N.J.

“If [the offering] will help someone else that's not as fortunate perhaps as we are, it's well worth it,” O'Reilly says. “The cards are so beautiful. Somebody has spent a lot of time and energy making these up. I think they should be rewarded for helping me to send a message I was not able to do on my own.”

The Lord's Sacrifice

Dixon of St. Mark parish in Peoria is treasurer of her parish women's club, which has a Mass said for every person in the parish who dies. She also likes to have Masses said as a thank-you gift to friends who have done something special for her.

“People have been [wonderful] to my husband and me,” Dixon says. “We have four children, we both work, but we don't make a lot of money. Saying ‘thank you’ is kind and gracious, but the words don't always seem like enough. Having a Mass said means so much more.”

Intentions and offerings are to be carefully recorded in the church books, and the priest is bound to make the intention when he celebrates the Mass.

Beyond that, the names of those being prayed for may be published in the church bulletin, announced at the beginning of the Mass or announced during the general inter-cessions.

Father Serpa says it does not matter that the priest often does not know the person for whom he is intending the Mass.

“I realize the Lord loves that person more than anybody. I realize the sacrifice I'm offering isn't mine – it's the Lord's sacrifice,” Father Serpa says. “I'm grateful that it doesn't all depend on me.”

For the person making the request, attending the Mass is optional, but it can be special for those who are having the Mass said for a deceased loved one.

O'Reilly attends the Masses she requests on the anniversary of her husband's death. “I feel that I kind of keep in contact with him through this Mass,” O'Reilly says.

Indeed, when we participate in the Mass we are united with the mystical body in a very special way, Father Serpa says.

“Bishop [Fulton] Sheen used to speak of the Church as a wheel with spokes, and Christ is the center,” he adds. “The closer we come to Christ, the closer we come to one another.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.