It is a centuries-old Catholic tradition to offer Masses for the dead.
It is a centuries-old Catholic tradition to offer Masses for the dead.

Catholics offer Masses for the deceased for several interrelated reasons. These reasons include belief in particular judgment, purgatory, the communion of saints and the spiritual power of the Mass. However, because requesting a Mass for a deceased person includes making a financial offering to a priest, some churchmen have questioned the practice.

Judgment and Purgatory

Fire is the traditional Christian symbol for the purification associated with purgatory.
Fire is the traditional Christian symbol for the purification associated with purgatory.

Catholics believe that shortly after death, the soul experiences particular judgment. If in a state of serious sin, the soul goes to hell. If in a state of great holiness, the soul goes to heaven. If in a state of imperfection, the soul goes to purgatory for purification before entering heaven. None of these -- heaven, hell or purgatory -- is a place so much as a condition or state of being. Catholics believe the prayers of the living can aid a soul's transition from purgatory to heaven.

Communion of Saints

Stories about Christian saints attest to the power of prayer for the dead.
Stories about Christian saints attest to the power of prayer for the dead.

Catholics believe that all Christians, whether living or dead, are spiritually united with each other through their union with Christ. Therefore Christians can help each other with their prayers. According to stories in the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles obtained medical cures for the living when they prayed in Jesus' name. In later centuries, stories from the lives of Christian saints include accounts of prayer aiding the dead. "In the life of St. Ita, written about the middle of the seventh century," writes Patrick Toner, "it is related that the soul of her uncle was released from purgatory through her earnest prayers."

Offerings, Not Payments

Ultimately, the amount of a Mass offering is up to the donor.
Ultimately, the amount of a Mass offering is up to the donor.

Catholics consider participation in the Mass the most powerful of all prayers. The church calls the Mass "the summit and source of all worship and Christian life." Strictly speaking, no one pays a priest to offer a Mass for the repose of a loved one's soul. Rather, someone asks him to offer an already-scheduled Mass for that purpose. The request is accompanied by a small donation, currently around $10. The offering represents the donor's desire to share personally in Christ's sacrifice at every Mass. The money is "sacrificed" in the same spirit in which a Catholic might give up sweets or give away alms during Lent. Intercessory prayer, sacrifice and alms giving all are spiritual practices with a long history in the Catholic church.

Theological Concerns

Vatican II reforms stressed the importance of the people's role in the Mass.
Vatican II reforms stressed the importance of the people's role in the Mass.

Some modern churchmen, however, have questioned the practice of Mass offerings. Among them was the late Bishop William Cosgrove, who worried that the custom reflects a deficient understanding of the Mass. The liturgy is a joint celebration of priest and people. The practice of asking a priest to include the deceased in his Mass intentions may overemphasize his role in the Mass. Further, the church's usual requirement for a priest to honor only one person's donation per Mass suggests there are limits to God's mercy. That view is inconsistent with Christ's many pronouncements about divine generosity. Similar concerns appear in two articles that Dominican theologian Joseph Kenny wrote for "The Homiletic and Pastoral Review."