What does it mean to have a Mass offered for a special intention?
To start, it will help to spell out what the Mass is for. The purpose of the holy Mass is to apply the effects of the Lord’s saving passion, which took place at one moment in time, to souls throughout all time. In sacrificing his body and blood under the appearances of bread and wine before he offered them up in their natural forms on the cross, the Savior made it clear that he shed his precious blood and underwent death in his body only in order to give the fruits of that sacrifice to souls through the sacramental sacrifice he instituted on Holy Thursday.
Naturally, then, the Church and the Christian faithful have instinctively understood that their own intentions, whatever they may be, are to be taken up in Our Lord’s prayer in this sacrifice. Adoration, thanksgiving, reparation, petition—these are the ends intended by Christ’s sacrifice, and the whole Church and individual believers have these intentions as well.
The priest who offers the sacrifice gives the faithful access to its essential act from which the desired fruitful intentions are obtained. As the proper and only minister of the sacrifice of the Mass, he can offer a Mass for a requested intention—for health of body, peace in the family, success in studies, financial stability, finding a spouse, finding employment, conversion of heart, protection from evils, discernment of a vocation, thanksgiving for a blessing received, reparation for sins, and so on—giving it a special share in the fruits of the Mass.
Traditionally, the fruits of the eucharistic sacrifice are understood in three ways. First, there is the general fruit of the Mass. This is the fruit of the Mass intended for the whole Church in all its parts. All the ends of the Mass form this universal fruit, distributed according to the needs and dispositions of the Church at the actual moment of the offering. This is the most important aspect of the Mass: its fruitfulness for the Church each day until Christ comes again. Since all worship and preaching and all the other sacraments, and indeed all the good actions and works of the faithful, are ordered to Christ who is contained in this sacrament, we can truly say that there is not a grace given among the living or the dead that in some way does not come from the daily celebration of the Mass. This general fruit is why the Church wants the Mass to be celebrated as many times as reverence will allow.
Secondly, there is the ministerial fruit of the Mass. This is the object of the individual intention for which the priest, as the minister of the sacrament, offers the sacrifice. As the minister, he has a right to the fruits of the Mass as his own prayer and the power to determine them, offering sacrifice for a particular end; and the faithful ask him to give them this fruit for their own intentions. Thus, the priest makes their intention his own.
Often this is done because of the priest’s gratitude for the material support the faithful have given him for his daily sustenance. If the faithful have given an offering, a stipend, precisely so that the priest may offer Masses for them, he is gravely bound to fulfill their intention by celebrating for them as soon as he can. Canon law, however, exhorts priests to accept these personal intentions of the faithful even when no offering can be given. The sacrifice of the Savior’s body and blood is for all, and the poor, especially, have many urgent intentions.
Thirdly, there is the personal fruit of the Mass. This fruit is just for the priest himself, and not even he can change it. This comes to him as a gift from the Lord for being the minister of his sacrifice that he so ardently desires to be offered by his priest. The priest cannot give this fruit to another person; it is needed for his sanctification and perseverance in his vocation. In a certain sense, this fruit is the greatest grace of being a priest, but too few priests pay attention to this fact. Each priest’s Mass is also in a permanent and unchangeable way just for him, as it is also for the faithful and for the Church universal.
All the fruits of the Mass are potentially infinite, but they vary according to the disposition of the souls toward whom they are directed. They are spiritual and are dispensed according to the knowledge and power of Christ the high priest. When speak of them as being “more” or “less,” or of being “divided” in various ways, it is just a way of making spiritual things understandable to us who live in the body, as we offer up the Body of the Savior for the salvation of the whole world under God, “for the praise and glory of his name, and for our good and the good of all his holy Church.”
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