Masses for the Living and the Dead

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Masses for the Living and the Dead


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Is the Mass offered for the living more powerful than after your death? St. Anselm and Pope Benedict XV said they are. Could you please comment. — S.T., Chicago

A: While our reader did not offer the sources of these comments by St. Anselm and Pope Benedict XV, I will take her word for them.

In what way can we say that one way of offering a Mass is "more powerful" than another?

First of all, it is necessary to clarify that in itself the Mass has the same value of Christ's paschal mystery of which it is the ritual re-presentation. Therefore its value is infinite, and one Mass is not more powerful than another.

Thus, any difference in value must be sought in the effect on the person for whom the Sacrifice is being offered.

In the case of the deceased in purgatory any benefit is received passively, since the soul is no longer capable of performing new meritorious acts. While such a soul is already saved, it cannot increase in sanctity but only purify those imperfections which impede its definitive entrance into glory.

A living person, however, is still capable of growing in sanctifying grace. And so a Mass offered for a person already in God's grace has the effect of offering a gift of increased grace which the person may willingly receive in order to become more Christlike.

As an intercessory prayer, a Mass offered for a person in a state of actual mortal sin may yet supply the grace necessary for repentance even though conversion is always a free acceptance of the grace that is offered.

While the Mass may be offered for other intentions as well (for instance, for those who are ill), I believe that the discourse regarding whether the Mass for the living is more powerful than for the dead lies principally in the above point regarding the possible increase in sanctity. The offering of the Mass may also assist in this increase of sanctity by helping people face their sufferings and trials more deeply united to Christ.

Only the living can become holier, even to the point of directly entering heaven after death. Some might be perplexed by the idea that there can be differences in sanctity in heaven. The saints sometimes used a useful image to describe this possibility.

During life, by freely corresponding with grace, each person prepares his or her own capacity of being filled with God. In heaven, some will be like liqueur glasses; others, beer tankards; others, barrels; and a few oil tankers. The important thing is that all will be filled to the brim, and none will feel the lack of anything necessary for happiness.

Of course, the Church recommends praying and having Masses offered for both the living and the dead, for none should be excluded from our charity. ZE07060529

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Follow-up: Masses for the Living and the Dead [6-19-2007]

Some readers responded to the question (June 5) on whether Mass offered for the living was more efficacious than that offered for the dead.

A meticulous reader did an online search for the supposed quotes of St. Anselm and Pope Benedict XV and turned up several pages that all provided the same quotes, including the same grammatical errors: "A great Doctor of the Church, St. Anselm declares that a single Mass offered for oneself during life may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after death," and "Pope Benedict XV tells us, 'The Holy Mass would be of greater profit if people had it offered in their lifetime rather than having it celebrated for the relief of their souls after death. ... The fruits of the Sacrifice of the Mass are in effect much greater efficacy [sic] during one's life than after one's death because the application which is made to those well-disposed among the living is more direct, more certain and more abundant.'"

As our reader points out, none of these sites provide bibliographical references to the sources of these quotes. And an electronic search of St. Anselm's works failed to find any text corresponding to the supposed quote.

This does not prove that the quotes are false, nor that they are doctrinally groundless. But it does remind us to be wary of uncritically using the Internet as a source of knowledge, and to always attempt to verify our sources.

A correspondent from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, asked: "Several people have told me that having Mass offered for a living person is 'more efficacious' than if that person attended Mass himself. How would you respond to this statement? I would think that attending the holy sacrifice of the Mass oneself, if not prevented by some serious reason such as poor health, would be more efficacious."

In general we should avoid focusing the question of the efficacy of a Mass in such a way that reduces, commodifies or limits the infinite efficaciousness of Christ's holy sacrifice.

It is like asking which is more efficacious, driving oneself or having someone drive for you? In the end the important thing is reaching your destination.

God's granting of grace cannot be standardized. Whether a person receives more spiritual benefit from attending Mass or from having someone offering a Mass for him depends on a plethora of factors ranging from God's liberality to the person's subjective willingness to correspond to the gift of grace.

If any difference might be found it is that, for Catholics, attending Mass (unless legitimately impeded) is a necessary means of spiritual progress and even a necessary means of salvation. Having Mass offered for one, however, does not enjoy the same degree of necessity and some people could even reach sanctity even if nobody ever remembered to offer a Mass for their benefit.

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