Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I am a member of a faith-sharing group, which is ecumenical. Recently, a question came up with regard to “simony” and “buying a Mass.” Please explain the concept of a stipend being offered for a Mass for a deceased person; non-Catholics (and Catholics, as well) find it confusing. Was not the value of the Mass already purchased by the sacrificial death of Jesus? What, exactly, is being bought? (Chippewa Falls, Wis.)

A. Simony, which is sinful, is the buying or selling of spiritual things. The term takes its origin from the Acts of the Apostles, where (in Chapter 8) a man named Simon the Magician sought to purchase from St. Peter the spiritual power derived from the imposition of hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

Examples of simony would be to seek ecclesiastical promotion through a cash gift or to attempt to bribe a priest to receive sacramental absolution.

Mass stipends are not simony, and there is no such thing as “buying a Mass.” A Mass stipend is a free-will offering given for celebrating a Mass for a particular person or intention. In the early church, it was often the sole source of a priest’s income and support, and in poorer countries, it sometimes still is.

You are correct that the merits of Christ’s redemptive death are infinite. A Mass intention is simply a plea to the Lord to channel some of those already-gained merits in a particular direction.

The church’s Code of Canon Law takes pains to avoid the appearance of “buying a Mass” by explaining that the poor are never to be denied a request for a Mass because of their inability to provide the customary offering (No. 945) and by forbidding a priest from keeping for himself more than one Mass stipend per day (No. 951).

Like most priests, I have on a number of occasions declined to accept a stipend because I thought it might be a hardship for the person requesting the Mass intention. (In many U.S. dioceses, the suggested offering is $10.)

Despite these canonical cautions, the misunderstanding persists, and nearly every week a caller or visitor to our parish office will ask, “How much does a Mass cost?”

I use that as a teachable moment to the point where our parish staff is tired of hearing me explain a “free-will offering.” My preference would be that Mass stipends be eliminated entirely, but many priests, particularly in missionary territories, depend on them for their livelihood.

Even in a typical American parish, donors seem to feel comforted by knowing that they have “done something” for the named beneficiary of a Mass.

Q. Some time ago, you answered a question about the annulment process, and the answer itself prompted even more questions in my mind. First, you mentioned that statements from witnesses are used to help determine whether there are grounds for an annulment. How would witnesses know anything about the private life of a married couple?

You also said that a questionnaire is filled out by the petitioner and also, if he or she is willing, by the former spouse. The process sounds all too fragile to me. Couldn’t the petitioner say anything at all, just to get the annulment? And what if the other party doesn’t want the annulment granted or feels it is not just? Is there any avenue of appeal? (Newtown Square, Pa.)

A. For the Catholic Church to grant an annulment, it must be determined that from the very start of the marriage some essential element was lacking that kept it from being a binding and lasting union.

There may have been considerable emotional immaturity or instability on the part of one spouse or both, or a lack of full freedom or complete commitment.

Not infrequently, there are witnesses — sometimes family members — who can say, for example, “My sister never really wanted to get married; she was very nervous about it, but she felt that everyone expected her to go through with it and our parents had already made all the arrangements” or, “We all knew, all of his friends, that he wasn’t totally serious about the marriage; he told us, in fact, ‘I’ll try it for a while and see if it works.'”

As for the former spouse, he or she is completely free to oppose the annulment and to offer reasons why it should not be granted. Then it is up to the judges of the diocesan marriage tribunal to weigh all of the testimony and evidence.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.