Liturgy of the Catholic Church

Liturgy and Para-Liturgical Celebrations

Masses for the Living and the Dead

And More on Head Coverings

ROME, JUNE 5, 2007 ( 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.

* * *

Follow-up: Head Coverings for Women

Several readers asked for further clarifications after our article on women wearing head coverings (May 22).

One reader said he was told that the new Code of Canon Law did not repeal the former obligation to wear hats and veils, but simply did not mention it.

Although some canonists might accept this hypothesis, it is not the most probable interpretation as it is unlikely that the legislator would have left the faithful in doubt as to the existence of an obligation. By no longer mentioning the custom, the legislator removed it from the realm of obligation while leaving intact the possibility of its remaining as a custom in some places or contexts.

A reader from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, mentioned a particular case: “We have a small group of traditionalist parishioners who come for Mass with their heads (especially women) veiled. Most parts of the Mass they are seen kneeling when everyone else is standing. During Communion they would receive kneeling and will only receive Communion if distributed by a priest and not by lay ministers or religious. There are instances where they refused to come out for Communion because the priest who celebrated the Mass would only give Communion to communicants who are standing. This resulted in them moving from church to church, searching for priests who would give them Communion kneeling. What is the Church’s norm on this?”

Other readers mentioned similar cases of women being actively discouraged by priests from wearing hats and veils because they “cause distraction.”

The principal reason why St. Paul mandated women to cover their heads was to foment modesty during the liturgy, especially because in the cultural context of the time a woman who did not cover her head conveyed a message of impropriety.

Since modesty is the primary reason, a woman is free to cover her head for the sake of modesty, or simply out of respect for long-standing custom.

While modesty would also advise against using elaborate hats and veils that tend to draw attention to oneself, there is no authority in canon law or in common-sense social mores that would allow a blanket prohibition or discouragement of all head coverings. Priests should be flexible enough to accommodate the various spiritual sensibilities of their flock, except in the case of clear incompatibility with the nature of the sacred rite.

A similar point could be made regarding the so-called Malayan traditionalists. These faithful should be encouraged to participate in the common gestures of the celebration which express unity of prayer and purpose.

Although the priest should try to educate them as to Church norms and genuine piety, it is usually pastorally advisable to be patient and avoid creating unnecessary divisions regarding points that are not always clearly defined in liturgical law.

At the same time, the Holy See has made it clear that even when the bishops’ conference has established the practice of receiving Communion standing as a general norm, the faithful who wish to, may kneel down to receive the Host. It has also emphasized in very clear terms that under no circumstances may the faithful be refused Communion simply because they kneel.

Such members of the faithful, however, should also be careful lest their practice cause any disturbance to the flow of the Communion lines and if necessary they should, for example, wait until the end to receive kneeling.

As one version of the classic spiritual adage says, “In important things unity, in less important things liberty, in all things charity.”


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