Gregorian Masses; age of first Communion

By Father Kenneth Doyle

Question: I have a question about the Gregorian Masses. I have been told that there can be Masses said for 30 consecutive days (at a cost of $300) with the hope that the deceased person will be received into heaven immediately, without having to pass through the cleansing rigors of purgatory. I have no doubt in the power of prayer, but why do we have to “buy” our way into heaven? (Washington, Iowa)

Answer: The practice of celebrating “Gregorian Masses” has a long tradition in the church. It takes it origin from the time of the papacy of St. Gregory the Great (590-604). St. Gregory was concerned about a fellow monk who evidently had broken his vow of poverty before he died, so St. Gregory determined that Mass should be celebrated for that monk on each of 30 consecutive days following his death.

The monk, named Justus, later appeared to a friend and said that he had been released from purgatory at the completion of those Masses. For centuries thereafter, the custom of Gregorian Masses came to be observed, particularly in Benedictine monasteries.

There is no official church teaching on this matter, and the release of a soul from purgatory cannot, of course, be guaranteed; but the practice underscores the church’s strong belief in the intercessory power of prayer.

I feel some of the same discomfort as you do about the “cost” of the Masses. First, it should be noted that the stipend for a Mass is an “offering,” not a “fee,” and should never be made a requirement — especially for those who cannot afford it.

I would also point out that, in many cases, Mass stipends are the sole means of support for religious orders or for priests on missionary assignment. (Most often, priests in a parish setting would have difficulty scheduling Masses on 30 consecutive days for a single intention.)

Question: I have two sons, ages 5 (entering kindergarten) and 7 (entering second grade), who attend Mass with me every week. They both have strong faith, know their prayers and comprehend all of the religious instruction they have received.

I teach Christian formation in my parish for my older son’s grade, and my younger son “audits”/sits in on that class. Instead of putting my younger son into the kindergarten religion class this coming year, I would like to enroll him in my second-grade class and prepare him for first Communion, along with his brother.

I have read in our diocesan guidelines that, to receive first Communion, the child must be “of the age of reason (usually 7).” I can attest that my 5-year-old is fully capable of reasoning and that he comprehends the mysteries of Christ.

He has a thorough interest in religion (more than his brother!) and is rapt with attention in learning new stories about Jesus. He already understands that at Mass, the bread and wine are consecrated and become the body and blood of Christ.

What would my 5-year-old have to do to qualify to receive his first Communion this upcoming school year? Could he be interviewed to demonstrate that he has reached the age of reason and comprehends enough of the instruction? (Chesapeake, Virginia)

Answer: In the early centuries, the usual practice in the Latin-rite (Roman) Catholic Church was for infants and children to receive first Communion immediately after baptism (usually by administering a drop of the precious blood). By the 13th century, though, it had become customary for children to receive first Eucharist when they reached the age of discretion (which was variously interpreted as being between 7 and 14).

In 1910 — in a change spearheaded by Pope Pius X — the Vatican Congregation for the Sacraments established that the age of discretion should be considered around the age of 7, and that remains the current practice.

The church’s Code of Canon Law says simply that “the administration of the most holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion” (Canon 913).

Interestingly, in 2010 Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, head of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, wrote an article in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in which he noted that children today are maturing more quickly and he suggested that the church should consider lowering the age for first Communion.

In your own situation, you are certainly entitled to consult the bishop’s office in your diocese to see whether an exception can be made in your son’s case. I would think, though, that it might be practically difficult for every 5- or 6-year-old to be offered the opportunity to be evaluated as to his or her religious maturity and that the diocese may choose to retain the 7-year-old standard.