In Ireland the practice of giving a Mass Card when you pay your respects at a funeral or a wake is still very common. Funerals are still a major social event here and it isn’t unusual for the family of the deceased to receive a couple of hundred Mass cards from the different mourners.
A few years ago this led to legislation in the Charities Act that specifically dealt with Mass cards. The law basically says that pre-signed Mass cards cannot be sold in commercial outlets (unsigned Mass cards, that one brings to the local parish for signing, are not affected). This legislation was to curb the practice of fake Mass cards, or Mass cards that kept the majority of the offering with the retailer and sent only a few cents to a priest in another country who would often be asked to offer a single Mass for hundreds of cards.
This was challenged by Thomas McNally in a case that went all the way to the High Court case. McNally claimed that “unlawfully conferred a monopoly on the sale of Mass cards to clerics of the Catholic Church.” It transpired that McNally was a major dealer of Mass cards and “sold 120,000 cards per year and had an agreement with a Polish priest based in the West Indies.” McNally paid €3,600 annually to this priest for saying a few collective Masses a month, which was a small percentage of the €250,000 he made from the sale of Mass cards. The High Court challenge failed and most people think that the matter is now resolved.
A few days ago I was in my local post office and I noticed a new spin on the controversy. A poster advertised “Pre-Signed Sympathy Cards On Sale Here.” The poster also advertised various types of “bouquets” for different occasions. I looked at one of the cards and inside it stated that “The intention of the happy repose of the soul of …. will be remembered in the prayers of [signature] Catholic priest.” The poster clarified that the cards are not Mass cards, but this is a clear attempt to get around the law as the normal person would probably not notice the difference.
I know that as a priest people often ask me to remember someone in my prayers. Honestly, I do not think my prayers are worth more than the person who asks me and while I agree to pray for the person in question, I usually tell the individual that their own prayer “counts” as much as mine. Now the idea of a priest being paid to pray for generic intentions that will be sold through post offices, petrol stations and other shops, strikes me as wrong. Ultimately this lends weight to John Baldovin’s case that the whole area of Mass offerings needs more reflection and catechesis.