“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” – Matthew 6:24.
How true that is! The Church and money have always had a challenging history and sometimes it has gone terribly wrong, yet the truth remains that money is needed to carry out the mission of the Church. Therefore, the Church has some very specific rules regarding money that we may not always be aware of.
Here are some guidelines that can be good reminders for all members of the Church!
First of all, the Church’s primary mission is the salvation of souls through the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. I do not know anyone (in modern times) who desired to become a priest to become wealthy, but did so because they wanted to help people attain the heavenly kingdom. In fact, although diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, they are to live simply as the law of the Church states (Canon 282).
In keeping with that mission the law of the Church states, “The minister is to seek nothing for the administration of the sacraments beyond the offerings defined by competent authority, always taking care that the needy are not deprived of the assistance of the sacraments because of poverty” (Canon 848). The Church is a big place and there are different “costs” and standards in each place, so it is impossible to have a set recommendation for all circumstances. Therefore, each diocese or region will have its own guidelines.
However, there are some general ideas that can help.
Mass stipends are a donation for having a Mass said for some intention. This is the subject of a whole chapter of canon law due to the abuses in the past! A priest generally is allowed to keep one stipend per day and cannot combine multiple intentions into one Mass. The stipend is usually set by regions in the Church, called a metropolitan area, which is a group of dioceses overseen by an archdiocese.
You can always call the parish secretary and ask what is customary for the Diocese.
An individual priest may not set a higher price, but more could be offered by the person asking that their intention be said. However, priests are highly encouraged to offer a Mass for the intentions of the poor even if they cannot afford an offering. Again, the spiritual goods of the Church are not bought or sold, but offered freely.
Sacraments like marriage and baptism are special occasions in the life of people, and there is some cost associated with it. For marriage the materials for preparation, the staff needed to help with arrangements, the electricity, etc. all cost money.
Baptisms are similar. There may be a cost for the candle, the white garment, and the preparation materials. Sometimes a parish will have a suggested donation, offering, or (the hated word) fee to help offset those costs. That does not include anything for the minister. If any money is given in relation to a sacrament it is supposed to go to the parish unless it is specifically addressed to the priest AND the parish has already received something. There is certainly no obligation to pay the minister, but everyone appreciates a gesture of gratitude for their efforts. Perhaps a card with some money is nice, but a picture of the event afterward or a hand written card is nice as well.
Funerals are often a similar situation. Many times there will be a cost to use the hall or the Church to help cover the parish expenses, but this again does not go to the priest or deacon. Often a funeral director will help take care of that as part of the arrangements, or ask if you wish to give something to the minister. Funeral directors can be an excellent guide of what is common in an area, but you should never feel obligated to give anything or any amount. Burying the dead is a spiritual work of mercy, and any priest is privileged to do so.
Sometimes priests are asked to come and give a talk at an event that is outside of their normal duties. A three day parish mission at another parish, a retreat talk, a young adult event, or something like that. This is a situation where it is common to offer the priest something. They have put in additional work outside of their normal duties to prepare a talk, perhaps to travel some distance, and take time away from their parish.
It would always be important to offer something to cover whatever costs they might incur like gas, food, or lodging depending on the circumstance, but in this situation it is also good to give a gift to show your appreciation for them going out of their way and putting in the extra work. Perhaps some popular speakers would have a set price, but most just appreciate the thought and whatever is offered.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is this – priests and other ministers work to serve God, not to line their pockets. You should never hesitate to ask for prayers, a sacrament, or a priest’s time for because you “can’t afford it”. They are ordained to serve. Like everyone else, priests and ministers are grateful when their efforts are appreciated as well. A nice card, a gift, or some money to show your appreciation of their time, vocation, and effort is always kind. But above all, we seek to serve God rather than mammon.