Polka Masses

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Polka Masses

ROME, 20 APRIL 2004 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: This past summer, my parish had a Polka Mass. I didn't feel it was right to go to this Mass, since I don't know how I would be able to associate Polka music with anything other than dancing. Isn't the music at Mass supposed to elevate one's spirit to God? Does a polka do that? And is that a legitimate form of liturgical music? — T.L., Johnstown, Pennsylvania

A: We have dealt previously with the general principles involved in liturgical music (see (Nov. 11 and Dec. 23). From those I believe that it is fairly clear that music usually associated with dancing or other profane activities (at least in a Western context) should not be admitted into the Mass.

I was rather surprised to hear that Polka Masses were still going on — I had thought that they had gone out in the '70s along with a host of other similar fads.

Perhaps the principal difficulty with such things is not so much the music in itself, which like many human elements in the liturgy may have different meanings in different cultures and in different epochs, but the idea that the Mass needs some sort of a theme in order to enhance its significance or relevance.

When we label the Mass we tend to diminish rather than augment its importance. We restrict its universal meaning as Christ's very sacrifice renewed upon the altar and the sacred banquet which forms and increases our union as part of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church.

This is the Church's greatest offering to God and any addition to the Mass itself — such as "Polka," "Clown," "Disco" (yes, there have been cases) or any similar extraneous element — reduces its scope and attempts to press it into service for some cause other than the worship of God.

It could be argued that this is done in order to make the Mass more attractive or welcoming to certain groups. I am certain that it is often done in good faith. Yet, I think that 40 years after the Second Vatican Council it is clear that such attempts have failed to fulfill their promises.

The best and most efficacious means of making the Mass meaningful is to teach Catholic truth as to what the Mass is.

To understand the Mass is to grasp the foundation of every other aspect of the Catholic faith as well as to find the strength to live it.

No amount of toying with externals can substitute for a lack of knowledge of the essentials although, when carried out with beauty and fidelity, these externals can prove to be a resource for teaching and confirming the faith in the essentials.

What I term labeling of the Mass, however, should not be confused with legitimate practices such as, for example, when an immigrant group celebrates Mass in their own language and using music from their religious tradition, or when different styles of liturgical music are adopted in accordance with the various congregation's spiritual sensibilities.

Nor does it include the proper use of the many possibilities offered in the missal to adapt the Mass texts to particular situations, such as the use of votive Masses and Masses for Special Necessities such as "For Peace," "For Christian Unity," etc.

These texts serve to specify particular intentions and invocations which the Church, albeit in general terms, already implores from God, in every Mass. ZE04042022

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Follow-up: Polka Masses [05-04-2004]

After our piece on "Polka Masses" (April 20) a priest from North Dakota wrote the following commentary "The tradition of having 'Polka' Masses is very much alive ... scheduled to coincide with a community's annual 'Polka Fest.' When I ask people who attend them for their reaction, they respond by swinging their hips and saying something like, 'I wanted to get up and dance.' I have never heard anyone say that it brought them closer to God or his people. A few people respond, 'It was hard to pray.'"

I think that the commentary speaks for itself. What is important is not if the people like the music (they probably do) but whether it helps them live the Mass (it probably does not).

While the recently published instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" says little about music, it does say in No. 78: "It is not permissible to link the celebration of Mass to political or secular events, nor to situations that are not fully consistent with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, it is altogether to be avoided that the celebration of Mass should be carried out merely out of a desire for show, or in the manner of other ceremonies including profane ones, lest the Eucharist should be emptied of its authentic meaning."

Thus, linking the Eucharist to an annual "Polka Fest" or other analogous celebrations in this manner is not advisable.

This does not mean that all expressions of national or ethnic traditions are excluded from the Mass. But they must be specifically religious in content and contribute to living it with fervor.

Although such folkloric music is excluded from Mass it may be offered to the congregation after Mass in the parking lot or parish hall, especially in communities with strong ethnic ties.

While on the subject of the new instruction from the Apostolic See I wish to note one or two points which clear up earlier replies.

In the very first question of this column (Sept. 13) while not favoring glass chalices I doubted if liturgical law forbade them in every case, especially with regard to heavy crystal.

This doubt is now cleared up by the instruction's No. 117, which states: "Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily. This norm is to be applied even as regards metals and other materials that easily rust or deteriorate."

A later question on the use of "flagons" (Sept. 23) for the consecration is also resolved in No. 106: "However, the pouring of the Blood of Christ after the consecration from one vessel to another is completely to be avoided, lest anything should happen that would be to the detriment of so great a mystery. Never to be used for containing the Blood of the Lord are flagons, bowls, or other vessels that are not fully in accord with the established norms."

I note that No. 106 will also require a review of the norms recently published by the U.S. bishops' conference which favored the use of a single large chalice from which the Precious Blood would be poured into other chalices.

The instruction in No. 105 prefers the use of several chalices: "If one chalice is not sufficient for Communion to be distributed under both kinds to the Priest concelebrants or Christ's faithful, there is no reason why the Priest celebrant should not use several chalices. ... It is praiseworthy, by reason of the sign value, to use a main chalice of larger dimensions, together with smaller chalices."

In a follow-up on the theme of extraordinary ministers (Oct. 28) I mentioned that it did not make much canonical difference if they were called special or extraordinary.

While I was right regarding the norms, the new instruction, in No. 156, goes deeper into the question of vocabulary: "This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and not 'special minister of Holy Communion' nor 'extraordinary minister of the Eucharist' nor 'special minister of the Eucharist,' by which names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened."

Thus the instruction stresses that only the priest is, properly speaking, minister of the Eucharist. The others are ordinary or extraordinary ministers of Communion.

It also notes (No. 158): "Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason."

There are probably some other points in our earlier replies that might need some fine tuning in the light of the Instruction and if necessary I will take them up at a later date. ZE04050421

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