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CNP Feedback - Polka Mass?

Q. Dear CNP:

Polka Mass I attended Mass at our church and was astonished that Stan and the Jammers, a professional polka band, and a cantor from our church were providing the music for the Mass. I sat in the pews with my eyes closed, trying to grasp the holiness of the genre and I couldn't (I swear the Gloria was a parody of "Roll Out the Barrel"). I wondered if this is the same style of music I'd hear if I attended a Mass in Europe. To top things off, our pastor ended the Mass by thanking the polka band and encouraging parishioners to purchase the band's CDs that were available in the gathering space.

I later inquired about the Polka Mass and was told that it was okay because all of the members of the band were Catholic. (Side note: My Catholic teen likes Rave and Screamo music, so is that okay too?)

Our current music director wants our weekend high Mass to become a "Jazz Mass" with a hired jazz band (and CDs for sale after Mass, no doubt).

Are these regionally and/or ethnically inspired versions of music for the Mass apropriate?


A. Dear Polka-Haunt-Us:

To put it simply — polka bands should not play at Mass. Styles of music with purely secular connotations (Broadway, popular radio, polka dances, rock concerts) have no place in Roman Catholic worship.

Here are some quotes from 20th and 21st century popes on the subject:

from Saint Pius X (Tra le sollecitudini 1903)

Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.

4. The above-mentioned qualities are also possessed in an excellent degree by Classic Polyphony, especially of the Roman School, which reached its greatest perfection in the fifteenth century, owing to the works of Pierluigi da Palestrina, and continued subsequently to produce compositions of excellent quality from a liturgical and musical standpoint. Classic Polyphony agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant, in the more solemn functions of the Church, such as those of the Pontifical Chapel. This, too, must therefore be restored largely in ecclesiastical functions, especially in the more important basilicas, in cathedrals, and in the churches and chapels of seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions in which the necessary means are usually not lacking.

5. The Church has always recognized and favored the progress of the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages — always, however, with due regard to the liturgical laws. Consequently modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions.

Still, since modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.

6. Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the functions of public worship is the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century. This of its very nature is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music. Besides the intrinsic structure, the rhythm and what is known as the conventionalism of this style adapt themselves but badly to the requirements of true liturgical music.

from Pope Pius XII (Musicae sacrae 1955)

41. First of all the chants and sacred music which are immediately joined with the Church's liturgical worship should be conducive to the lofty end for which they are intended. This music — as our predecessor Pius X has already wisely warned us — "must possess proper liturgical qualities, primarily holiness and goodness of form; from which its other note, universality, is derived."

42. It must be holy. It must not allow within itself anything that savors of the profane nor allow any such thing to slip into the melodies in which it is expressed. The Gregorian chant which has been used in the Church over the course of so many centuries, and which may be called, as it were, its patrimony, is gloriously outstanding for this holiness.

58. These norms must be applied to the use of the organ or other musical instruments. Among the musical instruments that have a place in church the organ rightly holds the principal position, since it is especially fitted for the sacred chants and sacred rites. It adds a wonderful splendor and a special magnificence to the ceremonies of the Church. It moves the souls of the faithful by the grandeur and sweetness of its tones. It gives minds an almost heavenly joy and it lifts them up powerfully to God and to higher things.

59. Besides the organ, other instruments can be called upon to give great help in attaining the lofty purpose of sacred music, so long as they play nothing profane nothing clamorous or strident and nothing at variance with the sacred services or the dignity of the place. Among these the violin and other musical instruments that use the bow are outstanding because, when they are played by themselves or with other stringed instruments or with the organ, they express the joyous and sad sentiments of the soul with an indescribable power.

from Sacred Congregation of Rites (Musicam sacram 1967)

"The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lift up men's minds to God and higher things."

"The use of other instruments may also be admitted in divine worship, given the decision and consent of the competent territorial authority, provided that the instruments are suitable for sacred use, or can be adapted to it, that they are in keeping with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful."

63. In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions.

from Pope John Paul II (Address to Saint Cecilia Association 1982)

Music intended for the Liturgy must be "sacred" owing to special characteristics which allow it to be an integral and necessary part of the Liturgy itself. Just as the Church, with regard to places, objects and clothes, demands that they should have a fitness adapted to their sacramental purpose, all the more so for music, which is one of the highest visible signs of liturgical sacredness, she wishes it to possess a fitness in keeping with this sacred and sacramental purpose, by means of special characteristics which distinguish it from music intended, for example, for entertainment, diversion, or even piety understood in a wide and generic sense.

The Church has stressed and stresses, in her documents, the adjective "sacred," applying it to music intended for the Liturgy. This means that, through her centuries-old experience, she is convinced that this description has an important value. In music intended for sacred worship — Paul VI said — "not everything is valid, not everything is lawful, not everything is good; but only what, in union with artistic dignity and spiritual superiority, can fully express ... faith, for the glory of God and for the edification of the Mystical Body." It cannot be said, therefore, that all music becomes sacred from the fact and at the moment in which it is inserted into the Liturgy; in this attitude there is lacking that sensus Ecclesiæ, "without which, song, instead of helping to merge hearts in charity, may on the contrary be a source of uneasiness, dissipation, and flaws in the sacred, when not of division in the very community of the faithful."

Michael Miller, discussing Cardinal Ratzinger's book, A New Song for the Lord (1995)

Cardinal Ratzinger insists that the faith must not be trivialized in the name of inculturating it. Today we do not have to limit church music so strictly to chanting of the psalms, because we have "an infinitely larger trove" of good liturgical music to draw on. But to hold the line against the onslaught of misguided attempts to import "modern" musical forms into the liturgy requires "the courage of asceticism, the courage to contradict. Only from such courage can new creativity arise."

from Pope John Paul II (Chirograph on Sacred Music 2003)

3. On various occasions I too have recalled the precious role and great importance of music and song for a more active and intense participation in liturgical celebrations. I have also stressed the need to "purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated," to guarantee dignity and excellence to liturgical compositions.

4. In continuity with the teachings of Saint Pius X and the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary first of all to emphasize that music destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point: indeed, "sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action." For this very reason, "not all without distinction that is outside the temple (profanum) is fit to cross its threshold," my venerable Predecessor Paul VI wisely said, commenting on a Decree of the Council of Trent. And he explained that "if music — instrumental and vocal — does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious." Today, moreover, the meaning of the category "sacred music" has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself.

Saint Pius X's reform aimed specifically at purifying Church music from the contamination of profane theatrical music that in many countries had polluted the repertoire and musical praxis of the Liturgy. In our day too, careful thought, as I emphasized in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, should be given to the fact that not all the expressions of figurative art or of music are able "to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church's faith." Consequently, not all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations.

12. With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the "general rule" that Saint Pius X formulated in these words: "The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple." It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiæ can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy. In this perspective, in my Letter to Artists I wrote: "How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the Liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God."

from Pope Benedict XVI (Sacramentum caritatis 2007)

Liturgical song
42. In the ars celebrandi, liturgical song has a pre-eminent place. Saint Augustine rightly says in a famous sermon that "the new man sings a new song. Singing is an expression of joy and, if we consider the matter, an expression of love." The People of God assembled for the liturgy sings the praises of God. In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church has created, and still creates, music and songs which represent a rich patrimony of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost. Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Consequently everything — texts, music, execution — ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons. Finally, while respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy.

By "various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions" the pope has in mind Renaissance polyphony and metrical hymns — not polka bands.

Hope this helps. You might politely and gently point out to your pastor that you were not edified by the performance at Mass and found the "sales pitch" to be disturbing.

As for inculturation, I'm of Polish heritage — but I would die at a Polka Mass!

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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