Expert Answer Forum

Polka and Folk Mass QUESTION from Rick October 9, 1998

Dear Mr. Miskell: I was thinking that liturgical law required the use of Sacred Music and the use of instruments that are consistent with Sacred Music. But many parishes have folk masses and use typically folk instruments such as the guitar. Folk, by definition is of the people rather than lifting up to God as is Sacred Music. My question concerns whether these folk (and polka) masses are a violation of law, or only a violation of the spirit of the law, and perhaps of tradition (with a small t), requiring sacredness in liturgical music rather than being a technical and actual violation? Thanks.
ANSWER by Mr. John Miskell on October 9, 1998
Dear Rick, There have been numerous unfortunate occasions where the use of unorthodox, untraditional, or even bizarre musical instruments and/or style have been used in the Mass. In my opinion, this destroys the reverent atmosphere of worship.
The Vatican has clearly expressed her wishes regarding music in the Mass;
The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, for it is the traditional musical instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendour to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up men's minds to God and higher things.
But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, in the judgment and with the consent of the competent territorial authority as laid down in Articles 22: 2, 37 and 40. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use; that they accord with the dignity of the temple, and that they truly contribute to the edification of the faithful. [THE CONSTITUTION ON THE SACRED LITURGY: Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4 December, 1963 ]
The document Musicam Sacram repeats the teaching of the Constitution on the sacred Liturgy when it says;
Musical instruments can be very useful in sacred celebrations, whether they accompany the singing or whether they are played as solo instruments.
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.[43]
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.
Any musical instrument permitted in divine worship should be used in such a way that it meets the needs of the liturgical celebration, and is in the interests both of the beauty of worship and the edification of the faithful. [Musicam Sacram, 62-63]
Obviously the Church prefers the organ as the traditional instrument of choice, but does not require or mandate particular instruments. Other instruments are allowed, as long as (1) the music played on them is appropriate in all respects for liturgical use, and (2) the instrument does not have exclusively secular connotations.
In my opinion, electric guitars, drums, bass, accordion, saxophone, etc., all have exclusively secular connotations. Obviously my opinions are just that, and you would have to argue about the use of these instruments on a case by case basis.
The US. National Conference of Catholic Bishops has decreed that musical instruments other than the organ may be used in liturgical services provided they are played in a manner that is suitable to public worship. This decision deliberately refrains from singling out specific instruments. Their use depends on circumstances, the nature of the congregation, etc. In cases where there is doubt, it is the responsibility of the diocesan bishop to render a decision. Individual priests, music directors, parish liturgical committees, etc., do not have the authority to make this decision.
The Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, through it's official publication Notitiae, has issued a number of clarifications regarding the rites of the Church and their celebration. The interpretations and explanations effect the General Instruction of the Roman Missal , and are therefore binding.
It is necessary, moreover, that the principles of sacredness and dignity which distinguish church music, be it for its chant as for its sound, should remain intact. All that is merely secular should be proscribed from the house of God. Jazz, for example, cannot be part of a musical repertoire designed for worship.
Where musical instruments are concerned, differing mentalities, cultures, and traditions are to be borne in mind, and those instruments which have an entirely secular connotation should not be allowed in church. The Church has immense possibilities for deep, effective, and uplifting action, without having recourse to means which are very dubious and even, by common consent, harmful. [ Notitiae 2 (1966) 157-161, 5, DOL 427].
I believe that this, thankfully, would rule out Polka at Mass, however it leaves the Folk Mass, open to the discretion of the local bishop.
Incidently, the folk guitar, has a long history of use in the Western liturgy. A good example is, the much loved Christmas hymn Silent Night. Intended to be sung to the accompaniment of the guitar, it was written last century by an Austrian parish priest whose pipe organ broke just before Christmas. Regards, John Back to Index Page

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