Polka Masses

And More on the Rite of Confirmation

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ROME, APRIL 20, 2004 (Zenit.org).- 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.

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Follow-up: Rite of Confirmation

One reader, a father who has seen eight children confirmed, sent in a rather ample commentary on our piece on the rite of confirmation (March 30). Basically, he advocated confirmations at a later age (high school) and a rite that involves the faithful more as a community.

"We need something in the rite," he states, "that is powerful, meaningful to the congregation as well as the persons being confirmed, to symbolize the great power of the sacrament, the privilege of it, and responsibilities as well as entering into the adult community."

Our correspondent essentially touches on two issues: the proper moment for confirmation and how best to bring out the role of the community. I believe that he correctly understands community in its full ecclesiastical sense as the Church and not just the group of family and friends who attend the celebration.

The first point touches a very delicate nerve in the understanding of the significance and meaning of the sacrament of confirmation.

From a theological standpoint the sacrament of confirmation should ideally precede first Communion, and indeed all official documents, from canon law to the Catechism, place confirmation before the Eucharist.

In a very real way, participation in the Eucharistic celebration is only fully complete after having received the sacrament of confirmation.

The sacramental character of the latter, according to the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a further participation in Christ's priesthood and a spiritual power ordained to certain sacred actions with the difference that in baptism the Christian receives the power of testifying his faith by receiving the other sacraments whereas in confirmation he receives the power of publicly confessing his faith ("Summa Theologiae" III q 63 a. 3; q 72 a. 5-6).

Although the Church shows a clear preference for having confirmation precede first Communion -- and this was a fairly common practice even up to recent times as first Communion was often received at a later age -- it does permit the delay for solid pastoral reasons.

If this delay is extended for a long period it can create a confusion regarding the exact nature of the sacrament. This may lead us to forget the essential point that we are dealing primarily with a sacrament, that is, a source of grace, and only secondarily a sign of coming of age or a taking up of adult responsibilities.

Thus with confirmation, as St. Thomas said, we "receive a power of testifying the faith." And the Council of Florence states that "it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and to be never ashamed of the Cross" (see Catechism, No. 1302).

It is in this sense that confirmation is the sacrament of Christian maturity, not so much a sign that one has already reached maturity, as the gift of grace to help one mature as a Christian.

For this reason I must confess that I do not agree fully with our correspondent regarding the convenience of confirming during high school.

Even when it is pastorally necessary to administer confirmation after first Communion, I believe that it is important that children receive it before facing the turbulent adolescent years; after all, that is probably when they most need the specific grace of this sacrament.

With respect to the involvement of the community and in providing "something in the rite that is powerful, meaningful to the congregation as well as the persons being confirmed," while taking care not to confuse the roles of clergy and laity, I think our reader expresses a legitimate concern along with his general preoccupation regarding an excessive individualization of the sacraments.

First of all, this understanding must be inculcated in the preparatory catechesis.

Second, a well-planned liturgy can bring out this element by using the rubrics to the full. Examples are: the choice of readers (parents, catechists, etc.); the solemnity of the assembly's "Amen" after the confirmands have renewed their baptismal promises; or even the whole assembly's singing of a hymn that expresses the same message as the "This is our Faith. This is the Faith of the Church ..." said by the celebrant.

Another element is to give proper emphasis to the moment of silence in which the community is asked to pray for the confirmands before the imposition of hands by the bishop and clergy.

This moment, while brief, should not be rushed, and its importance can be explained beforehand both during the practice that is usually held before the celebration and in opportune brief commentaries at the beginning of the rite of confirmation.

Likewise, during the essential rite of anointing the candidates, which often takes some time, the choice of hymns in which the community invokes the Holy Spirit can be a powerful moment of prayer.

An assembly that is capable of singing the sublime Latin hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" at this moment of the rite will find that the Spirit does not limit himself to showering graces on the confirmed.

While respecting the rubrics other, more general, elements of the liturgy may also come into play such as the choice of hymns, the prayers of the faithful, the rite of peace, etc.

There were also a couple of related questions on file regarding the delegation of a (Roman rite) priest to administer the sacrament of confirmation.

A priest from New Jersey asked: "Prescinding from those instances where the faculty is granted by the law, (e.g. the confirmation of newly baptized adults or of a person in danger of death), if a priest confirms without proper delegation, is the celebration of the sacrament invalid?"

Canon 887, speaking about priests who have been authorized to administer confirmation within a diocese, says that they may also confirm those who come from outside the diocese unless there is an express prohibition from their own bishop. The canon then goes on to say that these priests may not "validly" confirm beyond the confines of the diocese.

Hence it is clear that the proper authorization from the bishop is required for the validity of the sacrament and a priest who confirms without proper authorization acts invalidly and the rite of confirmation is without effect.

Another reader, from Oregon, asks: "How often does a bishop delegate confirming to a parish priest?"

Apart from special cases, such as those mentioned above, the bishop should strive to administer the sacrament to as many of his faithful as possible. Canon 884, however, allows him to delegate one or various specific priests to administer the sacrament.

This delegation can be habitual, as might be the case of a vicar general or another priest of the diocese when the bishop cannot usually cover all of the confirmations. Or it can be for specific cases when circumstances don't allow for him to attend a particular celebration.

The decision as to when and in what circumstances to make the delegation lies with the bishop himself.

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