Polka For the Masses

By George E. Jay M.D.

In this review we will evaluate polka music per se, as well as how it pertains to the increasingly common “Polka Mass.” A succinct review of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and Sacred Scripture as it concerns the Mass will also be undertaken. Some related issues will be briefly discussed. The article culminates with a challenge to ask ourselves how we can assist at Mass not in a minimalist way (“Well it still counts for a Mass so there!”), but in a way that has a superabundant giving of your heart to God the Father, united to the Sacrifice of the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and made available in a special way through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

I really take pleasure in polka music. You know, that Czech, Polish, Slavic type of joy-filled music that we’ve all heard. Others like it as well. I think many more folks would enjoy polka music too if they gave it a chance, if they’d “Czech it out.” “Polka for EVERYBODY!” Is that an overstatement? Probably. My wife Joan and I joyfully danced to it at our wedding reception. I can almost see Frankie Yankovic “wannabees” pulling out the accordion getting everyone “whooped up” for the “Beer-Barrel Polka.” What fun! “Ya Ya Ya!” My wife is of Bohemian ancestry; she is also “quite Polish.” Joan’s father spoke and read Polish before English. “Troot” be told, LACK of polka music was not an option at our Wedding reception. “Ya! Ya! Ya! Dats da music dey (and I) like for diss stuff.” (Forgive me for “Polking” fun at the Polish accent).

Spring is here and Catholic parish planning committees all over are in full swing preparing for various upcoming summer events. The St. Cloud Visitor Diocesan Newspaper this week (Feb. 17, 2005 issue,) featured a front-page article on polka music. Polka music as I mentioned above can be great fun. The Visitor article made a point of discussing polka music in several contexts including the context of Sacred Music, more specifically, “Polka Masses.” Is there something inherently right or wrong about polka Masses? I’m not here to say there is or is not. The Bishop approves of them, but why? Presumably because some of the Priests ask him for these polka Masses. Why do some Priests ask for these? Because us lay people (in some instances) are asking the Priests for the polka Masses. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us there is a proper time and place for certain things. So even if polka Masses are still real Masses (and they are), would polka Masses be the APPROPRIATE thing to have for the atmosphere of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Read on and draw your own conclusion.

A fine Priest once told me about how a young soon-to-be-married woman was explaining to him how she was planning some “rock-n-roll” music for her wedding Mass. Before engaging in the discussion, the Priest asked for a music request for the wedding reception. She said “Sure.” The Priest said he wanted “Church music” for the first two hours of her reception. The young woman’s reply was something to the effect of . . . “Father! You just don’t understand. Certain music is right for certain places, and not right for other places and situations. Church music is fine, but it just wouldn’t fit into the wedding reception atmosphere.” He then said he DID understand, would withdraw his request, and explained to her why her “Mass music” choice was inappropriate. There is an element of subjectivity in music, but also an obscure but real objective element as well. Hollywood even knows this. For example, they wouldn’t play electric laughs and carnival music in the background, if (TV’s) Marcus Welby M.D. were telling one of his patients that he had a serious illness diagnosis. Wouldn’t fit.

We as Catholics are often reminded these days that the Mass is a celebration. That doesn’t mean it’s a “party.” When Jews “celebrate” the Passover, they realize it is a solemn celebration. We as Catholics see the Passover’s fulfillment, the Mass, as a solemn celebration in the context of Christ’s death (see CCC 608, 610, 613, 1340, and 1st Corinthians 5:7). In addition to being a solemn celebration, it is important to recall that the Church teaches that the Mass is a Sacrifice, more specifically, “THE Sacrifice” (yes the Mass goes beyond that too theologically, but exploring this would be beyond the scope of this discussion). In a certain pleural sense, Masses exist (i.e. 8 A.M. Mass, 9:30 A.M. Mass etc. this Sunday). But in another sense, there is only ONE Mass, the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. When we are among the Eucharistic Assembly (when we are attending Mass), we are somehow someway mystically present at Jesus’ one, once-for-all Sacrifice on Calvary and that Sacrifice is being re-presented to the Eternal Father, in the Sanctuary, on the Altar, at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world!

No wonder the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has this to say . . . CCC 1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit: [Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.189

CCC 1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”190

“Propitiatory” or propitiation (“pro-pishh-ee-ay-shun”) in this context means that the Sacrifice of the Mass placates or appeases God’s just retribution. As the late Fr. Hardon says in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, “ . . . (Propitiation) is one of the four ends of the Sacrifice of the Mass, whose propitiatory power extends to sin, to satisfaction and punishment for the living, and to punishment for the dead.” If we purposefully sacrilegiously participate in the Mass in any way, we reject this forgiveness and propitiation AND commit grave sin simultaneously. This necessitates a price for sin we MUST pay (Matthew 12:36), as God is perfectly merciful, but He is also perfectly just. CCC 2120 Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us.[52]

The Mass is Jesus’ own Sacrifice. It is utterly Holy and Pure. The Mass is that “PURE OFFERING” that the Prophet Malachi prophesied would be forthcoming . . . “from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. — Malachi 1:11 (The CCC 1330, 1350, and 2643 all footnote Malachi 1:11 in the context of the Mass. Bible quotes here from Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, as the CCC uses.)

While on the subject of the Mass being the ONE once-for-all Sacrifice on Calvary, it is noteworthy to realize that some anti-Catholics will occasionally distort this teaching attempting to question the credibility of the Catholic faith. One anti-Catholic basically said to me erroneously: “You Catholics think you kill Jesus over and over again at the SACRIFICES of your Masses. The Bible tells us there was one once-for-all Sacrifice.”

We would answer that by pointing out we DON’T teach we are sacrificing Jesus over and over again at each Mass. Mass is the ONE Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary re-presented on the Altars throughout the world. Mass is HOW we “cash-in” on that one once-for-all Sacrifice. We sin again and again and are weakened by this sin. Mass is HOW we get this great Sacrifice of Jesus applied to us and are thus strengthened again and again. They might reply you don’t need “man-made inventions” to have Jesus’ work applied. Tell them 1. The Lord Jesus Himself gave the Mass to us; it is not merely a “man-made invention”. 2. Why do YOU guys have to say a “sinners prayer” (A Protestantized one-time “spiritual communion”) to obtain the one once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary, especially since a sinners prayer is nowhere explicitly alluded to in the Bible you say that you adhere to so closely.” You see their sinner’s prayer is really an incomplete action to fill the void that they vaguely realize exists in their hearts. But the “sinners prayer” can’t deliver. As good as a sinner’s prayer may be, it’s not the Mass. Some have stated that the sinner’s prayer is a “quasi para-mass” in a sense, substituting for the real Mass, only without the authentic channels of grace given to us by our Lord Jesus.

Well how do you Catholics know that in order to apply the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary to us, you NEED ongoing periodic participation in the Mass? The answer is because the Church teaches us this and has always taught us this for 2000 years through Scripture and Apostolic Tradition. The Church as CCC 389 says, speaks with “the mind of Christ.” Yes there are exceptions to the need to participate in The Mass. An obvious example is a baptized baby dying before he ever attends a Mass, but the Church authoritatively teaches us about these exceptions too.

Participating in this liturgical “meeting together” (the Eucharistic Assembly or attending Mass) is how we get the Sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary applied to us, and we cannot spurn or reject this solemn gift without dire consequences. Consider Hebrews 10: HEBREWS 10:23-31 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, NOT NEGLECTING TO MEET TOGETHER, AS IS THE HABIT OF SOME, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, THERE NO LONGER REMAINS A SACRIFICE FOR SINS, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. HOW MUCH WORSE PUNISHMENT DO YOU THINK WILL BE DESERVED BY THE MAN WHO HAS SPURNED THE SON OF GOD, AND PROFANED THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT BY WHICH HE WAS SANCTIFIED, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, Vengeance is mine, I will repay. And again, The Lord will judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Words with ALL CAPITALS above mine for highlighting purposes. The CCC 2178 footnotes and affirms Hebrews 10 in the context the Mass.)

The phrase “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, . . .” doesn’t have to do with just ANY sin. It pertains to the sin of NEGLECTING to “meet together as is the habit of some”! There is only one place in Christianity where “NOT MEETING TOGHETHER AS IS THE HABIT OF SOME” can result in their “NO LONGER REMAINING A SACRIFICE FOR SINS”, that’s the Catholic teaching (Eastern Orthodoxy holds Catholic Teaching here as well). This is obviously one way you can profane the blood of the covenant. These are serious teachings, and neglected, have serious consequences. You MUST attend Mass, not just on Sundays, but on Holy Days of Obligation as well (See CCC 1389, 2041, 2042, 2181, 2192). This is still a precept of the Church (CCC 2042) and has not been “done away with at Vatican II” as a poorly informed Catholic incorrectly tried to tell me. Yes when a parent has to stay home to take care of a sick child, when you are frail or sick, etc. you are “missing” Mass. These are acceptable reasons as CCC 2181 teaches, because in such cases, you are not deliberately forgoing or “neglecting” Mass.

So if we neglect assembling (i.e. the Eucharistic Assembly) or “neglect meeting together as is the habit of some” . . . then what? Then there NO LONGER REMAINS A SACRIFICE FOR SINS! Does this mean if we don’t assemble “as is the habit of some” Jesus sacrifice will “vanish”? No, of course not. It means WE choose to close off (or “neglect”) the channels of grace to “cash-in” on that great one once-for-all Sacrifice. The Mass is HOW this Sacrifice is applied to us! By blowing off the Eucharistic Assembly “as is the habit of some” we reject or “spurn the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the Covenant by which he (the guy skipping Mass) was sanctified. . .” Incidentally, Jesus only mentioned “Covenant” in Scripture on one occasion. That was at the Last Supper when instituting the Eucharist (and talking about His blood, the blood of The Covenant, being offered Sacrificially). This is not coincidence!

If we consider that Mass is the re-presentation of Calvary, and somehow some way we are really actually mystically present at Calvary, there we are at the foot of the Cross with The Blessed Mother, St. John the evangelist, all the Angels, etc., then ask yourself two questions: “Is it appropriate to break out the accordion and carry on with polka music on Calvary Hill? Or does us being at the foot of the cross deserve more solemnity. Is this event too sublime (spiritually lofty) to call down music that in our culture could potentially remind us of the “Beer-barrel Polka?” I’m not trying to answer the question for you. I’m just trying to get everyone to ASK IT! I think in your heart you will come to the correct conclusion. My son was in Poland last week and do you know the Bishops there do NOT allow communion in the hand (my son always receives Communion on the tongue anyway – it’s just the way he chooses to receive). Knowing that, do you think they have “polka Masses” in Poland? I don’t know. I’m just asking the question.

So we saw that polka music can be fun. We see that there is an appropriate time and place for certain things, for example we wouldn’t want inappropriate music for a wedding reception. We see that the Holy Mass is NOT merely a celebration but also a Sacrifice. We reviewed that the Church teaches that this Sacrifice is non-other than THE Sacrifice on Calvary re-presented and that the Church teaches this is an important and necessary Sacrifice. As a matter-of-fact, this is so sublime that somehow we are mystically brought to the foot of Calvary. Since we pray with not only our minds but also our actions, we want our sacred music to be in harmony with such a lofty situation as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We inquired whether polka music would be appropriate at the foot of the Cross while we were on Calvary Hill. If you found yourself standing at the foot of the Cross, next to The Blessed Virgin Mary watching our Lord Jesus suffer and die, would you pull out your accordion?

Much more could be said about the Mass and yes this review was oversimplified. We didn’t even touch upon the Mass being a foretaste of Heaven, the wedding supper of The Lamb, the Ministerial Priesthood, our suffering united to Christ’s, proper disposition for reception of the Eucharist, and so many other aspects of the Mass. We didn’t touch upon the roles of Baptism, Confession or Confirmation either. I wanted to keep most of my comments germane to polka music as it relates to the Mass, especially in lieu of “liturgy committee” meetings that will undoubtedly be going on in the next couple of months at parishes in preparation for this summer’s “Special Events Masses”. Perhaps you may have already gone over all these issues in your mind. If so great, but I guarantee you there are those around you who have not, and they may benefit from your sharing some of these ideas with them to get them to ask themselves their own questions on this subject. Perhaps even giving them a copy of this article would help kindle some questions they haven’t dealt with before in their heart on the polka Mass issue. We need to at least ask the appropriate questions to ourselves.

When you hear the genre “polka music,” what do you think of? “The Beer Barrel Polka”? “Too Fat”? “Hoop Dee Doo”? “In Heaven There Is No Beer”? Polka music may be appropriate for the masses, but is Polka music really appropriate for the Masses?