Dance in the Liturgy

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We can argue that modern liturgical dance, like the Gnostic-Docetist attempts of old, detracts from the heart of the Mass, which is the sacrifice of Christ, the sacrifice of the cross. Modern man will do anything and everything to escape the cross and replace its pain with something soothing, something pleasurable to the senses. In a culture that tells us to avoid pain, inconvenience, and hardship at all costs, the liturgy it creates will of course be a feel-good, entertaining experience.

The future Pope writes that it is inappropriate to spruce up the liturgy with "dancing pantomimes" whose performances frequently spark applause. He writes: "Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.... I myself have experienced the replacing of the penitential rite by a dance performance. Which, needless to say, received a round of applause. Could there be anything further removed from true penitence?"

These days, applause threatens to overrun the liturgy at every turn. One pastor at an Elk Grove, Calif., parish allowed liturgical dance, which caused predictable applause. He admonished the congregation for applauding, saying it was inappropriate for liturgy. He tried liturgical dance again, and the congregation again applauded. What was he thinking?


First Communion Masses easily turn into applause-fests. In Colusa and Angels Camp, Calif., every child is applauded for receiving First Communion, and so is every person who had the smallest part in training, teaching, and organizing the First Communion Mass. The focus of the Mass turns to what we have done, how we have acted, and how we should be rewarded. Worship, surrender, thanksgiving, and adoration before God becomes merely an afterthought, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger warns.

At a Pentecost celebration in the San Francisco East Bay several years ago, I experienced the epitome of the narcissistic applause-fest. In theory, on the liturgical calendar, we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit received by the disciples, the birth of the Church. But attention in the homily focused almost exclusively on Catholic Schools Week, and the teachers who were singled out at this Pentecost Mass with awards were showered with repeated applause. The Holy Spirit was overshadowed by human actors, the teachers, all of whom were feted and applauded. This was a mockery of the liturgy of Pentecost, a liturgy of thanksgiving for the gift of God received.

At Funeral Masses, the sacred paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ is often a footnote to secular eulogies that canonize the deceased and draw exuberant applause and laughter. The liturgy becomes simply a going-through-the-motions of an irrelevant spiritual ceremony with no bearing on people's real lives, a prelude to the main, secular event that is this-worldly, "relevant," and entertaining.

The virus of narcissism has spread even to the Hispanic community, a community of traditional piety and reverence. Cameras flash away at Baptisms and quinceañeras, the coming-of-age Masses for 15-year-old girls. The participants in the liturgy become the center of attention, simpering and preening for the camera.

Liturgical dance is seen to add spice and interest to the Mass, helping make the Mass a viable, attractive consumer product in the American market. This leads us further down the road traveled by many Protestant churches, where the goal is an ever-larger share of the religious consumer market.

Religion becomes not the worship and adoration of God but a place to feel good. A place to be massaged, affirmed. A place for the wounded psyche. A place offering spiritual therapy and diversion rather than substance and a reorientation to God, to the transcendent.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times referred to the Internet Evangelism Coalition, an amalgamation of different Protestant groups that promotes use of the Internet to spread the Gospel. The Coalition says you shouldn't sound preachy and you should avoid "churchy jargon" such as "ministry," "salvation," "redemption," and even "faith." The way to attract nonbelievers? Present church as an upbeat, uplifting community of friends.

A specialist in church advertising was quoted as saying that people often perceive church as boring, judgmental, and irrelevant. He said: "New media's a great way to reposition ourselves." While we're at it, throw in a few dancers to keep the people from getting bored. More than 60 percent of Protestant churches spice up their services with video clips on large screens, the article notes. But to what effect?

As a Catholic priest, I felt betrayed by the spectacle of liturgical dancers because the symbolism of the priest acting in persona Christi was diminished. If you diminish the priest, you diminish the importance of Jesus Christ. Remember that the boy and girl who brought up the bread and wine did not present the gifts to the celebrant at the Mass, the bishop, standing as the liturgical representative for Jesus Christ. They had no need of someone to receive the gifts for placement on the altar. So it seemed liturgically redundant for the bishop to hold the gifts and offer them up a second time.

The visual impression, its impact, was unmistakable. If a man who is a priest can offer the Body and Blood of Christ at the Mass, then why can't a layman, why can't a woman? Why only a priest? As I wrote to my bishop, one could conclude that anybody can lead the celebration of the liturgy. Why, then, a need for an ordained priesthood?

Why then the need for a Mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ? Reduce the importance of Jesus Christ and the community takes center stage. We're left with a community feeling good about itself, entertaining itself, making itself feel good. And we've whittled away the importance of adoration and worship before Almighty God, through Jesus Christ, the High Priest of the liturgy. 9.
Living the Eucharistic mystery

(Homily at the Closing Solemn Mass of the FABC* IX Plenary Assembly in Manila, 16 August 2009)

EXTRACT 4. Eucharistic Celebration and Inculturation

The Second Vatican Council calls for healthy inculturation also in matters liturgical. "Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather, she respects and fosters the spiritual adornments and gift of the various races and peoples" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 37).

Asian cultures have many values highlighted in our discussions in the past six days; such as a sense of the sacred and the transcendent, contemplation, mysticism, silence, a sense of living traditions and organic development and gestures and postures which enhance celebration. The Colombo Liturgical Convention of September 2008 already mentioned gives importance to this question in paragraphs 1 to 6 of his final statement.

Liturgical inculturation is demanding. The Bishops’ Conference of the country in question has first to set up a multi-disciplinary study committee of theologians, liturgists, biblical scholars, musicians, ethnologists and experts in literature, which ponders over a cultural question indicated by the bishops and eventually makes a recommendation to the Bishops’ Conference. After adequate study of the document, the Bishops see if they can gather at least two-thirds of their votes in favor. If the outcome is positive, the Bishops bring the entire matter with their proposals to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Only when this Congregation gives its recognition may the cultural element in question be introduced into sacred worship.

The major Church documents that give directives on how inculturation is to be made are Sacrosanctum Concilium, 37-40, the 1994 Instruction: Roman Liturgy and Inculturation, and Chapter IX of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

If these directives are followed, the local Church will be spared questionable or downright mistaken innovations and idiosyncracies of some enthusiastic cleric whose fertile imaginations invents something on Saturday night and whose uninformed zeal forces this innovation on the innocent congregation on Sunday morning.

Dance in particular needs to be critically examined because most dances draw attention to the performers and offer enjoyment.

People come to Mass, not for recreation but, to adore God, to praise and thank him, to ask pardon for their sins, and to request other spiritual and temporal needs. The monasteries may be of help in how graceful body movements can become prayer. The Colombo statement quoted above remarks: "When pastoral zeal combines with cultural and religious sensitivity, new ground is broken. On the contrary, hasty and un-reflected changes weaken or damage the religious significance and life-transforming power of worship" (Colombo Statement, 6).

*Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences


August 17, 2009,

Cardinal Francis Arinze, who served as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments from 2002 to 2008, warned the bishops of Asia in an August 16 homily against liturgical "idiosyncracies" and false conceptions of inculturation. Cardinal Arinze also sounded a cautionary note against liturgical dance.

Preaching in Manila at the closing Mass of the plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Cardinal Arinze -- Pope Benedict’s special envoy to the meeting -- encouraged Asian bishops to foster Eucharistic adoration and reverence:

Adoration manifests itself in such gestures in genuflection, deep bow, kneeling, prostration and silence in the presence of the Lord. Asian cultures have a deep sense of the sacred and transcendent. Reverence in Asia to civil authorities sometimes shows itself in clasped hands, kneeling, bows, prostration and walking away while facing a dignitary. It should not be too difficult to bring and elevate this cultural value to honour our Eucharistic Jesus. 10.
The fashion in some parts of the world of not installing kneelers in churches should not be copied by the Church in Asia.

After praising Asian cultures’ sense of the sacred, Cardinal Arinze warned against false conceptions of inculturation and urged observance of liturgical norms.

The way in which Holy Communion is distributed should be clearly indicated and monitored and individual idiosyncracies should not be allowed. In the Latin Rite, only concelebrating priests take Holy Communion. Everyone else is given, be the person cleric or lay.

It is not right that the priest discard any of the vestments just because the climate is hot or humid. If necessary, the Bishop can arrange the use of lighter cloth. It is altogether unacceptable that the celebrant will opt for local dress in the place of universally approved Mass vestments, or use baskets, or wine glasses to distribute the Holy Eucharist. This is inculturation wrongly understood.

"It is the tradition of the Church that during the Mass the readings are taken only from Holy Scriptures," Cardinal Arinze continued. "Not even the writings of the Saints or Founders of Religious Orders are admitted. It is clear that the books of other religions are excluded, no matter how inspiring a particular text may be."

Cardinal Arinze exhorted the continent’s bishops to follow the Church’s norms for liturgical inculturation, so that "the local Church will be spared questionable or downright mistaken innovations and idiosyncracies of some enthusiastic cleric whose fertile imaginations invents something on Saturday night and whose uninformed zeal forces this innovation on the innocent congregation on Sunday morning."

"Dance in particular needs to be critically examined because most dances draw attention to the performers and offer enjoyment," he continued. "People come to Mass, not for recreation but, to adore God, to praise and thank him, to ask pardon for their sins, and to request other spiritual and temporal needs. The monasteries may be of help in how graceful body movements can become prayer."

Also at:


Adoremus Online Edition - Vol. IX, No. 7: October 2003

Wide-ranging questions on the Liturgy were answered by Cardinal Francis Arinze at a conference in July 2003 sponsored by the Apostolate for Family Consecration.

CARDINAL ARINZE: There has never been a document from our Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments saying that dance is approved in the Mass.
The question of dance is difficult and delicate. However, it is good to know that the tradition of the Latin Church has not known the dance. It is something that people are introducing in the last ten years -- or twenty years. It was not always so. Now it is spreading like wildfire, one can say, in all the continents -- some more than others. In my own continent, Africa, it is spreading. In Asia, it is spreading.
Now, some priests and lay people think that Mass is never complete without dance. The difficulty is this: we come to Mass primarily to adore God -- what we call the vertical dimension. We do not come to Mass to entertain one another. That's not the purpose of Mass. The parish hall is for that.

So all those that want to entertain us -- after Mass, let us go to the parish hall and then you can dance. And then we clap. But when we come to Mass we don't come to clap. We don't come to watch people, to admire people. We want to adore God, to thank Him, to ask Him pardon for our sins, and to ask Him for what we need.

Don't misunderstand me, because when I said this at one place somebody said to me: "You are an African bishop. You Africans are always dancing. Why do you say we don't dance?"
A moment -- we Africans are not always dancing! [laughter]
Moreover, there is a difference between those who come in procession at Offertory; they bring their gifts, with joy. There is a movement of the body right and left. They bring their gifts to God. That is good, really. And some of the choir, they sing. They have a little bit of movement. Nobody is going to condemn that. And when you are going out again, a little movement, it's all right.
But when you introduce wholesale, say, a ballerina, then I want to ask you what is it all about. What exactly are you arranging? When the people finish dancing in the Mass and then when the dance group finishes and people clap -- don't you see what it means? It means we have enjoyed it. We come for enjoyment. Repeat. So, there is something wrong. Whenever the people clap -- there is something wrong -- immediately. When they clap -- a dance is done and they clap. 11.

It is possible that there could be a dance that is so exquisite that it raises people's minds to God, and they are praying and adoring God and when the dance is finished they are still wrapped up in prayer. But is that the type of dance you have seen? You see. It is not easy.
Most dances that are staged during Mass should have been done in the parish hall. And some of them are not even suitable for the parish hall.
I saw in one place -- I will not tell you where -- where they staged a dance during Mass, and that dance was offensive. It broke the rules of moral theology and modesty. Those who arranged it -- they should have had their heads washed with a bucket of holy water! [laughter]

Why make the people of God suffer so much? Haven't we enough problems already? Only Sunday, one hour, they come to adore God. And you bring a dance! Are you so poor you have nothing else to bring us? Shame on you! That's how I feel about it.

Somebody can say, "But the pope visited this country and the people danced". A moment: Did the pope arrange it? Poor Holy Father -- he comes, the people arranged. He does not know what they arranged. And somebody introduces something funny -- is the pope responsible for that? Does that mean it is now approved? Did they put it on the table of the Congregation for Divine Worship? We would throw it out! If people want to dance, they know where to go.
Liturgical Dance and Inculturation 
Most Rev. Peter John Elliott, Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, Australia: Liturgical dance during Mass

Question: Is liturgical dancing permitted during Mass?

Answer: This short question opens the whole problem of appropriate inculturation and there can be no brief answer to it. The best approach would be to make a clear distinction between liturgical dancing in the West and religious dancing in other cultures in the wider world.

a) Let us begin in the West. In 1975 there was a negative reply to your question from the then Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Dance in the Liturgy. The profane and erotic elements in dancing in the West were cited and the distracting nature of this dancing and its worldly associations were adduced as a strong reason against it.

This was a reaction against the fad of liturgical dancing in the 1970s which continued in some places during the 1980s. I well recall various attempts at liturgical dancing in those years. Some were incongruous, even embarrassing, for example, when a gowned youth was surrounded by swaying damsels just after Holy Communion and at the jubilee Mass of a very embarrassed elderly Bishop. But I have also seen this dancing carried out well; for example, children trained to dance reverently and wave palms in a Palm Sunday procession. One of France’s well-known liturgists promoted a skilled professional dancer who obviously prayed through her every gesture and movement. These last examples did not take place during Mass.

But the issue is neither skill nor aesthetic quality. Something has “gone wrong” here, and this makes many people feel uncomfortable when they see liturgical dancing. So we have to ask deeper questions that go beyond whether this is permitted according to liturgical law.

In Western society we should ask an initial question: What is liturgical dancing meant to convey? Our habit of watching someone dance, our ballet tradition, seems to cause problems once dancing enters worship. The liturgical dance becomes a spectacle. Is this meant to teach us, to inspire us or to entertain us? When it ends with applause it has obviously entertained us. It may have been done well, or, as I also recall, it may have involved the children of admiring mothers! But that applause shows that it is not liturgical. This presentation has become a form of religious ballet, a show, an item on the program. This dancing may find a legitimate place in religious theater, such as a medieval mystery play, but not within the action of holy Mass.
Western Context of Liturgical Dance

We may therefore ask a more basic question: What is liturgical dancing meant to do?

Here we need to take account of the modern crisis of Christian worship, which largely revolves around a disastrous overstatement of the instructional dimension of worship.


This problem still plagues us — words and more words, the altar turned into a pulpit, the personality cult of the "presider," trite songs and rationed silence. Therefore it is interesting, and not surprising, that liturgical dancing spread in the West at the very time when ceremonial and ritual actions were being rejected and when language came to dominate Catholic worship.

Here I would honor the intentions of some who promoted liturgical dancing in the unfortunate years of "experimentation" and desacralization. They at least were trying to resacralize the liturgy by giving it back some sense of movement and ceremony. They knew that ceremonial is a specific religious spectacle where watching can be active participation. I believe they were trying to fill the vacuum left by stripped sanctuaries and Masses reduced to a talk show. One only had to listen to the rationale they presented to justify their dancing. Some described the movements of the old High Mass as a "solemn holy dance," and there is some wisdom in that unusual perception. But when the argument shifted to the "dancing altar boys of Seville" or the swaying Shakers, this seemed to be appealing to obscure exceptions to set up a general rule.

Religious dance vs. Western liturgical dance

Putting it simply, religious dance is not a normal part of Western culture and thus "liturgical dancing" can find no place in the celebration of holy Mass and the sacraments. This is not to exclude it absolutely from religious experience. In a reverent and skilled form, it may be appropriate in a paraliturgy, in religious theater and at grand outdoor events, such as a secondary event in Eucharistic congresses. But within the Eucharistic celebration, the ceremonial itself, the gestures, reverences and processions already there, are enough to make up our sacred "dance before the Lord."

b) When we turn to the wider Church, beyond the West, we find cultures where traditions of religious dance pre-date evangelization. This is where dancing in worship seems "natural"; hence we should cease calling it “liturgical dancing.” It is religious dancing. In these countries in recent decades Christian religious dancing or movement such as swaying, rhythmic clapping, etc., has become well established and it is regulated by the competent authorities, the local Ordinary and the Episcopal conference. But I would underline a major difference between this appropriate inculturation and what happened in the West. This is really religious dance and the people often spontaneously take part in it.

I was particularly impressed by participatory religious dancing at the procession of gifts during some liturgies celebrated in Kenya and by the rhythmic movements of the people during the procession of the gifts in Ghana—a procession involving the whole congregation. This was a participatory activity, not an entertaining spectacle or performance, with self-conscious overtone. This activity does not come under most of the strictures of the 1975 ruling from the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

Therefore, in 1994 in the Instruction on Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, from the same Congregation, we find that dancing may be incorporated into the liturgy where dance is an inherent part of the culture of the people and is not simply a performance. This activity may even be promoted in places where dancing has a religious meaning compatible with Christianity. This cultural context accounts for the positive approach various Episcopal conferences have taken to the question.
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