Dance in the Liturgy

Authority over the Liturgy

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4. Authority over the Liturgy
The above reflections lead us to ask who has authority over the sacred liturgy. Who decides on the texts, the ceremonies, the norms? We cannot afford to be vague on this.

The Second Vatican Council is not ambiguous: "Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established". Then the Council adds the warning: "Therefore, absolutely no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority". (SC 22)

These rulings are not a sign of lack of respect for anyone. They follow from the fact that the liturgy is a celebration of the universal Church. "The prayers addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ are said in the name of the entire holy people as well as of all present. And the visible signs used by the liturgy to signify invisible divine things have been chosen by Christ or the Church". (SC 33)


From these considerations it follows that a do-it-yourself attitude is not acceptable in the public worship of the Church. It does damage to the Church's worship and to the faith of the people. The people of God have the right that the liturgy be celebrated as the Church wants it. (cf. RS 12) The mysteries of Christ should not be celebrated as personal taste or whim may indicate. "The 'treasure' is too important and precious to risk impoverishment or compromise through forms of experimentation or practices introduced without a careful review on the part of ecclesiastical authorities". (EE 51)

5. Liturgical Piety
When we say piety, we think in general of the honor and reverence given to someone who is in some way responsible for our existence and well-being. Therefore the virtue of piety refers first of all to God who is our creator and constant provider. But we can also talk of piety toward our parents, near relatives, country, tribe or people.

As a Christian virtue, piety is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It moves us to worship God who is the Father of all and also to do good to others out of reverence for God. Piety leads us to love the sacred liturgy, to look forward to its celebration and to participate in it with love, faith and devotion. With the Psalmist we sing: "How lovely are your dwelling-places, Lord Sabaoth. My whole being yearns and pines for the Lord's court. My heart and my body cry out for joy to the living God". (Ps 84:1-2) Liturgical celebrations become attractive to the pious person. The church bell which rings for Mass is a welcome sound: "I rejoiced that they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord'. At last our feet are standing at your gates, Jerusalem!" (Ps 122:1-2) The pious soul has sheer joy in being in the church and more still in joining in divine worship: "Better one day in your courts than a thousand at my own devices, to stand on the threshold of God's house than to live in the tents of the wicked". (Ps 84:10)

Liturgical piety, as a beautiful manifestation of the virtue of religion, is at once a compound love of God, faith in Him, adoration, respect, reverence, sheer joy in His service, and a desire to serve Him as best we can. A spirit of faith and reverence which shows itself also in the faithful observance of liturgical norms is most favorable to the promotion of liturgical piety.

6. Creativity in Liturgical Celebrations
One may now ask whether there is any room for creativity in the liturgy. The answer is that there is, but it has to be properly understood.

First of all, it is necessary to bear in mind that the public worship of the Church is something that we receive in faith through the Church. It is not something that we invent. Indeed the essentials of the sacraments are established by Christ Himself. And the detailed rites, including words and actions, have been carefully worked out, guarded and handed down by the Church along the centuries. It would, therefore, not be the proper attitude for an individual or a committee to keep thinking and planning each week how to invent a new way of celebrating Mass.

Moreover, a priority at Mass and other liturgical acts is worship of God. The liturgy is not a field for self-expression, free creation and the demonstration of personal tastes. Idiosyncrasies tend to attract attention to the person rather than to the mysteries of Christ being celebrated. They can also upset, puzzle, annoy, mislead or confuse the congregation.

Nevertheless, it is also true that the liturgical norms do allow some flexibility. With reference to the central and most important liturgical action, the Mass, for example, we can speak of three levels of flexibility. First, there are in the Missal and the Lectionary some alternative texts, rites, chants, readings and blessings from which the priest celebrant can choose. (cf. GIRM 24, RS 39) Then there are choices left at the competence of the diocesan bishop or the Conference of Bishops. Examples are regulation of concelebration, norms regarding the distribution of Communion under both kinds, the construction and ordering of churches, translations and some gestures. (cf. SC 38, 40; GIRM 387, 390) Some such alternatives require recognitio from the Holy See. The most demanding level of variability concerns inculturation in the strictest sense. It involves action by the Conference of Bishops, after the conducting of deep interdisciplinary studies and recognitio from the Holy See.

Redemptionis Sacramentum is therefore able to say that "ample flexibility is given for appropriate creativity aimed at allowing each celebration to be adapted to the needs of the participants, to their comprehension, their interior preparation and their gifts, according to established liturgical norms". (RS 39) The last phrase is important: "according to established liturgical norms". The paragraph of Redemptionis Sacramentum concludes with a recall of the crucial observation that "it should be remembered that the power of the liturgical celebrations does not consist in frequently altering the rites, but in probing more deeply the word of God and the mystery being celebrated". What the people are asking for every Sunday from their pastor is not a novelty but a celebration of the sacred mysteries that nourishes faith, manifests devotion, awakens piety, leads to prayer and incites to active charity in daily life.
7. Making the Mass Interesting
Many priests are concerned with making the Eucharist celebration interesting. And they are not wrong. The Mass is not a dull carrying out of rituals. It is a vital celebration of the central mysteries of our salvation.

Care should be taken to prepare well for each celebration. The texts to be read, sung or proclaimed should be well studied in good time. The vestments and all altar fittings and furnishings should be in good taste. The people who carry out the roles of priest celebrant, altar servers, leader of song, readers of lessons, etc., should be at their best. The homily should give the people solid liturgical, theological and spiritual nourishment. If all that is done, the Mass will not be dull.


But when all is said and done, we have to come back to the fact that the Mass is not there to entertain people. Such horizontalism would be out of place. People do not come to Mass in order to admire the preacher, or the choir or the readers. The priority movement or direction of the Mass is vertical, toward God, not horizontal, toward one another. What the people need is a faith-filled celebration, a spiritual experience which draws them to God and therefore also to their neighbor. As a by-product, such a celebration will capture the people's interest and attention.

It is also useful to remark that repetition of faith formulae and symbols, or of familiar words and gestures, need not make a liturgical celebration uninteresting. It matters, however, to what extent these formulae are understood, hence the importance of catechesis. In our daily lives, is it uninteresting for us to repeat our names or those of our loved ones? Do we not love our national anthem and sing it with piety? How much more that this has to do with our Christian identity!

If it helps to repeat, may I recall that liturgical celebrations allow for flexibility, provided that this is done according to approved norms. Redemptionis Sacramentum itself exhorts the bishop not to stifle alternative choices provided for by the liturgical norms: "The bishop must take care not to allow the removal of that liberty foreseen by the norms of the liturgical books so that the celebration may be adapted in an intelligent manner to the church building, or to the group of the faithful who are present or to the particular pastoral circumstances". (RS 21) It is for this reason that the bishop does well not to be tempted to introduce unnecessary restrictions in his diocese, such as ordering that only one particular Eucharistic Prayer be used at Mass. The bishop's authority is never firmer than when he uses it to ensure that the general norms which safeguard the tradition are observed.

A general advice about whether the liturgical celebration is interesting or not is, to simply celebrate it with faith and devotion and according to the approved norms, and leave the rest to God's grace and people's cooperation with it.

8. Dance in the Liturgy
Some people want to introduce dance into the sacred liturgy. The Latin Rite liturgy has not had any such practice. We have therefore to ask those who want to bring in the dance to state their case.

If they say that the reason is to make the Mass interesting, the answer is what we have just considered. We come to Mass to worship God, not to see a spectacle. We have the parish hall and the theater for shows.

Others say they welcome some dance in order to express fully our prayer, since we are body and soul. The answer is that the liturgy indeed appreciates bodily postures and gestures and has carefully incorporated many of them, such as standing, kneeling, genuflecting, singing, and giving a sign of peace. But the Latin Rite has not included the dance.

It is not easy for dancers not to draw attention to themselves. Granted that some very refined dances in some cultures can help to elevate the mind, is it not true that for many people dances are a distraction rather than a help to prayer?

Dances easily appeal to the senses and tend to call for approval, enjoyment, a desire for a repetition, and a rewarding of the performers with the applause of the audience. Is this what we come to Mass to experience? Have we no theaters and parish halls, presuming that the dance in question is acceptable, which cannot be said of them all?

Is it true that in many parts of Africa and Asia there may be a cultural habit of graceful body movement which, with due study and approval of the local Church, may go down well within a liturgical celebration. The Ethiopian rite has known graceful rhythmical movements and the procession for the Gospel. The Roman Rite Mass approved for the Democratic Republic of the Congo has similar entry movements.

But this is very different from what the ordinary person in Europe or North America thinks of when the concept of dance is evoked. Can we blame people who associate dance with Saturday evening, ballroom, theater or simply, innocent enjoyment? The liturgical books approved by the bishops and the Holy See for Europe and North America understandably do not authorize the importation of dance into church, let alone the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. (See the article in the official bulletin of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments: Notitiae 106-107, June-July 1975, pp. 202-205. Editor's note: this article is available on the Adoremus web site at
9. Formalism and Ritualism Not the Goal
From all that has been said above, it follows that an exhortation to be faithful to liturgical norms is not an invitation to formalism, ritualism or rubricism. People are not being invited to a dry and soulless carrying out of external actions. Jesus our Savior already, quoting the prophet Isaiah, condemned those who do not internalize in their spirit the external rites they carry out:

This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.

Their reverence of me is worthless;

The lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments. (Mt 15:8-9, Is 29:13)

Liturgical celebrations are not primarily the observance of norms but rather the celebration of the mysteries of Christ by the Church and in the Church, with faith and love and with respect for tradition. The observance of norms is a consequence and fruit of faith and respect. It is not the final object of worship. It is a quality of it.

Moreover, liturgical norms are not arbitrary laws or regulations put together to please some historian, or aesthetist, or archaeologist. They are manifestations of what we believe and what we have received from tradition, from the "norm of the holy Fathers" (cf. SC 20, GIRM 6), from what generations of our predecessors in the faith have said, done, observed and celebrated. To know that we are doing, saying, hearing and seeing what millions of Christians have done throughout the world for hundreds of years and are doing today, should help us enter better into a committed and prayerful participation. Moreover, by conforming our entire person to all that the liturgy represents, we undergo a transformation and become ever closer to God. 178.

Interior prayer and sacrifice have priority. Hence the importance in liturgical celebrations of quiet preparation, silence, reflection, listening and personal prayer. "A merely external observation of norms would obviously be contrary to the nature of the sacred liturgy, in which Christ Himself wishes to gather His Church, so that together with Himself she will be 'one body and one spirit'". (RS 5)

At the same time it needs to be repeated that the spirit of rejection of rules and regulations which would then be regarded as a violation of one's autonomy, needs to be corrected. It is wrong and unreasonable to maintain a spirit of "Nobody is going to tell me what to do". This would be a false understanding of liberty. "God has not granted us in Christ an illusory liberty by which we may do what we wish, but a liberty by which we may do what is fitting and right". (RS 7)

It is a blessing and a privilege for us to belong to the Church which in her sacred liturgy celebrates the mysteries of Christ and has Christ Himself as the Chief Priest in every liturgical act. Let us pray to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of our Savior, to obtain for us a growing understanding of the reasons for liturgical norms, willingness to observe them and the grace of daily growth in liturgical piety, love of God and commitment to love and service of our neighbor.

+ Francis Cardinal Arinze
April 8, 2005

Liturgical dancing

Konkani Catholics July 16, 2009:

Dear Austine,

Nowadays I feel really saddened as to how new things are introduced during Liturgy, Recently I saw a video of a Worship Dance during Consecration; it really disturbed me. Is it right? There were Bishops on the podium and I hear from my friends that the bishops have no problem with all this, so why are we making a fuss? Can you enlighten us? Sunita Mascarenhas

Dear Sunita,

Your question concerns "liturgical dancing". And to the best of my knowledge there has not been any official document directly dealing with the question of liturgical dancing for the universal Roman rite.
This could be interpreted in two ways:
1. That dance was never approved for inclusion in the Roman liturgy, OR,
2. That dance was never prohibited in the Roman liturgy.
And so we have two groups of people, one holding on to the first interpretation, the second holding on the second in order to justify liturgical dances which they may already be involved with.
However, it is an important liturgical principle that nothing should be introduced in the liturgy arbitrarily, especially those elements which are not foreseen by the liturgical books.
It follows therefore that dancing, general speaking, is an element foreign to the Roman liturgy.

HOWEVER - please note this carefully - the 1994 Instruction "Legitimate Differences" on Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, does provide for the possibility of including a native form of dance in the liturgy in those places - especially African and Asian missions - where such dancing is part of worship traditions of that culture:

"Among some peoples, singing is instinctively accompanied by handclapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movements on the part of the participants. Such forms of external expression can have a place in the liturgical actions of these peoples on condition that they are always the expression of true communal prayer of adoration, praise, offering and supplication, and not simply a performance." [Varietates Legitimae, 42]
This is to be understood as a concession given to mission territories and not as a blanket endorsement for including dance in the liturgy everywhere. Two conditions cannot be dispensed with in this case:
1. The form of dance to be introduced in the liturgy, with all its manifestations, would have to express sentiments of faith and adoration in order to become a prayer; and
2. Just like any other liturgical gestures and movements, this will have to be under the watchful supervision of the competent church authority. [cf. 1975 commentary on "religious dance" by CDW]
Dance, in the West, does not generally have the qualities that can justify its admission into the liturgy. Hence, in the West, any form of religious dancing is better done outside the liturgy.
In Mangalore too, the Bishop has ruled that we do not have any fitting form of dance in our culture that can/needs to be admitted into the liturgy. Hence liturgical dancing in the diocese of Mangalore stands prohibited.
The option however remains open in other mission contexts under the supervision of the Church but permission granted there does not automatically apply to or justify the practice of liturgical dancing introduced elsewhere.

Finally, the caution given in the 2003 document "Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the 'New Age'" too should be borne in mind so that the pseudo-religious dancing mentioned as one of the methods used by followers of the quasi-religious "New Age" movements to achieve "cosmic consciousness", "self-realization" and "enlightenment" (, along with yoga and other movement and exercise programs, is not confused for an authentic religious practice benefiting the worshipping community.

Austine Crasta, moderator
Where do I go? [Dancing in the Liturgy of the Holy Mass] EXTRACT

February 21, 2005

This past weekend I attended the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California.


While, I enjoyed several of the workshops, some of the speakers didn't hold everything the Church held. It seemed this extended beyond the workshops. At the three Masses I attended there was liturgical dancing when the presider entered carrying jars of incense, when the table was prepared (which the dancers prepared) and after Communion. As far as I know, liturgical dancing isn't allowed in the Latin Church unless it's an organic part of that culture. At the Congress, it seemed only the "Samoan" Mass qualified. I know I can express my complaints to the bishop under Redemptionis Sacramentum, but there seems little point since the closing Mass was not only attended by the Bishop of Orange, in whose diocese this was held, was presided over by Roger Cardinal Mahoney. Also, there were several bishops from Canada, England, and Vietnam. Many enjoyed the dancing (I closed my eyes most of the time), but I can't help but think the solemnity of the Mass was pushed aside to keep the "grace" of the Congress going and to entertain us. So, where do I go, what can I do? –Miguel

Yes I agree with what you have said and feel as you do.

Unfortunately there isn't a whole lot that you can do since ultimately it is the priests' and bishops' decision whether or not to disobey to the instructions. Of course you can and should express your disappointment. I know it doesn't seem like a lot, but the more people that do, the more likely you will see positive action. -Jacob Slavek

Dancing at vespers

April 3, 2007

My adult son was part of a Catholic Church choir that sang at vespers in the church. At the end or near the end of vespers, it was announced that liturgical dancing was going to take place. Having heard about the abuses where liturgical dancing takes place at Mass, he left the choir and came home. Could you tell me if liturgical dancing is allowed at vespers? Does this depend on what the local Bishop decides? This took place in a Catholic church at vespers and not at Mass and this was in the U.S. –Linda

There is a quick answer to your question: ABSOLUTELY NOT. The very idea of so-called "liturgical dancing" at the solemn vespers makes my blood boil. Vespers is a quiet and reverent and sacred time. To disturb that with dancing nonsense is an affront to God and a violation of liturgical law.

I think we ought to bring back horse-whips and flogging to deal with such idiocy. –Bro. Ignatius Mary OMSM

1 Concerts in Churches Protocol Number 1251/87, (11/05/1987), Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, The Vatican, Section 5, P. 2

2 Concerts in Churches Protocol Number 1251/87, (11/05/1987), Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, The Vatican, Section 8, P. 3

3 Concerts in Churches Protocol Number 1251/87, (11/05/1987), Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, The Vatican, Section 10, P. 4

4 Code of Canon Law, ISBN. O-943616-20-4, Canon Law Society of America, Washington, D.C., Canon 1210, P. 435

5 Concerts in Churches Protocol Number 1251/87, (11/05/1987), Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, The Vatican, Section 10, P. 4

6 Liturgical Directives, (1984), Nina Publications, Duluth, MN., P. 2

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