Dance at Mass?

“A recent craze associated with so-called active participation promotes the idea that there must be dance at a solemn Mass,” writes Francis Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, in his book Celebrating the Eucharist (p. 53). Before we kick off our shoes, don ballet slippers, and inadvertently find ourselves or our children sashaying in the Sanctuary, it is important to understand what Holy Mother Church teaches about dance at Mass.

To enter a Catholic church is to leave the world behind and cross a threshold into that which is holy. The church building itself symbolizes heaven. “The visible church is a symbol of the Father’s house toward which the People of God is journeying…” (CCC 1186) For this reason, everything we encounter at Mass ought to speak of God and holiness.

pointe.jpgThe problem with dancing at Mass in western culture, especially in this age of dance “reality” shows on television, is that it tends to bring to mind worldly aspects of our culture and our lives. Thus, rather than having our thoughts elevated at Mass toward God and heaven, we can find that, when exposed to dance in church, our thoughts are instead made banal. The Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship issued a document called “Dance in the Liturgy.” This document addresses the connection between dance and banality when it states that in western culture:

[D]ancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure.

For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations.

Neither can acceptance be had of the proposal to introduce into the liturgy the so-called artistic ballet.

To introduce dance into the liturgy is to introduce enjoyment, and thus entertainment. Entertainment at Mass makes it easy for us to forget why we come to Mass at all, so that our time at church is spent thinking of dance rather than our prayers. As Francis Cardinal Arinze stated:

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.

[W]hen 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.

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?

Cardinal Arinze wrote, in Celebrating the Holy Eucharist (p. 53-54) about the misguided notion that we must dance because we are both body and soul:

Our answer must be 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 never included dance. …

Dance easily appeals to the senses and tends to call for approval, enjoyment, a desire for 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 theatres and parish halls, presuming that the dance in question is acceptable, which cannot be said of them all?”

Nor is it acceptable to use dance as a means for “evangelization” or to “attract” people to the church or the Mass. Pope Benedict the XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy (p. 198) that:

It is totally absurd to try to make the liturgy “attractive” by introducing dancing pantomimes (wherever possible performed by a professional dance troupe), which frequently (and rightly from the professionals’ point of view) end with applause.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued directives indicating that it is not permissible for dance (including ballet, children’s gesture as dancing, the clown liturgy) to be “introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever” (NCCB Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, Newsletter April/May 1982).

Dance at Mass can generate feelings of disappointment and betrayal by believers who come to Mass to pray to God only to find that religious entertainment awaits them instead. One pastor explained the feeling of disappointment and betrayal he had when dancers appeared at Mass as he stood in persona Christi:

As a priest who stands in persona Christi to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, I felt disappointed and betrayed when liturgical dancers appeared at the Mass that opened our diocesan synod. The believers present for this Mass deserved to partake of the liturgy under the proper rubrics outlined by the Holy See. It would not be an exaggeration to say these believers were ambushed by an act of spiritual and liturgical terrorism.

The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a precious gift from God. This gift belongs to the church, and must be preserved in accord with liturgical norms. To ensure that preservation, to promote Catholic unity, to honor the Magisterium, and to show charity towards fellow believers who have a right to “partake of the liturgy under the proper rubrics outlined by the Holy See,” each of us must remember we are not free to add to the Mass whatever suits our personal fancy.

Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC 22:3) sated that “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.” May each of us come to embrace the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a beautiful and perfect gift — in the perfect form it has been given.

To view Francis Cardinal Arinze as he discusses dancing at Mass, access:

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  • The insight about the people clapping about anything at Mass in very interesting. I have been to many parishes where the congregation will clap after the song which follows the Mass. This does seem to me to indicate a lack of understanding of what the Mass is about. On the other hand, one could conclude that the people are actually showing their appreciation to the music ministers who have just assisted them in their worship. Is that bad?

  • matthens

    Thank you Mary Anne. This is a challenging read for me, so I must wrestle with it. My mindset is that dance, or liturgical gesture, if properly done can draw the people deeper into the liturgy. I do agree about the inappropriateness of clapping and that entertainment can not be the goal or the inadvertent result. It must always be about deepening our experience of communion with the Lord.

    My question then becomes this: Is banning dance from liturgy the appropriate response or would it be better to use great care and educate the congregation ahead of time regarding its place and presence in the sacred liturgy?

    Even in Western civilization there are many cultural backgrounds that find it difficult to separate worship from their physical expressions to contain it within themselves. It may be quite clear to one of European descent, after deep and prayerful reflection, that dance is unacceptable. While to one of African ancestry, after equally deep and prayerful reflection, it may be clear that dance and movement is essential.

    This is a well crafted article which draws from a number of sources to establish a point. But, not all of these sources carry the same weight. There is a reason that Francis Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote his book to bring up some of his views rather than publishing them as church documents. His thoughts there should be respected and considered but should not be given the same weight as the CCC.

    Without having the time at the moment to delve deeper into research I can only ask, are their other church documents which would support my mindset, or is this the official position of the church and those who ignore it are causing a scandal?

    Again I thank you Mary Anne for challenging me to consider this issue more deeply. May God bless your life and your writings as well as those who read them.

  • kirbys

    Amen, Mary Anne–spiritual ambush. That is exactly how I felt the few times this has happened (not at my local parishes–at college, actually).

  • I’ve never seen liturgical dance, and I must be naive because I thought this problem went out with the 80’s–is liturgical dance still going on anywhere?

  • celothriel

    “Whenever the people clap, there is something wrong — immediately.”

    Thank you, dear, dear Cardinal Arinze, and Mary Anne, for bringing this up. I just cringe when people clap at Mass! I KNOW that it is meant with the best of intentions, and I appreciate the good will that people intend to show by clapping- but to me it changes the focus immediately from something that we are offering to God to something that we are doing to entertain each other. I think it’s a lovely sentiment to want to thank the music ministers who have assisted in worship – perhaps just going over to them after Mass is over and thanking them for sharing their beautiful gifts would be the answer.

    I feel compelled to reveal that I played my own part in the 80’s in perpetrating all sorts of abuses on the congregation as a college Folk Group leader. I shudder now when I think of our actually singing the Beatles’ “Let It Be” for a Communion song – complete with electric guitar solo. :-0

    God is good, though, and He will keep working on us if we let Him 🙂

  • celothriel

    I just watched the video of Cardinal Arinze from the link Mary Anne provided at the end of her article. I encourage anyone who’s interested in this topic to take a look at it. Matthens, the cardinal addressed your excellent point about the difference between American/European culture and African/Asian culture.

  • gill70

    After the liturgy – the priest has said “the Mass is ended” and after the recessional, I always thought that clapping (not applause) was an expression of joy – we have just been nurished by the Word and received the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

  • plisto

    Very interesting article, thank you! I think dancing really doesn’t belong to any liturgy. Look at the eastern rites, is there dancing in any of their liturgies? I have some orthodox/eastern-rite friends and to be honest the only liturgy I can be proud of in front of them is the EF (or Tridentine latin mass).
    Anyway, I submit willingly to pope’s authority in all matters liturgical, moral or doctrinal.

    Peace to everybody.

  • Warren Jewell

    Being old enough to have enjoyed years of Latin Mass before the Novus Ordo kicked in, I confess that all these ‘abberations’ of worship embarrass me as much as distract me.

    Just . what . are . we . doing?

    Mass can be so divinely mystical as to seem humanly magical, and ‘rouse’ one to a reverent peacefulness that has one feeling that he should exit backing out, ever so quietly, bowing to the tabernacle until out the door.

  • SanGabriel

    Very interesting article. Thank you.

    I too have always been uncopmfortable with clapping at Mass. But I’ve learned there are times when clapping is ok and even needed. When you attend an ordination of a Priest or Deacon, clapping is the sign the congregation gives that they approve this man for ordination. Sometimes during a Mass, we might clap to show approval of newly baptized entering the church, or RCIA people going through their Rites, or couples who have been married for x amount of years. I still feel uncomfortable clapping for other things though and have felt extremely uncomfortable at Masses where there has been liturgical dancing. I just feel that I do not attend Mass to be entertained or to have entertainment which may take my focus away from the Mass.

  • SanGabriel

    Amen Warren!!!!

    ****Mass can be so divinely mystical as to seem humanly magical, and ‘rouse’ one to a reverent peacefulness that has one feeling that he should exit backing out, ever so quietly, bowing to the tabernacle until out the door.******

  • Loretta

    You wrote, “Thank you Mary Anne. This is a challenging read for me, so I must wrestle with it. My mindset is that dance, or liturgical gesture, if properly done can draw the people deeper into the liturgy. ”

    I can agree with you that dance CAN draw people closer to God. (Not necessarily deeper into the liturgy.) There is nothing to say that one cannot organize within a parish (or other) a dance performance designed to do just that. Then…those that CAN be drawn closer to God by it (I tell you, this would immediately turn my sons further, but I myself might be helped) can choose to view/participate.

    Simply because something CAN draw people closer to God does not mean it has a place directly inserted into the liturgy. Even with instruction.
    My question usually comes down to WHY do people insist on inserting INTO the liturgy? Often it is a not-well-thought-out “It might help the people!” response. But WHY the LITURGY? And not something outside of the liturgy? In the end, I think it ends up being a misunderstanding of the liturgical aspect of worship.

    In answer to your other question, I have not seen any documents from the church that would in any way support your vision. If anything, it would be the contrary.

  • janedoe

    What bothers me is the after-communion piano solo. It lasts about five minutes, bringing the mass to 65 minutes and sounds like cocktail lounge music.

    As far as I’m concerned it is not uplifting and does not personally bring me closer to God — it just feels like an opportunity for the pianist to show off his/her talents and drags the mass out.

    Unfortunately that seems to be at issue in my mother’s church, too — mass seems to have become a showcase for music director’s latest arrangements/compositions.

  • redwallabbey13

    I will admit that I, too, am a former liturgical dancer from my college days. It now makes me embarrassed! I agree w/ those who make the point that dance, along with some forms of music, can bring people closer to God but Mass is not the place. Leave Mass be what it is intended to be. But for so many, they know – as we do – that so many Catholics don’t like going to church more than once a week. They put in their time, so to speak, on Sunday for Mass so don’t expect them to come back. As a result, those who want the dance, the concert, the ‘entertainment’ our faith can offer feel they have to add to Mass in order to have an audience! They have a captive audience at Mass so they shove everything and anything into the Mass. I heard of movie segments, interviews, and more being placed w/in a Mass. How sad. But, how sad, too, that we as Catholics can’t see our Church as a place of celebration for other times. Leave the Mass in its sacred place but host a concert of great music, have the dancers perform and celebrate being Catholic.

  • skbohuslav

    I was surprised to come across this writing of Saint John Vianney a while back. It is titled, “Be Religious or Be Damned” a Sermon by Saint John Vianney. It is a sermon on dancing.

    Taken directly from the sermon it states, “The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle forbids dancing, even at weddings. And St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, says that three years of penance were given to someone who had danced and that if he went back to it, he was threatened with excommunication. If there were no harm in it, then were the Holy Fathers and the Church mistaken? But who tells you that there is no harm in it? It can only be a libertine, or a flighty and worldly girl, who are trying to smother their remorse of conscience as best they can. Well, there are priests, you say, who do not speak about it in confession or who, without permitting it, do not refuse absolution for it. Ah! I do not know whether there are priests who are so blind, but I am sure that those who go looking for easygoing priests are going looking for a passport which will lead them to Hell. For my own part, if I went dancing, I should not want to receive absolution not having a real determination not to go back to dancing.

    Listen to St. Augustine and you will see if dancing is a good action. He tells us that “dancing is the ruin of souls, a reversal of all decency, a shameful spectacle, a public profession of crime.” St. Ephraim calls it “the ruin of good morals and the nourishment of vice.” St. John Chrysostom: “A school of public unchastity.” Tertullian: “The temple of Venus, the consistory of shamelessness, and the citadel of all the depravities.”

  • Bruce Roeder

    ALL dancing is the ruin of good morals? So what about King David dancing in front of the tabernacle in 2 Samuel?

    I think the salient point is that we have lost the objective reality of what the liturgy of the Mass is. It is not about gathering to share with each other how wonderful we are. It is about freely offering ourselves in Christ to the Father and receiving Him in Holy Communion. This is the best sacrifice we can offer to God. We should prepare ourselves for Mass, be reverent and stay cognizant that we are in the presence of Almighty God: be aware that He is always close to us, but in a very unique and special way at Mass.

    For most of Christian history, “Church” included many aspects of life. Academics was Church. Medicine was Church. Social activity was Church. Economic activity was Church. And the Mass was the divine worship of God by participating in the Holy Sacrifice.

    Nowadays, “Church” is one hour on Sunday. And it better not be 65 minutes!

    So people, including those of good intention, try to cram all sorts of fellowship and tambourines, and rock’n’roll guitars and dance and administrative stuff into the Mass — “because that’s the only time we have”

    We need to make “Church” more of our culture. Then all of the dances, the guitar and tambourines and so forth can all have a place in “Church” but not in Mass.

  • elkabrikir

    So……the Bolshoi is damned along with the Bolshevik?

    Can the dance art form never explore and reveal beauty and truth?

    Is dance never art that lifts the soul and mind to God?

    My daughter is a classical ballerina. Her ability is truly a God given gift and exquisite. In addition, many fine symphonies have been written for ballet including The Nutcracker.

    Despite he splendor of the disciplined human body moving in harmony with music and and the pleasure I receive from watching it, I don’t want any part of that at mass. I echo Mr Jewell.

    We Catholics must be trained to rejoice in the great gift of perfect worship that the sacred liturgy is. The article points this out very well. (I also researched this issue several years ago when hispanic dancers in Aztec (think pagan,human sacrifice which Our Lady of Gaudelupe erradicated from Mexico) danced down the aisle in costume complete with loin clothe and feathers!&^$%#@*&^

    I saw a sign before an evangelical church yesterday. It read, “Come join us for a new worship experience”

    What happened to the vertical worship and praise directed to God. “Experience”??? Save that for Wedding Receptions and parish halls.

  • HCSKnight

    The problem is not “dance”, the problem is the understanding of “participation”. In my humble opinion what is becoming increasingly evident is Ego and Pride rearing its head. The proper participation of the people is through prayer and singing praise. NOT in “bodily expression” expressing the oneness and importance of the body. The Mass is the most solemn prayer of the Church and its people. It is not a “celebration” in the modern sense. Vatican II in my opinion errored because it sought to satiate the immature spirituality of a generation that felt “unimportant” because they felt they werent able to “participate” enough. In short, their cries belied their spiritual immaturity that cried out “I want to be a part of the show!” A spirituality too immature to understand or see that it is through the full focus of their heart and soul in prayer they most fully participate in the Mass.

  • Cooky642

    First, I want to thank Mrs. Moresco for a wonderful article! I have every intention of sharing this with some (liberal!) family and friends who, it seems to me, wouldn’t be scandalized by ANYTHING (including public prostitution!) at church!

    Secondly, I want to thank dear Warren for one of the finest statements on a “Spirit-filled Mass” I’ve ever read. My dear, I hope you “exit backward” (spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, if not physically) often!

    Lastly, I wanted to comment–particularly, on skbohuslav’s post–on the whole issue of dance. While I agree with those who see SOME dance as beautiful, “grace”-full, and a way to draw closer to God, I think the quotes that skbohuslav offered tend more toward the “modern” version of dance. By that I mean, dancing as a form of emotional/physical exhibitionism designed to ignite passions (and, usually, profane ones). Even before rock-n-roll–or, even, the Charleston–“modern” dance was often seen as risque. There are Evangelical Protestant denominations that, to this day, teach that dancing is evil and will “disfellowship” anyone caught engaging in it!

    While I’m not in favor of dance at Mass (I love the use of the term “liturgical terorism”!), I think we need to be clear about what KIND of dance we’re discussing. If we were to happen into a Mass where “dirty dancing” was employed, I’d hope we’d all have the gumption to get up and walk out! On the other hand, modest, graceful “movement”, while not my cup of tea at Mass, could be tolerable if handled reverently.

  • coramdeo

    I do not think dance worship is approtiate during mass. however before mass would be great. those who think that in our western culture it is reduced to banality,
    I have two things to say. to the pure all things are pure. the other tip I would say to you. GROW UP!