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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