Real Liturgical Dance Print
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The mere mention of “liturgical dance” calls to mind some of the worst abuses of the Novus Ordo Mass: Women and girls in tutus coming forward with the gifts, tribal dances intending to entertain the pope, music and dancing during youth Masses. All failed attempts at making the liturgy more relevant to the people. Dancing in Mass fails, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explained in The Spirit of the Liturgy, because it is incompatible with “the essential purpose of the liturgy of the ‘reasonable sacrifice.’”

While dancing itself does not belong in the Mass, it is entirely appropriate to describe the Mass as a dance – a sacred series of rhythmic movements and gestures, often accompanied by music, that aims to “entertain,” that is, to offer perfect worship to God. In fact, when the Mass is celebrated with proper solemnity and reverence, it has, from beginning to end, an internal rhythm and dynamic of its own as it marches to the dictates of the Church and salvation history. The sacred action of the Mass is dance par excellence.

For decades Catholics inclined toward solemn liturgical worship have called for a “reform of the reform” – a revision of the Novus Ordo Mass in accordance with its Latin rite predecessor. Pope Benedict has furthered this goal by utilizing his papal liturgies in part as models for reverent celebration of the Mass. The solemnity of these liturgies comes not just from the ornate vestments and music, but from the internal rhythm that follows from the proper ars celebrandi of the Mass. Just as a majestic secular dance has a magnetic quality that draws spectators into its internal dynamics, the sacred rhythm of the Mass draws in the faithful by engaging the mind and heart in full, conscious, and actual participation.

The liturgical dance that is the celebration of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice can, like secular dances, go off beat or collapse entirely, by incursions from the outside or failures from within. Both occur in many Novus Ordo Masses, as they are typically celebrated. But the Ordinary Form’s lack of internal rhythm does not just follow from abuses: some of the rubrics themselves prohibit a true liturgical harmony, and with it, solemnity.

One external incursion, for example, comes just before the end of Mass: the faithful have just received the Eucharist, prayed silently, and joined with the concluding prayer said by the priest. Then a voice intercedes from the ambo, asking everyone to sit for some brief announcements (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 90). Inviting the faithful to coffee, bingo, or even to the Forty Hours devotion breaks the Eucharistic dynamic that is the climax and conclusion of the Mass.

         The sacred action of the Mass is dance par excellence.

Reestablishing solemnity becomes impossible after this intrusion of the profane into the sacred at the very conclusion. In a similar manner, the entrance and communion antiphons read “by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector” (GIRM 48 & 87) lose some of their effects when preceded by a loutish announcement of the date, page number, and volume in the missalette.

Internally, the rhythm of the Novus Ordo suffers from imposed silences in places where silence becomes awkward rather than conducive to meditation, such as at the penitential rite (GIRM 51) and the time after communion (GIRM 88), when silence is part of the dynamic of asking God for forgiveness or thanking Him for the gift of Himself. But the pauses for silence before, during, and after the Liturgy of the Word (GIRM 56), though well intentioned, actually interrupt the liturgical action; several seconds of bowed heads can hardly allow for digesting a reading of God’s word. During the Liturgy of the Word there is the added problem of the movement of lectors and cantors toward the ambo. These movements lack the rhythm and décor of a Gospel procession, and their unevenness tends to make the liturgy appear contrived rather than natural.

All these liturgical practices amount to little more than profane and artificial interruptions; all exist for a common purpose: they are directed to the faithful and their experience of the liturgy. As such, they break the rhythm of the Mass because they divert the sacred action from its proper object: God.

What, then, can be done to restore the harmony of the Ordinary Form? In his accompanying letter to Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict expressed his hope that the two forms of the Roman Rite of the Mass would be “mutually enriching.” The Extraordinary Form, whether a low Mass or solemn high Mass, is the epitome of liturgical dance: its continuous movement, organic silence, and rubricized gestures for all participants ensure that the solemnity of the dance moves in step with its objective: worshiping God.

The profane does not interrupt this Form of the Mass; it is taken up and transformed into part of the sacred rite itself. If the Ordinary Form follows its elder brother’s lead in the above areas, it will find its rhythm restored and solemnity discovered.

Liturgical dance properly understood is not an abuse in the Mass, but its highest and most beautiful expression. When every liturgical movement and gesture is directed toward worshiping God, the Mass becomes the most solemn and profound dance this side of paradise.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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