Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Jan Larson
(From the March 19, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
In 1975, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship issued a document called “Dance in the Liturgy.” This document acknowledged that there are cultures in our world in which dance retains a religious character and could be permitted in the liturgy, but “the same criterion cannot be applied in the western culture. Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses... 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.”
In the decades since 1975, things have apparently changed. It is true that dance in our western culture can express many things, some of which would be quite inappropriate at the liturgy. But in these recent decades we of western cultures have gradually come to see dance as a possible form of prayer and as a legitimate and appropriate way to express faith. The Eucharistic liturgy for World Youth Day, presided over by Pope John Paul in Toronto, is a perfect example. A number of liturgical dancers expressed in a beautiful and artful way the sentiments of the responsorial psalm during the liturgy of the Word. It was clearly prayerful, with nothing of the “diversion, profaneness and unbridling of the senses” that so worried Vatican officials in 1975. Vatican planners approved of this dance at the papal liturgy, and Toronto and most of the participants there certainly qualify as part of western culture.
What has changed our western culture so that dance can now be seen as a legitimate way to express prayer and Christian faith? I would suggest that the main development is that so many more of us have actually seen good liturgical dance, and now understand that it can really add to and draw us more deeply into the liturgy. And I would be so bold as to suggest that it was Pope John Paul himself, in his countless liturgies around the world (and particularly in our western countries) who has exposed vast throngs and millions and millions of television viewers to well-planned liturgies that include liturgical dance.
No, it is not the kind of dance that would be familiar to MTV viewers or dance that would have anything to do with mating rituals or romance. Part of the reluctance to accept dance as a legitimate prayer form is that we might define dance too narrowly. Dance is a way of using bodily actions and gestures to express something that may not be able to be expressed adequately in words alone. Indeed, liturgy is dance, including gestures like bows and genuflections and the Sign of the Cross. After all, what is liturgy, if not the gestures and actions, sometimes accompanied or supported by word, music and song, that give expression to our faith and our prayer, and in so doing make present Christ’s saving actions?
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)