When I told a friend of mine what I was going to write about in this blog post, she thanked me for telling her ahead of time, because if she had read it without having talked to me first, she may have wondered if an impostor had taken my place. Her exact words went something like, “I would have phoned you and said, ‘Where is Fr. Colin and what have you done with him?’” The topic that amazed her is liturgical dance, and that I am a proponent.
In seminary, one of our formators was a religious sister who required that we journal about our “feelings.” In the nearly all-male environment of seminary, we often ridiculed the idea of writing about our feelings. In truth, and in retrospect, she was right to require us to write about our feelings because, as she knew, men can find it difficult to express their feelings in speech and in the written word. Now, nearly 20 years later, I would approach that journaling assignment much differently.
The all-male environment of a seminary can be inclined to ridicule lots of ideas and notions, including something like liturgical dance. One story circulated about a bishop who was greeted at his diocesan installation with liturgical dancers. Those who recounted the story emphasized that “he put an end to any and all liturgical dancing from that point forward!” Since my ordination, nearly 16 years ago, I have witnessed liturgical dance in various settings, usually at ecumenical events or at Masses with the Haitian community. The Haitian dancing is usually reserved to the presentation of the Eucharistic gifts.
At the ecumenical worship service at Bridgeport’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, held January 25, I was exposed to some fairly unrestrained liturgical dance, and I liked it very much. Admittedly, one reason why I was more open to it was that it occurred during a prayer service rather than a Mass. But since that ecumenical service, I have been wondering why we, as Catholic clergy, either outlaw liturgical dance altogether or do not really take it seriously.
By the grace of God, my eyes were opened to many things about worship when I attended and participated in (by praying and singing) the worship service in honor of the annual “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”
One personally moving moment for me was hearing the Word of God proclaimed from the King James Bible. As Catholics, we are limited to hearing Church-approved translations of Scripture at Mass, but hearing an elegant translation of the Bible with “thees” and “thous” sparked my spiritual attention. It was like I could feel neurons firing in my brain and in my spirit. There was something very “true” about the older English version of Scripture contained in the King James Bible. Conservative Catholics often speak about the beauty of Latin, but old English can be very beautiful too.
The liturgical dancers were part of a “Musical and Dance Offering” presented by the Praise Team of the Bethel AME Church. A song-leader, a drummer and choir members gathered near the altar to provide song and music, and four young woman danced up the center aisle and then danced in the space in front of the sanctuary, twirling and leaping with grace and athleticism to the beat of the music.
From the perspective of a Catholic priest, the liturgical dance was very tasteful, as the young women wore full-length gowns. A major concern about liturgical dance in a Catholic Church is the idea of seeing a lot of “skin” during liturgy. The young dancers from Bethel AME were fully clothed. They each wore a different-colored sash on their white gowns, which enhanced their individual and communal movements and made for a delightful display.
As they moved back and forth in space—praising God with their artistic movements—the congregants clapped to the music and thoroughly enjoyed the presentation. The drummer, the singers and the dancers were all very joyful, and joy can be contagious. I discovered that my foot was tapping and that I was moving a bit to the music too!
If we are serious about the success of our synod, then we as clergy, religious and laypeople need to be truly open to ways in which the Holy Spirit may be moving us as a diocese and as the Church. One of the four pillars of the synod is “Empowering the Young Church.” At listening sessions, young people voiced their concerns that the liturgical music they hear at Church does not move them. Many young Catholic would likely find livelier—more popular—music at Church much more appealing and spiritually meaningful than what they experience in most Catholic churches at present.
In part three of this blog on the ecumenical worship service, I will focus a little more on what I learned about liturgical music at the prayer service, but let me conclude with some thoughts, suggestions, and even challenges about incorporating liturgical dance into Catholic liturgies.
Dance is very popular with young girls and teenage young women. Because many young Catholic girls and women have participated in organized dance, they may be very interested in being allowed to bring their talents and skills as dancers and choreographers into the liturgy. As a Catholic priest, I encourage my fellow clergy to consider the idea of incorporating liturgical dance into parish liturgies.
Many teenage boys have formed their own “rock” bands, and might be very happy to provide the lively music (including drums!) that could accompany a team of liturgical dancers.
Envisioning a popular music band with drums and electric guitars in church, accompanying liturgical dancers, is probably difficult for most Catholic pastors in the Diocese of Bridgeport. If we, as clergy, are to give real life to the ideas of the synod, then we need to be open to the possibility of “real change” in how we do things.
How can clergy, religious and adult laypeople give real life to the young Church? One way is to invite young people to participate in the life of the Church in ways that they find enjoyable. Popular music and expressive dance is appealing to our youth. Formed into “praise teams,” musicians and dancers may breathe new life into parishes and into the larger Church.