Choreography and the Mass

congregation singing at Mass - Phil Martin Photography © Loyola Press. All rights reserved.

We dance at Mass. Have you noticed?

We’ll see children especially bouncing to the music, but all of us have choreographed movements. Think for a moment about the Mass as a passion play or musical. The congregation’s moves are critical to the story. Our sacred movements impact the visual beauty of our shared worship. I’m reminded of orchestral movements in a symphony, with the crescendo as we kneel for the Consecration.

It matters to me when people look around at each other during the Confiteor and ask “you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” Yes, I will pray for you. I nod my head in gratitude for their prayers.

I like to stand like a soldier at attention for the Creed, knowing that in some places in the world, people could be jailed or worse for professing this faith. This stance, too, is a planned, or choreographed, move.

During Communion, we process; we don’t just walk. Usually there’s music. I find myself taking my steps in time with the music. Look at the others in the procession. Some have hands folded, some hold palms forward like beggars (that’s me), and some hold their arms like a pretzel (palms to shoulders). Hand movements are part of our sacred dance.

In college I brought an agnostic boyfriend to church. If we were going to be serious, I wanted him to understand more about my faith. He was bewildered by how everyone knew when to kneel, stand, bow, and make hand movements over their foreheads, lips, and hearts. Sometimes hands were raised, held with strangers, or clasped in traditional postures of prayer.

My boyfriend didn’t know the correlation between an open tabernacle and the congregation waiting for its closure before sitting. It caught him by surprise when everyone suddenly sat. Our Catholic choreography seemed to him like a high-school cheer: “Lean to the left! Lean to the right! Stand up! Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Do we Catholics understand all the movement? Why is the Book of the Gospels held high? Why do people bow? Why not sit passively and be entertained? In some churches I’ve seen pads on the pews and latte bars in the entryway. Am I getting too comfortable and behaving like a spectator?

Like Jesus’ analogy of trying to take a speck out of someone’s eye while having a plank in my own, it’s easy to point out shortcomings of choirs, homilists, and fidgety altar servers instead of concentrating on my role in the assembly.

As the Body of Christ, we move and have our being in Jesus. Our body movements are a form of worship. Not only the priest plays a critical part. We do too. Let the Divine Choreographer direct our steps.

The relationship with that boyfriend didn’t last; my love for movements at Mass remains.

Previous articleWindow of Quiet Prayer
Next article10 Prompts for Spiritual Conversations
Loretta Pehanich
Loretta Pehanich is a Catholic freelance writer and the author of 2022: A Book of Grace-Filled Days, Women in Conversation: Stand Up!, and Fleeting Moments: Praying When You Are Too Busy. A spiritual director since 2012, Loretta is trained in giving the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Her involvement in ministry and parish life includes 20 years in small faith-sharing groups and Christian Life Community. Loretta gives retreats and presentations on prayer and women’s spirituality and is commissioned as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. She and her husband Steve have four children and 10 grandchildren.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Good reflections. Thanks Loretta. Body language, movement, gestures, carry meaning that enhances the sacredness and solemnity of the liturgical act.

  2. Choreography? I wouldn’t have originally thought Mass as choreographed but it really is – but not so much to restrict individual expression. After Vatican II inclusion of the people to celebrate in the Mass, I began to be part of creating the dance.

  3. I hadn’t thought so deeply about the movements we make at Mass and the reasons behind them. It’s easy to get complacent. Thank you for this reflection that reminds me to “do my part” at Mass as a participant rather than a mere observer. There’s one small part of your reflection that I have to take a bit of an issue with, though. As I get older, I must say I am grateful for any church that puts “pads in the pews.” 🙂

  4. Loretta, what a beautiful way to describe the beauty of the Catholic Mass, where we are all clinging to the In Persona Christi, offering our deepest desire to be One with All! We sit at the readings from the Old Testament and New Testament like students listening to our history and who we are as people of God. We respond in prayer to the first reading through the chanting of the Psalm. Alleluia comes booming with acclamations as we all stand up in anticipation of Christ coming to proclaim the Good News! The Holy Mass is truly a well orchestrated Theo drama. Thank you for sharing your gift!

  5. Thanks for your insights. After presiding at a earlier liturgy at the hospital where I minister, our Community has a Mass each Monday evening. Given a medical condition I have which can leave me quite fatigued at the end of a workday, I generally sit during the second liturgy. It is not being a passive spectator and “entertained”, but it proves for me to be a very powerful and consoling time of prayer and reflection. The stillness is a blessing and gently helps me to appreciate my brothers even more. Just another perspective . . .

  6. This article beautifully emphasizes the profound connection between choreography and the Mass within the realm of Ignatian spirituality. The way it highlights how every gesture, movement, and symbol during the Mass can serve as a meaningful form of prayer is truly enlightening. It reminds us that spirituality can be found in the most intricate details of our religious practices, making every aspect of the Mass a deeply spiritual experience.

  7. Loretta, thank you for expressing my thoughts about this aspect of the Mass. We worship together – it isn’t just God and me but God and all of us who are gathered together. That is what really spoke to me when I first began worshipping in the Catholic Church. Mass really is a choreographed dance led by the Triune God. How beautiful is that!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here