Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fijian Dancers: What are we saying?

The sight of Melanesians from Fiji singing and dancing at Gospel procession at Pope Benedict's closing mass in Australia, have caused a bit of a stir. The Pope has suggested at various times that dance is inappropriate in the liturgy but I think that he meant the contrived leotard clad self indulgence that we see at the Mahoneyfest in Los Angeles every year.

There are some cultures, apparently, where song is always accompanied by movement. There used to be an African lady here who used to sway and move her hips as she sang the Missa di Angelis with exhuberant glee. There is dance and there is dance. Not being a great fan of ballet, the gymnastics spoil the music, I was dragged to a London theatre to watch some young dancers, dancing the Passion, it was an incredibly moving meditation, but then it wasn't done at Mass or in a place of worship.

What is seen in the video seems to raise problems for me over and above the dancing. At ordination the Book of the Gospels is entrusted to the deacon by the bishop, at Mass it is carried in by the deacon and normally placed on the altar, and taken from there to be proclaimed. Here, the Book of the Gospel is brought to the sanctuary from the congregation, this is making an important statement. It indicates teaching authority is given to the clergy by the people and received by them from the people. It is an inversion of Catholic teaching. There is also a problem of resuscitating elements of a now dead cultural elements that come from a period of paganism, to use in worship. What are we saying?

I know nothing about Fijian dance, it seems quaint and dignified, but I have to ask, why Fijian dancers? Why not some other ethnic group? Were they introduced to add "an ethnic touch"? If that is so, then it strikes me there is a real possibility of "cultural imperialism" or at least of using other cultures as an entertainment to highlight one's open mindedness to exoticism. In this clip there is a stark contrast between the flowing dancers and the stiff Roman style of the sacred minister who receives the Book, the two actions do not flow together. The dance ends and one is left thinking, "that was nice but what was the point?" With any liturgical novelty one is left wondering, "what was the point?".

Archbishop Ranjith, himself a Sri Lankan has said that inculturation, which was urged by VII, should genuinely spring from ethnic cultures, he talks of prostrations and crawling on one's belly in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, where this is normal in the presence of the king or using white for funeral when this a normal mourning colour. I can understand using signs and symbols appropriate to particular cultures when this as part of a whole rite, when carefully considered, it seems wise and prudent. This little excerpt seems merely to be an interlude or a bit of colour that was bolted on.

As a white male, whose family were involved in the administration of the "colonies" I feel incredibly uncomfortable with anything that smacks of, "bits of native colour". As a Catholic priest I feel uncomfortable with anything that brings about theological confusion.


Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary, Father. I very much hope that responsible persons are reading.

A related question has to do with the chest-covering garment worn by most of the dancers. Is it a diaconal stole? Are the processing men ordained deacons (unlikely but not impossible)? If so, I feel somewhat better about their presence (if not about the way it played out, as noted by you). If not, I resent the misappropriation of symbols in a sacred context. I recall that when the Holy Father visited the USA in April, the members of a choir at one mass -- both men and women -- wore stole-like garments over their necks, in a priestly manner.

Catholic identity will not be preserved by accident, but only if those in authority care enough to insist upon it.


gemoftheocean said...

I'd agree with you that the flow from "native" to "formal" is extremely awkward looking. And I don't like giving a free pass to ANY liturgical dance. That is expecting LESS from certain ethnic groupings than another, and it's arguably inverse snobbism or even the racism of low expectations. "i.e. well, those people in LA should "know better" at the Mahoneyfest, but let's let these ignorant people do it" is what this sort of liturgy suggests.

As far as the Gospel book itself coming out of the congregation, I wouldn't necessarily read that in a literal way of authority coming from the people to the heirarchy. It could be taken as an "we all assent to this." But then OTOH everyone assents by definition when they say/sing "Amen."

I don't think that whole sequence of native dance should have been done at all. For sure Padre Pio would have passed out and by his own definition, he'd have give NONE of them absolution had they shown up at his confessional so attired.

Physiocrat said...

Do these actions form part of the rubrics. If not then surely they should not be happening. End of story.

Roses and Jessamine said...

Is this an olive branch from Australia towards the Fijian government? Relations between the two countries have been strained recently after Canberra questioned how democratic Fijian elections were; the Australian High Commissioner in Fiji has been receiving death threats. The Pope's peacemaking presence could have offered Australia the opportunity to heal the rift.

Nice music, but not at Mass. Time and place.

Wanderwide said...

Although I completely agree with the general thrust of your post, Father, I found the coda about your family's involvement in colonial administration very sad. Although, like any human institution, the Empire was certainly tainted by sin, it did help to bring both spiritual and material benefits to many of the citizens of the colonies. To that extent we ought to recognise in it an imperfect instrument of Divine Providence for which we ought to be thankful. Any likely alternative might well have been much worse. Moreover, we ought not to disparage the achievements of our forebears who shouldered the burdens of colonial administration with courage and self-sacrifice and generally fulfilled their responsibilities in good conscience, with justice and humanity. They - and the Empire they served - ought to be judged by the standards and the teachings of the Church of their time, not by what is considered politically correct today.

Anonymous said...

You may find some consolation if you visit this site:

It is an interview with one of the seminarians that took part in the procession, including discussion of the meaning of props and translation of the song.

The Lord’s descent into the underworld

At Matins/the Office of Readings on Holy Saturday the Church gives us this 'ancient homily', I find it incredibly moving, it is abou...