On Human Formation and Body Language in Liturgy

The major documents guiding the formation of Roman Catholic priests, permanent deacons, and lay ministers all speak of different dimensions of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. Human formation concerns the nature of being a mature, integrated human person, who can be a bridge rather than an obstacle to others seeking God. Spiritual formation concerns being attuned to growing in right relationship with God and neighbor, and so touches on practicalities of prayer and morality, among other topics. Intellectual formation deals with the concrete knowledge of the faith and tradition needed to serve well, particularly including foundations in philosophy and theology. Pastoral formation, then, is about gaining ministerial skills needed to be able to serve others well, such as the ability to preside gracefully, or the ability to listen and be present to grief.

As a staff member in residence at a seminary and school of theology, I have ample opportunity to observe students as they grow in these areas. At the start of a new academic year, those recently advanced to new levels take on new tasks at liturgy. Some come to them naturally. Others tend to be a bit more self-conscious or clumsy, at least for a while. It seems that human formation, in particular, affects the ability to do the spiritual and pastoral duties of liturgy well, and this seems worth further reflection.

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Seminary Mass in the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Photo by Corey Bruns

The Program of Priestly Formation says of human formation:

The qualities to be fostered in a human formation program are freedom, openness, honesty and flexibility, joy and inner peace, generosity and justice, personal maturity, interpersonal skills, common sense, aptitude for ministry, and growth in “moral sensibility and character.” … Growth in self-awareness and sound personal identity are the hallmarks of a healthy personality that establishes a secure basis for the spiritual life. (86-87, including quotation of a standard from the Association of Theological Schools)

In regard to human formation, the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States proposes:

Deacons, above all, must be persons who can relate well to others. This ability flows from an affective maturity that “presupposes… the victorious struggle against their own selfishness.” ….  Human formation aims to enhance the personality of the minister in such a way that he becomes “a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ.” Accordingly, formation processes need to be structured so as to nurture and encourage the participants “to acquire and perfect a series of human qualities which will permit them to enjoy the trust of the community, to commit themselves with serenity to the pastoral ministry, to facilitate enounter and dialogue.” (108-109, quoting from the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons)

relaxed prayer

Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, the U.S. Bishops’ document on formation of lay ecclesial ministers, says this:

Human formation seeks to develop the lay ecclesial minister’s human qualities and character, fostering a healthy and well-balanced personality, for the sake of both personal growth and ministerial service… Human formation, meant to lead lay ecclesial ministers toward greater maturity as adults and as ministers of the Church, includes the following:

  • A basic understanding of self and others that can help lay ecclesial ministers relate more authentically with God and others.

  • Psychological health, marked by integrity, appropriate interpersonal boundaries, and the abilty to honor and safeguard the trust that people place in them as Church ministers….

  • Ability to learn from both praise and criticism, receiving and assessing both with honesty and equanimity….

  • A genuine respect and concern for others, rooted in the example of Jesus and the Church’s teaching of the Gospel of Life and on the dignity of the human person… (pp. 36-37)

How do such standards for human formation play out in liturgical life? I see it in the demonstrated ability to be at peace with oneself and to connect with others appropriately. The hospitality minister who looks genuinely delighted to see and greet those arriving to mass is secure in his own identity and is ready to welcome others. As one arriving, in his presence I feel wanted and look forward to being part of the gathering. The prepared, relaxed cantor shows her own human formation when she makes no unnecessary show in reverently approaching the ambo, and provides just enough gentle gesture to bring the congregation into song. In her presence I do not feel I am watching a stage production or a robot, but I am sharing with her in common worship, a natural human response to encounter with God. Acolytes with solid human formation are attentive to but not distracted by the presence of those in both the sanctuary and the nave. They are reverent but also relaxed in their duties. The lector who proclaims the Word with expression, who desires that Scripture be heard in its power, is concerned not only for his or her own “getting through the task,” but for the genuine opportunity to connect Christ and the hearts of these people at this moment. Ministers with a solid human formation bring a warmth to their presence at liturgy. You know a real, lovable human person is present. The person is a bridge, not an obstacle.

On the flip side, a lack of human formation makes itself known particularly when ministers or congregants adopt body language that is inattentive or closed to the other. We see this in sloppy execution or distraction, implying a lack of concern for what others see. We also see it in prolonged or overly pious gestures of reverence that suggest the time is only about one’s personal encounter with God, and not a communal experience. Facial expressions may or may not acknowledge the presence of the other. In recent years it seems that hands held in a sometimes rigid “prayer position” have made inroads into the everyday. While this gesture seems appropriate for moments such as approaching the sacrament, held as a default “resting position,” used when proclaiming the Word, or adopted for photos outside of liturgy altogether, it sometimes can come off as a showy prop, a physical barrier between the minister and the people.

The liturgy is replete with signs, symbols, and gestures meant to indicate particular things. However, body language also speaks at a fundamental human level. It can communicate being comfortable with oneself and others, or a felt need for self-protection. It can communicate being at peace with God and humanity, or a rigidity belying an undercurrent of judgment, or a fear of being wrong. Reverence does not exclude the possibility of warmth or expressions of humanity. When we come to the well-prepared liturgy, we are invited to encounter both God and the other in grace, with peace. We are called to be transformed in Christ. Even in his glory, Christ never loses his humanity.

13 comments

  1. False piety and scrupulosity are indeed problematic. One, especially an educated lay person, might wonder how it benefits those who encourage the clerical formation which encourages these unintegrated traits.

  2. I watched the movie CODA about a hearing daughter in a Deaf family. The expressiveness of their sign language helped me to realise that, if I’m ever involved in commissioning a sculpture of a human person, I’ll ask a Deaf person to help ensure the sculpture communicates well, affectively, vibrantly. Deaf people say that hearing people have rather blank, emotionless faces when we talk. Perhaps liturgical ministers could also learn from Deaf people how to use their bodies to communicate more effectively.

  3. Body language is not just about posture; it’s also about movement. Liturgical ministers, both lay and ordained, exhibit a variety of ways of moving as they carry out their ministries. Some move too fast, appearing to scuttle around; others are like elephants, lumbering around the sanctuary (why is it that many deacons and some bishops are especially noticeable in this regard?); some appear to glide as if on wheels (and if they have their hands in the rigid prayer position they do indeed resemble liturgical robots).

    How to move is simply not taught in seminaries, or in any other kind of ministerial formation.

    How to stand is just as important as how to move. It can give an inappropriate signal of casualness when a priest leans his forearms and elbows on the ambo or reading desk while speaking in what he imagines is a friendly and more intimate way. And many lectors betray their nervousness by gripping the ambo, or by standing with one leg straight and the other bent so that only the toe of the shoe is resting on the ground.

    I have pointed out many times over the years that documents such as GIRM do not say anything about body language, or movement, or how to lead the people into a spirit of prayer. Anthropology and choreography should both be an essential part of all formation for ministry.

    1. In my opinion, gestures and postures that are traditionally used in worship can become an affectation if they are adopted as a “rescue Catholic culture” tactic- that is, if they are born out of anxiety. However, these gestures do help convey what they signify if they are done simply, and without pretension. A genuflection made by a child before a tabernacle can be the first steps toward a tender relationship with Jesus. The same genuflection made on the command of an angry parent can cause fear in another child that God will be angry if arcane gestures are not performed properly. The same kneeling-and-crossing can become a perfunctory badge of identity, a Catholic “secret handshake”, with no mindfulness of God’s presence at all. For some clergy and ministers, a fluid and almost boneless genuflection risks looking like a ballet performance, a professional obligation. Of course, we know the risks. But as a father of three, don’t forget that our culture is one of the only ways we can convey information, and gestures and postures, for children, help foster a sense of inclusion and apprenticeship in our worship tradition- here I am not simply thinking of the actions of ministers in the line of sight, but also customs such as kissing ones fingers after making the sign of the cross, for example. In my family, my Mother was taught by her Sisters of St. Joseph, probably liturgical enthusiasts, to bow her head during the Mass when the name of Jesus and Mary is said. It makes me feel close to my mother, and honor her as a teacher, when I do that.

  4. The same kneeling-and-crossing can become a perfunctory badge of identity, a Catholic “secret handshake”, with no mindfulness of God’s presence at all. For some clergy and ministers, a fluid and almost boneless genuflection risks looking like a ballet performance, a professional obligation.

    Yes, indeed.

    I have always thought that a slow and solemn profound bow looks much more “reverent” than a hurried genuflection, and has the additional benefit of not disadvantaging those with knee cartilage problems and similar issues.

    1. For decades I have taught people that if they are able to genuflect by placing one knee on the floor, it can be a genuine act of reverence. But if they are not able to do so for whatever reason, it can be more reverent if they make an unhurried sincere bow of the head or shoulders. My own physical limitations have for many years now prevented me from making a truly reverent genuflection and so I have replaced it with a profound bow. Many of the people I serve who have similar limitations have followed suit.

  5. A seminarian once told me that he was called in to a formation director and accused of exactly what is mentioned in this article…”rigidity”…because of something else mentioned herein…he folded his hands while proclaiming the first reading at Mass.

    If someone can be “rigid” for folding hands while reading, someone can be rigid too for deciding that hand-folding while proclaiming readings is somehow indicative of (“belying undercurrents of”) intolerance, superiority, and whatever other negative trait.

    “Rigidity” works both ways.

  6. I will admit to keeping my hands in the “prayer position” during most of the Mass (though not while reading the Gospel; if I don’t use my hand to keep my place I’m likely to lose it). I didn’t always. But my transfer a couple years from a small parish to a big one with a large, formal liturgical space, as well as the fact that this is how the other deacon who was already there held his hands, made me adopt that gesture.

    It felt odd at first, but now it feels completely natural. I don’t really think about it much. I think this is true of most of the liturgy’s “body language.” It feels weird at first–just watch the people in RCIA as they begin to genuflect or make the sign of the cross–but then becomes second nature. I’m not sure that the “rigid ‘prayer position'” is any more rigid or overly-pious than, say, genuflecting. In fact, it’s a lot less ostentatious if you’re not used to seeing it. Of course, if I were in a setting where none of the other ministers adopted that posture, I’d drop it in a skinny minute.

  7. Bowing, of course, is a good replacement for a genuflection, depending on the needs of the worshipper. The scruple is that genuflection is inherently more reverent, more traditional in the hearts of most parishioners, or perhaps simply part of a Catholic culture that serves as an effective conveyance for ideas which need to be conserved. The real risk is that the treasure of love of the Lord, and the resolution to set chunks of time aside to develop a loving relationship with him, are going to be replaced in one camp by an ill-understood and indistinct gesture, absent of prayer, and in another camp, by a choreography signifying either inclusion in a tribe or mastery of ars celebrandi, also absent of prayer.

  8. This was a significant quote for me:

    “… a lack of human formation makes itself known particularly when ministers or congregants adopt body language that is inattentive or closed to the other. We see this in sloppy execution or distraction, implying a lack of concern for what others see. We also see it in prolonged or overly pious gestures of reverence that suggest the time is only about one’s personal encounter with God, and not a communal experience.”

    In the first example, sometimes the personal preparation that goes into liturgy is inadequate or incomplete. The second example, perhaps shows things being over-thought.

    The image I suggest with liturgical ministers in training or preparation is that they should strive to be a clear window at worship. The more the person is transparent in terms of dress, movement, effort, etc., the more they are able to act as a porter, a doorkeeper for the experience of the assembly. Christ often illumines best through what we don’t do, and not what we do.

  9. “The image I suggest with liturgical ministers in training or preparation is that they should strive to be a clear window at worship. The more the person is transparent in terms of dress, movement, effort, etc., the more they are able to act as a porter, a doorkeeper for the experience of the assembly. Christ illumines best through what we don’t do, and not what we do.”

    + 1.

    The minister needs to be mature in self-management of false ego needs, as liturgical prayer is rife with opportunities for indulging with heavy rationalization .

  10. The underlying principle here is that liturgy is an activity of the whole person.

    The Second Vatican Council gave clear directions for the liturgical formation of future priests (see SC, nn. 15-19). Are these directions being followed? Where did some of our clergy learn the following bad habits I’ve observed over the past 50 years?
    – Fumbling with the book at the chair or altar to find the prayers of the day instead of marking them
    with ribbons before Mass.
    – Ungainly movements or gestures.
    – Poor microphone technique.
    – Wearing an alb several inches too short (it should cover your trousers, Father).
    – Reading the presidential prayers (especially the Collect and Eucharistic Prayer) in a dry, mechanical
    way or too quickly.
    – The opposite fault: reading the prayers in an affected ‘touchy-feely’ way.
    – ‘Dumbing down’ the liturgy by adopting a ‘folksy’ manner.
    – In the homily, using ‘you’ instead of ‘we’.
    – Omitting the required periods of silence (during the Penitential Rite, before the Collect, after the
    homily, after Communion).
    – Wearying the assembly with rambling mini-homilies (especially during the Penitential Rite).
    – Poor timing: starting prayers or moving to the next part of the Mass before the assembly is ready
    (especially where there is a change of posture).
    – Telling the assembly when to stand, sit or kneel (the common postures are now well known).
    – Fiddling with the chalice at the altar after Communion (the cleansing of the vessels should be done
    at the side table and can be completed after Mass).
    – Saying aloud the priest’s prayers that are meant to be said silently.

  11. Thanks for the article. Really good and constructive insights. Proper decorum and appropriate body language comes through training and practice. Concentration and interior silence enhances solemnity that is so vital to make liturgy a meaningful experience.

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