Recently a video of two priests breakdancing at a Steubenville youth conference went viral. The young priests were dressed in their clerics, their moves were pretty fly, and the thousands of teens who were gathered around them seemed to really enjoy the humanity (and, as I will eventually argue, the divinity) of it all. However, since the clip has made its way across the Internet, a debate has begun about the appropriateness of breakdancing priests.
If you log on to Twitter you can find the original post from @KatiePrejean:
The video itself is less than forty seconds long, but the comment section seems to go on forever. Here is a small sample of the kinds of things that people have been saying about the breakdancing priests:
- “Those priests are behaving completely inappropriately!”
- “What are we, Protestants?”
- “Those priests are an embarrassment, and once those teens grow up, they’ll look back on this and cringe, & see Church as a laughing stock”
- “this doesnt [sic] give me confidence in the current crop of priests somehow”
- “Not right. Priests trying to be popular. Cult of Satan.”
The commentators assert that priests breakdancing is somehow inappropriate, Protestant, cringeworthy, unacceptable, and from the devil. Note that no actual reasons are offered as to why this is the case, but that something about it just looks strange.
I want to begin my defense of these breakdancing priests by directing our attention to the Incarnation. When God the Father sent his only Son to save us from sin, he sent him to us as one like us in all things but sin, born of the Virgin Mary. God humbled himself and took on our humanity in order to bring us his divinity. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is both true God and true man, both at the same time and not in any diluted way. Some of our non-Christian brothers and sisters find our belief in the Incarnation to be completely inappropriate, unacceptable and even absurd. They ask, “How could God – who is omniscient, eternal, omnipresent, perfect, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent – become a human being?” The answer to that question is at the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation, which is a central dogma of Christian faith.
One of the great traps that many well-intended Christians fall into is on full display in this breakdancing debate. Somehow, people forget that before a priest is a priest, he is first a man. As a matter of fact, St. Pope John Paul II made a major contribution to priestly formation in 1992 with his post-synodal document, Pastores Dabo Vobis, regarding this very issue. Before PDV was published, there were only three components to priestly formation: spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. John Paul II, who had the greatest devotion to the Incarnation as well as a deeply philosophical and theological appreciation for the human person, especially the human body, noted that a fourth component was necessary in the formation of priests, and this component was prior to the three others. What component? The human component! John Paul II insisted that the foundation of priestly formation is not the spiritual but the human. The spiritual component is the heart of priestly formation, but you only gain access to the spiritual through the human component, and not apart from it.
At first glance, John Paul II’s teaching sounds strange. That’s quite all right. As Bishop Barron likes to say, Christianity is ‘the strangest way’. The Incarnation is strange, and so is the Paschal Mystery, not to mention the way that Christ continues to encounter and redeem his people through the Sacraments. So we should expect the formation of the Catholic priest to be a bit strange, too. Let’s look closely at why John Paul insists that the starting point of priestly formation must be human formation.
Human formation points to the Incarnation. When the Second Person of the Trinity came to save us, he didn’t come to us as an angel or pure spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and was like us in all things but sin. He experienced the world both as God and as man. Jesus knows our human experience because he lived it, death and all. We human beings are not angels; we are not pure spirits. And Christian spirituality is bogus if it somehow ignores the body and human experience. We have no access to God apart from our bodies. In fact, apart from our bodies, we have no access to the world. As Aquinas teaches, knowledge begins with the senses. It doesn’t end there, but it’s the starting point. So too is the body the starting point for Christian spirituality. God became man so that human beings could become God. Apart from our humanity, we lack access to our divinity.
A good priest isn’t afraid of his humanity or the humanity of others. In fact, in article 43 of Pastores Dabo Vobis, John Paul II writes, “Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others.” Everything that John Paul writes about human formation in PDV is based on the Incarnation, and because Jesus Christ was able to relate to others, John Paul can insist that priests of Jesus Christ have that same relatability. Think about it. What is it about the Incarnation that makes Christianity so attractive? It’s the fact that the all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal, transcendent God chose to humble himself and become one of us, relatable to us. It’s almost too good to be true. To be safe, some of us try to keep God at a distance, apart from our humanity, but the Incarnation annihilates that distance between God and man bringing God into the very center of our lives. God approaches us and becomes approachable. Emmanuel.
So what about these breakdancing priests? Did they do something wrong? First of all, there is no Church teaching that forbids a priest to breakdance. (There are certainly types of dance that would be inappropriate for a priest, but breakdancing isn’t one of them.) These young clerics were at a weekend youth conference, not only celebrating the sacraments and preaching, but also being present to thousands of young people, many of whom have probably not had much contact with a priest outside of Mass and the confessional. They were being good shepherds to the young people entrusted to their pastoral care. And I’m guessing that these two priests learned to breakdance long before they were ordained, and they remembered what it was like to be a teen – recalling that teens want to know that becoming a disciple doesn’t mean a life of boredom, sterility, rigidity, and death but, rather, they want to be convinced that following Jesus actually brings joy, freedom, happiness, and life! Of course, the sacraments bring all these good things, but outside of celebrating the sacraments the priest is called to be a sacrament himself, glorifying God by his life, which is what these two breakdancing priests were doing. Their actions were right and just.
I’ve been a priest for a little over fourteen years. I spent nine years in the seminary, I have been teaching in the college seminary for eight years, and for the last four years I have been the Director of Human Formation. My job is to make sure seminarians are in touch with their humanity so that they can enter fully into to their divinity. This video of two breakdancing priests gives me no cause for worry. These are two solid priests in good standing with their diocese. In the spirit of St. John Paul II, they spent their weekend ministering to teenagers and decided to share some of their talents with their young flock. Their dancing was appropriate and so was the music. (By the way, John Paul II loved breakdancing. Watch it here.) The breakdancing priests showed the humanity of the priesthood, which is the gateway to the spirituality of the priesthood, the heart of the Good Shepherd. They made the priesthood look approachable, attractive, healthy, and human.
The kind of priests that do cause me concern, however, are the ones who cannot relate to young people or even attempt to relate to them. The kind of priests that scare me are the ones who keep their dancing private, and do so while not wearing clerics or having camera phones pointed in their direction. The kind of priests that worry me are the ones who celebrate the ‘perfect’ Mass and say all the right things in a homily but who live a double life when no one is watching. The kind of priests, and laity for that matter, who cause some of the biggest problems in the Church today are the ones who run from their humanity to some Pharisaical Island of Gnosticism, rather than diving headlong into the Incarnation to find their true, human selves. These are some members of our Church who probably need our prayers a little more than the breakdancing priests do.
Before I close, let me say one more thing, specifically about Steubenville and LifeTeen, both of which have taken an unfair hit over this breakdancing incident. I can’t think of two programs or institutions in the Church today that do more to bring young people closer to Christ than Franciscan University of Steubenville and LifeTeen. Don’t believe me? Talk to the vocation director of your diocese and ask him about the conversions of young men who have participated in retreats, conferences, and liturgies hosted by Steubenville and LifeTeen, conversions that have led them to our seminarians and eventually into the priesthood.
And guess what? Some of them even know how to breakdance.