Use of Emotions at Mass

Reading Time: 9 minutes

By Zach Watters, Yale University

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Clarifying Catholicism, nor of everyone affiliated with Clarifying Catholicism. We welcome respectful responses in the comments below.

Catholics are generally not known for their effusiveness in worship. In fact, many Catholics downright distrust more demonstrative and affective forms of worship, whether or not liturgically structured. Movements like charismatic Catholicism, if only by the bemusement it provokes in ‘polite’ conversation, seem to highlight the uneasiness that Catholics can feel toward “letting their hair down” in the public liturgy of the Church.

The reasons for this attitude may be manifold, with some more legitimate than others. Among the many motivations for antipathy to emotionally demonstrative worship, a few stand out. At least in the Roman rite, the solemnity and interiority of its celebration has been invoked as an element of its particular genius. Charismatic worship, with its spontaneity and excitability, sometimes seems downright anti-liturgical, at least as we understand the term. Moreover, many western Catholics see, with good reason, an emotive worship style as a temptation to idolization of spiritual consolation, wherein emotional affect is wrongly taken as the sign and proof of the Holy Spirit’s presence. The mystics of the Western Church, since the high Middle Ages, have taught us that affective prayer is not a goal in itself, but only one step on the way to that rapture which will be beyond sense.[1] This truth, along with our devotional preferences for the Sorrowful Manhood of Jesus, our deep respect for those mystics who have experienced the Dark Night of the Soul, like the Carmelite Doctors, or St. Teresa of Calcutta, experiencing happiness, peace, or excitement in worship seems not only elusive but maybe even undesirable. The way of the Cross, the way of sorrow, is the better way. Why not skip the milk and go straight to the solid food?

This desire for spiritual athleticism is one that particularly befalls the melancholic temperament. In addition to the general suspicion of consolation, we have been taught since St. Ignatius that desolation is the breeding ground for heroic virtue, and so we might confusedly try to legitimize our own anxieties and inability to love the Eucharist with any felt love by saying it is evidence we are experiencing our own Dark Night of the Soul. I do not doubt that for some, this is the case, and the spiritual exercises have much that is helpful to say on discerning these spirits, but I will not rehearse them here. I only point out that Catholics have certain theologically and devotionally motivated reasons for resisting the felt consolation of emotive worship. 

I do not intend to make an apologetic for more or less emotionally demonstrative worship. Nor do I wish to comb the saintly literature on consolation and desolation. I simply wish to suggest that the tradition, yes, even in the Christian West, makes way for a synthesis between formalized liturgical worship and a non-idolatrous emotional excitation proper to attending the Mysteries of our faith. I believe that such a reminder is timely. In a time after the Second Vatican Council’s popularization of the concept of “active participation,” we need more opportunities to see how the tradition has suggested we do so. If we want to become a Church of saints, then we need to climb the ladder of prayer, and we cannot reach the heights of contemplation if affective prayer is not at least one rung on our spiritual ascent. Our ultimate goal is not to have certain feelings while we pray, indeed the monastic and mystical literature since the beginning say that the goal is rapture beyond sense; but we can only walk one step at a time, and for many of us, affective prayer is a step still yet attained.

The literature on emotions and their relation to our will is vast. I wish simply to suggest that there is a place for meritorious emotion in the act of worship. Any survey of quotes from the Church Fathers is enough to convince one that we ought to feel something when attending the Mass. How can this be, if emotions do not have any moral quality to them? Indeed, our emotions are non-rational in and of themselves, and so it seems odd to say that they “ought” to do anything. Thomas Aquinas says that one part of our soul is rational, and the other part is rational by participation.[2] In other words, the whole human soul is rational, and this includes our emotions by participation. It has been noted that the modern concept of emotion is not equivalent to Aquinas’ passions, but rather contains multiple distinct realities according to Aquinas, such as passion, sentiment, and affect. However, for the sake of simplicity, I will still use the term emotion to denote that part of us that is rational by participation.[3] For Aquinas, none of the passions, which are motions of the sensitive part of the soul, are in themselves morally good or bad, but in so far as we consent to them with our will, we render them voluntary, and so they participate in the morally good or evil act which they lead us towards. If the will allows the passions to be disordered, then they create an evil. But if they are controlled by reason, they can be morally good. For Aquinas, we are indeed responsible for our passions, and they can be moved by our intellect and will. In fact, a good action which is accompanied by the pleasure and delight appropriate to that act, is made all the better because it comes from the whole person with all its parts acting in concert. If an action arises after and because of a passion (antecedent passion), then the passion diminishes the goodness of an act. However, if a passion follows the action (consequent passion), then this is proof of the intensity of the will, and so it indicates a greater moral quality to the action. Furthermore, if the intellect and will lead the sensitive part into an action, this is also a sign of a rightly ordered soul.[4]

The ability to perform acts with consequent passions requires conversion. This conversion, or metanoia which Jesus spoke of, is a changing of the mind. This changing of the mind resounds in Paul’s admonitions throughout his letters, whether he is telling us to “be transformed by the renewal of your minds”[5] or to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.”[6] This changing of the mind is not simply a change of ideas, but a change of the whole rational soul, which includes those parts which participate in it. Paul seems to know this when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[7] Paul’s encouragement says that our joyfulness, lack of anxiety, and peace are evidence of our reasonableness. Our rational souls, when ordered, experience and even direct our passions. Our converted minds “rejoice.”

The Scriptures echo with commands directed towards those parts which we do not typically think are in our control, and the psalms contain the direction of a person towards their own soul: “Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy Name.”[8] Such self-directed admonitions make sense since, as Paul says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-control.”[9] It is the spirit of right order, of reasonableness, of power and love that is capable of ordering one’s lower parts, of subjecting them to the rational soul and then offering the worship of the whole person to God. Such a spiritual state is reminiscent of the Thomistic doctrine of original justice, in which the lower parts were subjected to the reason.[10] The reality most of us experience is a kind of disassociation between our rational and sensitive parts, a disassociation which makes any cooperative effort between them difficult. This state of affairs, the tradition calls concupiscence. The wonderful news, then, is that struggling against our concupiscence does not only involve wrestling with those appetites which desire lustful or gluttonous satisfaction, but also against those appetites which do not rightly delight in the joyful mysteries of our faith. If this be the case, then obeying the Pauline command to “rejoice” is nothing less than the soul’s warfare against concupiscence, the post-lapsarian state of disorder between the reason and the appetites.

What would this “self-control” or warfare against concupiscence look like during Mass? If it is true that we ought to “love the Lord with all our heart, mind and strength,” Catholic sacramental logic would conclude that directing our whole soul’s love to God also applies to the Church’s liturgical worship. But how might an emotional response to God be ritualized? Ought it be? One peculiar historical example is the phenomenon of religious weeping, which, while ascribed to the activity of God, was also undertaken through a kind of formalized process at different points in Christian history. In fact, the Desert Fathers recommended techniques that could bring on weeping, such as invoking certain thoughts and actions.[11] In the Middle Ages, the subject appeared in some monastic discourses, where it received nuance as the activity of God on the human soul rather than simply the product of human affect. For the liturgically minded Catholic who understands that the true subject of the liturgy is Christ Himself and not the priest, though it is the priest who steps up to the altar and speaks, it is no puzzle that we might be able to strive in our interior to produce those emotions which most fit the activity of our intellect and will, while also naming it as a gift from God. Indeed, if one can adorn the Mass with beautiful music and art and architecture, bringing forth all the gifts of nature at one’s disposal, why not offer the gift of an emotion properly ordered to the great Gift before us?

For different monastic authors, the process could involve inserting oneself into the biblical story and imagining the activity of Christ upon that character as being done upon the monk.[12] Bonaventure’s Triple Way would have someone invoke gratitude for the gifts of nature, contrition for sins, and love for the deeds of salvation. What each description of the process has in common is that it involves habit. It does not do the worshiper at Mass any good to “effort” their way into a consequent passion that is fitting for the Eucharistic sacrifice only to say that, after much consternation, it ‘doesn’t work’. Any such activity wherein our emotions follow our intellect properly and easily must involve habitual activity, like all activities which we undertake to “work out our salvation.” Hence the erstwhile recommendation to pray the rosary at Mass. At least in a former liturgical culture where such meditation was possible, the constant turning of the mind and heart towards the mystery of the Incarnation could only be a salutary aid for the invocation of heartfelt love for the Eucharistic Lord.

Thomas Aquinas, and other medieval Christians, knew that one act, unless extremely powerful, does not often create a habit, which includes the habit of a certain emotional orientation towards the Mass. Modern research in neuroplasticity seems to confirm this intuition in its oft-repeated phrase, “neurons that fire together wire together.”[13] If we want certain neurons to fire when we see the Eucharist exposed, we have to, habitually and over time, cultivate the proper disposition towards it. As the mystics might caution, an emotional response is by no means evidence of sanctifying grace in us, nor is it suitable as an ultimate goal in the spiritual life. However, it might be evidence of a converting mind which begins to feel the weight of what has been done for us in Jesus. It might also help seal in the memory what needs to be remembered in a moment of moral decision. Beyond its utility, the soul which offers to God its love is one way to offer the sacrifice of a humble and contrite heart: humble in its submission before the reason’s decision to delight in God and His deeds, and contrite for its sluggishness in doing so.

I have not discussed whether more demonstrative styles of worship are more apt than others. I have only suggested that an active participation in Mass involves the emotions, and that these emotions are by virtue of habit, under the control of the rational soul in which they participate. These emotions are a bodily reality, however, and a liturgical culture that promotes the presence of these bodily realities might involve more physical gestures than is present at Mass. A very humble suggestion might be that, even in Latin Masses, more opportunities can be present for prostrations, genuflections, and the orans prayer posture (in any place except for the Our Father, of course). I have not yet reflected on whether such gestures ought to be legislated or spontaneous. Including more emotive bodily gestures might go a long way to reconciling traditional liturgies both to charismatic styles of worship and to the worship of other apostolic Churches, such as those which practice the Byzantine tradition.

To return to the beginning, Catholics “letting their hair down” in Mass is a red herring. As long as emotive worship is not undertaken as a goal in and of itself, spiritually consoling worship, in which the emotions play their due part, is a good which Catholics ought to seek, regardless of which liturgy they attend. Moreover, doing so is not, as “letting hair down” suggests, an act of submitting to the passions, but rather the opposite. Directing the sensations of love towards God, as much as one is capable, is an act of a soul recovering the order of original justice, a soul that loves the Lord with all its heart, mind, and strength.  


Chanderbhan, Stephen. “The Shifting Prominence of Emotions in the Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.” Diametros 38 (2013): 62-85 doi: 10.13153/diam.38.2013.538.

Flanders, Timothy. “The Ascending Way of Prayer.” <>.

Nagy, Piroska. “Religious Weeping as Ritual in the Medieval West.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, vol. 48, no. 2, 2004, pp. 119–137. JSTOR, Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Vols 2-4. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

[1] See Timothy Flanders’ write up on the Nine Steps of Carmelite Prayer at

[2] In III Sent., d. 23, q. 1. A. 3

[3] Cf. Stephen Chanderbhan. “The Shifting Prominence of Emotions in the Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.” Diametros 38 (2013): 62-85 doi: 10.13153/diam.38.2013.538.

[4] Cf. ST I.II.

[5] Romans 12:2

[6] 2 Corinthians 10:5

[7] Philippians 4:4-7

[8] Psalm 103:1

[9] 2 Timothy 1:7

[10] ST. I.II.q. 82

[11] Cf. Nagy, Piroska. “Religious Weeping as Ritual in the Medieval West.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, vol. 48, no. 2, 2004, pp. 119–137. JSTOR, Accessed 5 Jan. 2021.

[12] Ibid., 124.

[13] See

3 Responses

  1. The only way that a soul can be rational is when the Spirit of God is within the person. The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 is the inner love, joy, peace, and strength which are required for rationality, reasonableness, moderation, patience, and gentleness. None of this is possible without the Spirit of Christ.
    Structured outward demonstrations do not produce the inward realities.
    The inward precedes the outward. See 1Peter 5:5-7, James 4:6-10, Philippians 4:6-7, Proverbs 3:5, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Proverbs 3:5-6, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Us!