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Please Hold Your Applause

by John Hajda

Why do many members of the assembly applaud after the closing song at my church? For the most part, they sing with gusto. Are they clapping for themselves?

I posed this question to my friend Steve. After a brief pause, he replied that he clapped because he wanted to show appreciation to the choir for the job they do and the hard work that they put into it. I asked another friend, John, who said that he applauds because everyone else does. Laura said that she applauds for everyone who helped with the liturgy. My wife said that she only applauds if she thinks that the music is good (so far, she has always applauded for me!).

One person hypothesized that the pastor encourages this applause at the big community liturgies: Christmas midnight Mass and Easter Vigil. He always thanks those who help with the services, and he always gives a special thanks to the choir at which point everyone applauds. And thus the “clapping culture” is established.

But I have noticed that whether or not the assembly applauds seems to depend primarily on the music. At Masses with little or no music, I have never heard applause. The same at any Masses with organ; it does not matter if the vocal leadership is a cantor or a full choir. People only applaud if the music is contemporary in style and the accompaniment is piano, synthesizer or guitar. However, no one claps, regardless of instrumentation during the liturgy, if we do not sing a closing song (this sometimes happens during Lent). Does this mean that people appreciate pianists and guitarists, but not organists and vocalists? And is this appreciation only felt if we sing a closing song? Is there something different in contemporary music—-the kinetic beat, perhaps—-that makes people want to burst out in applause? Perhaps the contemporary music lends an air of informality, and behavior that is normally suppressed by formidable architectural surroundings is now acceptable?

In my worshipping community, people will clap at the conclusion of any regular communal liturgy with the exception of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. This actually makes sense to me, since we conclude the celebration of Holy Thursday with a communal procession to a place where we adore the Blessed Sacrament in silence. The celebration of Good Friday is the only liturgy at which I regularly see people cry, and we usually do not end this liturgy with music. But the assembly applauds during all of the other seasons of the church year, as long as we sing a closing song with piano, synthesizer or guitar.

I do not know if the situation is the same at every Catholic parish in North America. But the same phenomenon has occurred in five different communities at which I have worked or worshiped: one in Kansas, two in Northern California, and two in Southern California.

I can only assume that some members of the assembly have been socially conditioned to clap at certain times for certain events. It has become almost automatic, much like the responses “And also with you” and “Amen.” I do not believe that these people applaud because of the quality of the performance, because they clap whether the music is good or not so good. I do not believe that a “concert” atmosphere causes their applause.

I would liken this phenomenon to the applause that we hear at the conclusion of the national anthem before the beginning of a sporting event. Why do we clap? Are we applauding the performance?  Probably not, given the horrendous versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” that I have heard over the years. Are we clapping because the game is about to start? Perhaps. Do we clap to show our patriotism? When I was in Cub Scouts, I was instructed to place my hand over my heart and stand at attention during the national anthem, but I was never told to applaud. I think most of us clap because we always clap for the national anthem. It has been socially conditioned.

Having said this, I must conclude that applause after the closing song is a bad thing. It is bad because it is often an empty symbol, since many people do it without enthusiasm or even intent. As for those who are clapping for the choir, they are misled. Everyone—including the assembly—has ministerial duties. We do not, and should not, clap for the lectors, the presider or the eucharistic ministers. We should not clap for the musicians.

But how can we change this behavior, without removing all pianos and guitars from the worship space? There are the usual avenues for disseminating information: the announcements and the bulletin. Announcements may not be well received unless they are worded very carefully; it would probably help if the music director gave the announcement. The bulletin is not an effective tool for changing the behavior of the assembly by itself, but it may be helpful as an additional method of persuasion.  Perhaps the music director or cantor could make an announcement during rehearsal with the assembly before Mass. Finally, this is probably not an appropriate topic for a homily.

Any decision to ask the assembly to change its behavior should be made by the liturgy planning committee. There must be a consensus that this change is desirable and that the timing is right. It might send the wrong message to ask people not to clap during the Easter season; some might interpret this as a desire to “quiet” the celebration. Others might misinterpret the message as an attempt to reduce the participation of the faithful. It is feasible that some members of the assembly will be offended by this imposition of change, no matter how sensitive the language. How will these people be treated? What if this strategy does not work?

In the accompanying box, I have a proposed text that could be read and handed out. Feel free to use this text as you see fit. Given the uniqueness of your community, you will probably want to modify it. Continue to read and hand out copies of this statement until you are convinced that the behavior has changed. Persistence is the key.

It is customary for many members of the assembly to applaud at the conclusion of the closing song.  This, in effect, singles out the choir for a job well done.  While the sentiments are appreciated, the reality is that everyone, including the assembly, has a role in the ministry of music.  The choir is affirmed by the assembly’s full, active, and conscious participation.  Therefore, the choir and liturgical planning committee request that members of the assembly continue to sing out praise to God but refrain from applauding.  Instead, we invite you to continue building the body of Christ by ministering to those around you at the conclusion of the closing song.

If people should not applaud, then what should they do? Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, has given a vision of how the Mass should end (Gather Faithfully Together: Guide for Sunday Mass 78, Liturgy Training Publications, 1997): “At Our Lady of the Angels... all stand and the presider prays the blessing and the dismissal. A concluding song leads to much visiting and to the procession out. I mean the true procession of this Church: one, two, and five at a time going back to neighborhoods and homes, roles and jobs, studies and waiting. But Sunday by Sunday the world is here being transformed in Christ!”

John Hajda is the editor of Simple Gifts: Better Liturgical Music with Limited Resources and the music editor for ML

Reader comments

If the faithful are moved by emotion, quality liturgy, moving homilies, stirring music, then perhaps seeds of catechesis have been planted. These emotional responses may well manifest themselves as a hearty, spontaneous “Amen” or even applause. I can’t consider it inappropriate to react this way. What’s important is that something touched people, whether it be words or music. Then, the touching would take root, and these people would take their faith with them from church to their homes, workplaces and community, as Cardinal Mahony envisions. 
Kevin Brown

In parishes where [applause] is a standard ending to the liturgy, my impression has always been that the priests and assembly accept the false notion that we come to Mass to feel good. We’re here for our weekly “spiritual high.” Energetic, contemporary music (with which I have no problem in and of itself) may be chosen for this reason alone. A really “happening” closing song and the encouragement of applause allow participants to believe they’ve been made to feel good.

Public thanks and applause rob me of my ministry. To thank me for what I have done is to presume that I didn’t have to do it. I wasn’t living my baptismal calling, I was just “helping Father.” God’s guidance through my ministerial life has taught me otherwise. I know that I am called to what I do. I know that liturgical ministry belongs to me, and is not “Father’s” domain alone. 
Dorothy Kosinski Carola 
Newark, N.J.

We have lost a sense of the meaning of ritual dialogue and action, and we seem to have given up on finding appropriate ways to voice our affirmation of one another. If we feel a need to express our joy in our celebration of liturgy, acclamatory song is by far a more appropriate means than applause. When we raise our voices in song, we praise God for the gift of community, for the joy of being together and in gratitude for the liturgy we celebrate. Applause seems a rather poor substitute. An ongoing program of adult catechesis, continuing education and liturgical formation is the only way to enable the conversion event that is necessary to transform the worshiping community from an applauding people to a people who enthusiastically sing “Amen!” and believe what they sing. 
Donna M. Cole 
Little Falls, N.J.

While our assembly applauds our ensemble quite warmly, they also applaud everyone else —the not-so-contemporary choir, the teen choir, the children’s choir, the cantors, even the “pianist who also sings because there were no cantors available.” Sometimes it’s quite perfunctory, even tepid. But it’s always there. People applaud simply because they really liked the music, especially when they participated well themselves. And I agree that it becomes socially conditioned after a while. Music at Mass is partly a performance. When we’re in the pews, we don’t, and shouldn’t, participate only by singing loudly. The choir does have a role that is different from that of the congregation (although closely related, to be sure). 
Jim Pauwels

Although some may argue that in our culture applause is reserved for performances, this premise is itself mistaken. Applause is about the only aspect of “celebration” we may have successfully surfaced in a church whose roots are in formal worship, where silence was the norm, and where people are fearful of expressing themselves in gesture, speech or song. We have been anxious to get people to understand liturgy as something that belongs to them, as an expression of life, and as a celebration. Yet, some of us can’t resist the temptation to regulate the celebration, to prescribe the spontaneity. If you can’t resist controlling the assembly, you will without a doubt squelch what little spontaneity you have. If you want them to sing and participate fully, encourage them to express themselves like they would at any other real celebration. If it is a cultural norm to give applause and it is not against the Gospel values, then it is a good thing. 
Martin Teulan

There are so many ways we participate within the Mass. Do not simplify this discussion to saying that applause is one of the few. Overall, because there is so much education that needs to be done for our communities to understand, completely, what full, active, and conscious participation (and I would add as well fruitful participation), that applause may well be a hindrance for now, too directly connected with our entertainment culture. Applause as a way of showing appreciation or thanks provides, at this time, an incorrect model for communal participation within our Mass. 
Theresa Schlepper

Participation is more likely when people perceive the activity as fun and something they can do well, something they can be enthused about. That doesn’t make it entertainment; it only shows that good worshiph as elements in common with entertainment. And if we manage to get people enthused about participating in liturgy, why are we scandalized if that enthusiasm spills over into applause? We’d be better off asking why it doesn’t happen all the time. If applause only occurs when certain musicians minister, we should scrutinize the quality of the rest of what’s going on. We’d be much better off preparing our ministers to perform their roles in a compelling manner — and holding them accountable for doing so —than worrying and fussing about controlling people’s reactions. 
David Nason

Applause during Mass is undesirable. I have noticed, especially within the last few years, the transformation of the Mass into a show, or performance. The reforms of Vatican II were supposed to encourage participation and make the Mass seem less like a concert or performance. However, the increased use of ultra modern music during the liturgy has given the congregation the idea that Mass is a secular concert. The whole reason for more traditional organ or choral music, pews and imposing architecture is to give the faithful a sense of the sacred when they are in a church. Most new churches, with carpeting, low ceilings, cushioned individual chairs and plain wooden altars, make the church seem like an auditorium or high school concert hall. A different decorum must exist at Mass. 
Mark A. 
(no e-mail address given)

While it is a nice sentiment to show appreciation for a job well done, applause in our culture is reserved for performances. The Mass is not a performance and applause at the end makes it seem like one. The suggested comment for the church bulletin is very well written and unlikely to offend anyone while still getting its point across. It would still be nice if the comment said something about the Mass not being a performance. 

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