We’ve all been to a Mass where the celebrant, just before the faithful stand to receive the final blessing, takes the time to thank those who have contributed to the liturgical celebration.
The celebrant may applaud the organist, choir or altar servers. If it’s Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Veteran’s Day, the celebrant may ask these members to stand and ask the congregation to applaud.
My children love it when this happens! “What?! We get to make noise in church?!” My son in particular goes overboard in his exuberance.
But is this sound liturgical practice? (pun intended). First, let me be clear that the intention of the celebrant IS pastorally sound. To make everyone feel welcomed and appreciated—including the ministers—is commendable and should be one of the goals of all pastors! However, should it take place during Mass?
Some say, “why not?” Don’t the Psalms demand:
“All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with joyful cries.”—Psalm 41:7
Here’s where a distinction must be made between “clapping” and “applauding.”
I believe it is proper (if it is the custom of the assembly) to clap during the Entrance/Recessional chant—a common occurrence in Hispanic parishes or at Charismatic Masses. In the scriptural passage above, the clapping is directed to God. This type of clapping is an expression of worship and the hands are simply being used as percussion instruments.
“In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem…But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship…only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.”—Sacrosanctum Concilium 120
The intended purpose of clapping at this time is praising God, and I believe it to be in line with Sacrosanctum Concilium.
But does this provision include applauding the soloist who knocked the Ave Maria out of the park, the celebrant who gave a rousing homily or all the ministers who rehearsed tirelessly? I don’t think so.
Mass is worship offered up to God. It is praise from us creatures to our Creator. Some describe it as a vertical movement—from us on earth towards heaven. The Mass is not entertainment for the assembly. When we applaud the soloist, choir or acolytes, the vertical movement is replaced with a horizontal one. The wrong axis is emphasized—applause focuses attention on us rather than God.
Applauding is an expression of approval
Applauding is a way of positively critiquing a performance. According to Wikipedia, clapping indicates “the average relative opinion of the entire group; the louder and longer the noise, the stronger the sign of approval.”
So what if the applause degraded into something else? What if it turned into cheering which then begets whistling and calling out. Wouldn’t these be called for if the assembly approved vehemently?
What if the opposite were true? What if the assembly disapproved of the celebrant’s homily or of the soloists singing? Could they boo? Hiss? How about heckling?
As we have said, the Mass is not a show and the ministers are not performers to be critiqued (favorably or unfavorably) by the assembly. This is not to say that we do not appreciate the choir, soloist, acolytes, lectors, celebrant, etc. We most definitely do. The question is if the Mass is the right time to express that gratitude. I say no as do two Popes:
“It is not fitting to applaud the servant in the house of his Master.”—Pope St. Pius X
“Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.”—Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI
But still, some maintain that applause is simply a spontaneous gesture like laughter. If the priest were to begin his homily with an anecdote or joke, are we forbidden to chuckle? Isn’t that too a sign of earthy approval? For these people, applause is simply a way of building community, a way of nurturing fellowship, a way of being warm and inviting.
When I spoke with my mom about this week’s topic, she said “son, don’t you have something more important to talk about?” Do you agree? Is this topic too legalistic? Is this a trivial technicality—liturgical hair-splitting or is it something more? Is this the tip of a huge, slippery iceberg? If you disagree with applause at Mass, should we fight tooth and nail, write letters or just suck it up?
Should the Church specifically address clapping at Mass in her liturgical documents or should it be left to the celebrant? What do you think? What does your parish do? Share and let’s learn together.