Applause In Church Is Not Always A Bad Thing

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_Emotions 02 (Photo credit: SeRGioSVoX)

If there is one thing you can get both sides to agree on in the liturgy wars, it is that applause in church is a bad thing. I heard the argument made once that any time there is applause in church, it is a sign that the liturgy has been derailed. Applause is for performances; the liturgy is not a performance; ergo, applause = bad.

In general I think that’s reasonable, but it’s not 100%.

There are many reasons why people applaud, and most of them have nothing to do with praise for a performance. Applause is a sign of support, of solidarity, of affirmation, of appreciation. We applaud when kids receive their first Communion, when families celebrate a baptism, when a priest announces he is being reassigned (and not because we’re glad to see him go!). One on one, there are many other ways to express these sentiments, but as a community, applause speaks love and fellowship most simply and effectively.

But even if we focus on applause that is a response to the music, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as it seems. Applause speaks of emotion, and music evokes an emotional response. A few weeks ago, we finished Mass with “Amazing Grace.” The congregation sang its heart out, and afterward, they applauded. If you asked why, most people probably would say something that invokes a good performance, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. What they’re responding to is the fact that something touched their hearts and evoked an emotional response.

The prevalence of emotional manipulation in a lot of modern religious rhetoric tends to make Catholics suspicious of emotional response to religion. We often see Catholicism as strong because it isn’t emotionally manipulative; it doesn’t rely on gimmicks and flashy trends to reach people. Instead, it rests on a fathomless tradition of study, prayer, and big-T Tradition. This is true, but none of that negates emotion. Emotion is part of who we are as human beings, and if we try to pretend that it has no place in our worship, we’re not being true to how were created.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton talks a lot about transparency and its close relationship to humility. A truly humble person, like Mary, is like a pristinely clear window offering a view of God. The view you see through that window is what receives the praise, not the window itself, which is nothing more than a conduit for the view.

Most of us, including me, are not pristine windows. Our pride and vanity smudge the glass, and all that praise catches on the surface instead of passing through to its proper destination. So we’re always going to have to wrestle with this issue. But I think our preoccupation with the topic reveals more about our own sins than it does about reality.

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12 thoughts on “Applause In Church Is Not Always A Bad Thing

  1. I find it uncomfortable at best and ridiculous at worst, if it’s a matter of our not being able to break out of secular shoulds even at Mass. I don’t applaud. We had one priest who reminded us the music is for processing out, and thus, not to applaud after Mass. When he would thank the choir and servers, etc., is when we were allowed to express the communal “thank you.”

  2. dottie

    When I applaud the choir, I am thanking God for these people and for the talents they have which I know came from Him. Ergo, I am applauding God. I think He’s applauding too.

  3. Great article. It is something I struggle with too. I like what you said about the pristine window. How true. I agree – we do not need to be so preoccupied with this issue.
    When I applaud the choir, I am thankful that they are using God’s gifts.
    We also applaud when there are baptisms at Mass. We signify our joy and welcome with our applause.
    While I believe in reverence at all times, I think we need to have more joy at Mass. Joy is not irreverent. We need not look like we have been baptized in pickle juice! (Pope Francis made a similar comment and I love it).
    🙂

    • Yes, exactly! I think we’re so concerned about showing proper reverence that we ignore the “fully human” part of Christ’s nature. He laughed and loved and wept, too, and sometimes I think we try to sterilize all that and make faith a cerebral, distant thing, because it’s less threatening.

  4. I don’t know which side of the liturgy wars I am on because I don’t have a problem with applause at Mass. I think it is ridiculous to applaud the choir ever week, but on special occasions when they have obviously done a lot of extra work and it shows, I don’t think it is inappropriate for the priest to call for a round of applause for them. Our parish gives a polite applause welcome to newcomers and guests before mass weekly. I think sometimes the liturgy folks who fight about whether the Mass is primarily a meal or primarily a sacrifice forget that the Mass is also (not mainly, but also) a community gathering. There is a reason the non-homebound person cannot meet his/her mass obligation by watching it on TV; we need to gather and when we gather it is natural to interact, and that interaction can mean expressing group approval. In our culture that is done with applause.

  5. How about a simple, “I really enjoyed the singing” when you see the choir members or the director. You know who they are. Singing is praying and we don’t applaud when someone voices an especially poignant or moving prayer or petition.

    • Sometimes you know who they are. In a church that seats close to a thousand, if you’re one of the people who comes in late because the kids are dragging their heels every week, and you end up sitting in the cry room or on the opposite side of the church, you might not know who they are. I guess I would ask what’s the difference between praising someone’s “performance” by applause or by “I enjoyed the singing”?

  6. The difference is, it really isn’t entertainment, and thus we really shouldn’t be applauding. The choir’s music is called a “ministry.” They offered, etc. It is appreciated (at least most of it), but let the priest call for our audible thank you.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I always feel uncomfortable with applause for exactly that reason: it isn’t entertainment. But I think the point stands–that people aren’t necessarily applauding for a good performance, but as an emotional response to something that touched them. I’m just not sure we should get so worked up over it.

      • True! There are a number of things we shouldn’t get so worked up over, considering this is the extension of His greatest sacrifice. This is one time when the celebrant, even via a bulletin blurb can help us out before the fact, or at the beginning of Mass when asking everyone to shut off or mute their communication devices. I think back to my High Mass organist for so many years — she never received thanks from anyone (to our knowledge), and yet, didn’t crumple, lol..

  7. When someone (e.g. the priest) says something extra ordinary, or the choir sings very well a particularly moving selection, I think it is only fitting to let them know. We are human, of course. And it is sometimes nice to know others appreciate us and what we have done. I’d even like to hear an “amen” once in a while from the congregation.

  8. I’ve been to one or two masses where the priest came out strong on a current event during a homily that was obviously inspired by the Holy Spirit and the congregation applauded. I think applause is a communal way of showing appreciation for being uplifted. It isn’t always accolades for a “performance”. I realize this more and more when Mariana does something we’ve worked on for months and I find myself applauding God for that moment that might be fleeting and forgotten in a matter of seconds. Joy expressed is never inappropriate.

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