Applause, Applause!

In the Innsbruck Jesuit Church music plays a major role in the liturgy, at least in the main services on Sunday mornings. Organists play the most ambitious pieces during the entrance procession or as recessionals postludes or during the offertory. Semi-professional choirs sing Renaissance ordinaries. A schola sings Gregorian Mass Propers. Chanters sing antiphonal psalms and anthems together with the assembly. Every Sunday has its own character, the music is announced on semiannual flyers and individual posters. The Catholic Church proves to be an agent of a rich and ambitious cultural history, providing many different styles of music, different options of role allocations for musicians, singers, and actively participating assemblies.

Over the years it has become deeply customary that the assembly applauds an the end of the Mass, and honestly: I dislike that (to say the least). Liturgy is not the place for human skills for their own sake. Every liturgical role should be transparent to what it represents. A lector is to be transparent to the Word of the Scripture. A presider is to be transparent to Christ and to the unity of the church. A musician is to be transparent to the music etc. The people’s applause insinuates that they regard the person more than the message or the liturgical role.

Of course there are certain exceptions: When a schoolchildren’s orchestra plays, I applaud in order to encourage the kids, honor their developing skills, and let them feel welcome in the church. I also applaud when the esteemed long-term organist has finished his final postlude after decades of service. I know that people usually clap their hands during a pope’s homily, and maybe there are regions in the world where applause has a different meaning than here. But apart from those cases: No applause in the liturgy please.

Now here comes the second part of my story: In October 2020 I was asked to serve as chanter in the ordination liturgy of two Austrian Jesuit priests. It was the time when the pandemic restrictions got more severe for the second time. The entire preparation was very complicated, we had to change our plans every few days according to public and church orders. Everyone had to wear face coverings, the number of participants was limited, physical distance had to be kept during the entire service. Everything was complex, everything required much concentration, many things were different than usual, and it was physically exhausting.

Cardinal Schoenborn from Vienna came to Innsbruck to ordain the Jesuits. Then came the moment when the ordination itself was over, right before the liturgy turns to the offertory. The cardinal gave the sign of peace to the newly ordained (just verbally, anything else was prohibited), and then he moved his hands apart and—applauded. People immediately started to smile (although we could only see each other’s eyes), clapped their hands, and you could even hear laughter and cheers. This was the most friendly and happy moment of the entire liturgy. It was cathartic and liberating.

Since the entire liturgy was live-streamed, you can see the crucial moment in this video after 1 hour, 19 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZqIzB6cYas. Unfortunately the director switched to another camera in the moment when the cardinal started to clap his hands. I do not believe that you can feel the same when you watch the video that I felt in that very moment, but maybe you can sense the catharsis of the situation. (Please do not forget that the smiles in the people’s faces are the deepest expression of enthusiasm that Northern Europeans are capable of!)

After this experience I will not change my opinion on liturgical applause in general. But certain questions raised in my mind. I teach my students that every Amen is an expression of approval, every Deo gratias an expression of gratitude, every Creed an expression of faith, every Hallelujah an expression of rejoicing etc. But all these elements are somehow artificial and formalistic, at least to the very most of us. What happened in this moment was more than just courtesy, it was honest and deeply authentic, and it was spontaneous. That is why it could never have been prescribed in a liturgical book. Does it make it less liturgical? I do not think so. I think that Cardinal Schoenborn did exactly the right thing to provide a deeper liturgical experience for all of us. Or at least for me.

5 comments

  1. Quite a number of years ago, I wrote a column on this very topic with this exact same title. (And mostly reached the same conclusions.) In it, I quoted the song “Applause” from the musical of the same name:

    You’ve had a taste of
    The sound that says “love”
    Applause!

    As a musician, I get a small, uncomfortable little twist in my stomach when there’s applause for the music/musicians at the end of Mass, as though it were the end of a “show.” Why don’t the other ministers, when they offer their gifts in the liturgy, receive applause?

    I realize their are some cultures in which applause is a regular feature throughout a worship service, and when there is this sort of congruity, I think it’s fine. I had the good fortune to attend a Palm Sunday Mass with a largely African-American congregation, and the lector received, at the conclusion of the Philippians reading “JESUS – CHRIST – IS – – L*O*R*D!!!” a lot of well-deserved acclamations of “Amen!” and applause as well. I joined in, truly swept up in the moment. This is, to my way of thinking, different than the audience/performer dynamic that applause ONLY for the musicians and only after the Mass is concluded generates.

    To be honest, I’d also quibble with applauding children/youth music ministry as a way to “encourage” them. Yes, let’s them encourage them in ministry, but keep asking ourselves HOW they are being encouraged, and formed to what end? If they keep coming back to music ministry because they’ve had a taste of the sound that says love, then I think we’ve failed them.

    1. Hi Alan,
      I think you know this, but might have been less than careful with your word choice here.
      In African American churches, if you ask Black members (not visitors), the applause is never for the Lector or the Choir or the Preacher, it’s praise to God.
      In your Philippians example, it seems to me that the assembly is praising God for humbling himself and taking the nature of a SLAVE. Note that powerful word and how it lands on the Black listener.

    2. Applause presents a particular issue to younger liturgical musicians, especially if they have prior experience in other performing arts. Good mentoring can help a student to discriminate between applause after a concert, play, etc. and applause at liturgy. However, this becomes more difficult in situations where a parent doesn’t differentiate the context and may actively encourage an inappropriate response.

      How to physically respond to applause in the context of Mass is equally confusing and potentially embarrassing, as Alan mentioned. I have seen some ignore it, unsure what to do; alternately, I have seen some bow / wave / etc. in response, unsure what *else* to do. And I’ve seen some adults do variations on the same, equally perplexed about what constitutes an appropriate response. Nobody wants to be disrespectful to those who are appreciative, but conveying a simple acknowledgement without encouraging the behavior is a tricky thing. While the priest might be able to help in this regard, not all priests share the same view on this topic, so it often leaves musicians to resolve this awkward situation individually.

  2. I have worked extensively with children and children’s choirs in liturgical and non-liturgical settings. I have ministered in churches where there is an age old custom/habit of applauding for the musicians at the end of the liturgy (always a mass, never anything other than a mass).
    I speak directly to the children about the clapping during rehearsals. I ask them who they think the applause is for and then I ask who they think should be getting the applause. The second question always stumps them. That leads to a very productive conversation about what we do and why we do it. That leads to growth.
    I myself have always struggled with applause at the end of mass. It embarrasses me. I literally cringe at the sound. But then I force myself to lift my head and smile at the assembly. Then I quickly turn away. My favorite moments are when I have been blessed to be part of offering something very beautiful or deeply moving and there is dead silence from the assembly because they are still drinking it in and it has moved them to pray internally.
    For me, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.