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.