QUAERITUR: applause in church for music

From a reader:

I have complained on your blog and to this forum in
the past about their practice of vigorously applauding the choir after the communion “meditation”/song. Sometimes this song is even secular opera piece. After the applause, the choir just blinks back (they are stationed behind the priest and altar, next to organ and a piano). I am waiting for the day when they take a bow/curtsy! In researching this issue of concern to me I noticed on the parish website the results of a “parish survey” in which the question of their “custom” of applauding the choir was put to parishioners. The majority apparently voted in favor of continuing this custom at Mass which is not termed Mass but rather instead a “ceremony”. This survey was conducted in 2008. Is there precedent for doing liturgy according to results of surveys?

This is what Joseph Card. Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI said about applause in church:

“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liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. ” (Spirit of the Liturgy p. 198)

It is foolish to make decisions about liturgical worship based on surveys.

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  1. catholicmidwest says:

    I don’t applaud, but then I NEVER really hear anything worth applauding.

  2. Charles E Flynn says:

    Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger referred specifically to applause breaking out during the liturgy. If the music merits it, the priest could praise the choir in a remark after the mass is concluded, and at that point applause would not be detracting from the liturgy.

    I would prefer that there be no applause in church, because every once in a while, some apparent opera buff decides that the choir should receive a standing ovation, leaving the rest of us wondering whether rise or remain seated. The Latin masses I attended as a child never presented the parishioners with such dilemmas during or immediately after the mass.

  3. Archicantor says:

    Sometimes, it’s not whether the congregation applauds or not that’s the issue. I have very often sat in a service where the congregation knows not to applaud in church, but where there is painful awkwardness after a choral “performance piece” that cries out for an audible “audience response”. Church music directors (and those responsible for the physical positioning of choirs) have to think carefully about how to prevent those moments. It doesn’t mean being content with humdrum music; it’s all a question of setting and liturgical flow. (For instance, you will never hear anyone applaud in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, where to call the singing “impressive” would be an understatement. The liturgical space, the flow of the service and the music chosen simply don’t invite that kind of reaction; “awe” and “reflection” are more the thing. Bring on the Anglican Patrimony!)

  4. Rachel Pineda says:

    “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. ” (Spirit of the Liturgy p. 198)

    I love our Holy Father.

    It is a sad spectacle, really. This happened at a local parish last weekend just after the last hymn was sung. Mass was over and a few people were just starting to pray, and I admit it’s a bit disheartening to witness. It is a small consolation that they were moved at least to be joyful in that moment, but it does reflect poor catechesis. It’s also disheartening to see and hear the loud collective thump+ bang+ schwoop when 99. % of the parish sits back up in there seats from kneeling right after the consecration…all at the. same. time. It’s very noisy and distrtacting when your elbows get knocked off the back of the pew while praying. Benedict is right, no surprise there. It’s difficult to bring things like this up to parish priests though becaue the usual response is that they are just happy the people showed up to Mass or that they don’t want to offend people who are obviously poorly educated about these sort of things. Same with modesty and a whole lot of other problems. I suppose though that it’s a great time to smack someone upside the head with good old fashioned fraternal charity the next time they bring their mochas and churros into Mass. Isn’t that a spiritual work of mercy in some way? If so I’ll get right on that.

    I wish priests would remember that just because we have been graced with the knowledge to “know better” does not mean that the other people who don’t are too stupid or fragile for that matter to be able to handle some good catechesis proper ways to worship.

  5. Father S. says:

    The sad part about the survey is that it, while it may ostensibly be used to promote some parish unity, it actually promotes disunity. It does so by pitting the desires of the parish against the desires of the Church. It is a conspicuous rejection of universality in favor of an ultimately vapid parochialism. When we liturgically cut a parish off of the vine (i.e., off of the High Priest) by choosing individual expression, we fail to be fully Catholic and fully alive.

  6. Supertradmum says:

    Popes are world leaders, as well as leaders of the Universal Church. All popes must be willing and able to address the entire, global community. Sometimes, we all forget in our parochial views that the Church ministers to all people, as well as to the Faithful.

  7. RichR says:

    When we set up our schola cantorum 6 years ago, I typed up a list of Liturgical Guidelines we’d try to stick to, and I was sure to put in this Ratzinger quote. While it generally comes from a good heart, applause is completely at odds with what “liturgy” is – be it Vespers, Benediction, or the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    Honestly, we do get a lot of applause on our sparse appearances because the people are starving for traditional music like Gregorian chant and polyphony. When this occurs, we try not to acknowledge it and just go with the flow. If people come up afterwards to say “thank you”, we kindly direct them to share their encouragement with the Pastor. This approach has helped us not be performers, and it also provides plenty of positive feedback to the priests.

  8. benedetta says:

    I have been privileged to have been able to attend Mass in many places in the world ranging from glorious cathedrals to monasteries, from sung Masses in parish churches to simple liturgies in religious communities, many of which had beautiful, deeply moving, reverent music, from Mass composition to modern hymns to Gregorian chant…in places with sublime music, applauding the choir during Mass just isn’t done, it is in poor taste and just plain tacky, let alone the implication about self-worship…In most places, one can join in the hymns and chants with the exception of perhaps a motet exclusively sung by the choir or chant from a cantor. Most of the finer choirs take their roles to be a spiritual vocation and do not generally wish in the least to compete with the Living God to be praised during the time of worship. Rather, they see their role as facilitating prayer.

    After the Mass, there could be a call by the celebrant to recognize a choir. But it is really weird to receive communion and then have a round of clapping for a human achievement…it tends to draw a good deal of attention away from the source and summit of Catholic life and a sense of prayerfulness and awe is generally out the window at that point. I guess it turns us into the ever present consumer-critic, this applause thing. Why not also clap (or not, depending…) after the homily…after the gifts are brought to the altar…and hey let’s hear it for our fabulous congregation, just for showing up today!

  9. St. Louis IX says:

    If I belonged to a parish that was so far off the track to even consider applauding the choir, as if it was their just do. I would be looking for a new Catholic Parish to receive the Sacraments at.
    I have had to attend 1st communions at Parishes that placed the choir up in the sanctuary next to the table( Altar) .They looked to me as if they were the reason for the season….Strange days indeed!

  10. Jason Keener says:

    Applauding during the Sacred Liturgy is another unfortunate practice of the world that has crept into the Mass. Can anyone imagine Catholics at this Mass in 1941 breaking out into applause during or after the Mass? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6AOvStZS64 Why do Catholics somehow feel it is appropriate to applaud at the Liturgy now? I have a feeling that Catholics view applauding as being ok because they see the Liturgy more as an hour of religious entertainment where they come to hear some nice music, share some fellowship, and “get” the Eucharist. Unfortunately, today there is little emphasis put on what the Mass really is— the unbloody re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. The Holy of Holies just does not seem like a place where one should be clapping.

  11. Andy Milam says:

    As Fr. Altier used to say….

    “Applause is not appropriate for the solemnity of the action being promoted within the Mass. Let us pray a Hail Mary instead.”

    Nobody scoffed or clapped. I’m just sayin’.

  12. jarthurcrank says:

    I attend a mostly black congregation where the congregation regularly applauds the choir. Given the fact that the “black church” outside the Catholic Church often vigorously applauds the choir and throughout the service, I consider it a legitimate form of “inculturation” of the liturgy through which I grit my teeth, but tolerate. In Irish/Italian/German suburban parishes, however, it is almost always a liturgical abomination.

    I would be interested to hear what Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington has to say on the subject, since he has one foot in the old Latin Mass camp, and another foot in the black gospel style of liturgy in some of the parishes he has served over the years.

  13. capebretoner says:

    This happens at our parish on occassion and it’s really annoying. And yes, one of the choirs (the guitar choir) is right up there by the altar (slightly off to the side and back a bit) during Mass which is also annoying. But the options in this area are limited so the best thing anyone can do who knows better is try to set an example and ignore the applause (many times lead by the priest) and continue to pray that positive change will someday come.

  14. KAS says:

    I really find the choir set up concert style behind the altar to be very distracting and irreverent.

    Mass isn’t a performance event, it isn’t a concert, and when the choir is front and center between the altar and the crucifix it just isn’t right.

    If the choir lacks the humility to do their job without being front and center then they can just quit.

  15. St. Louis IX says:

    I am blessed to have an active an well attended TLM at our parish. The Church is a converted gymnasium in the middle of a school (just the way it is) . The Choir takes their spot in the Pews to the far left front of the Church.(not in the sanctuary) They are wonderful and provide a blessed compliment to the Mass.
    I know many of us that are transplants to the Church, (we travel to attend)were taken a-back by the (modern looking inviorment(remember converted gym) but with that said…There is such humility and such a Christ centered Mass, that not only the Choir but also the building is all but invisable…Deo Gratias

    I think we all pray for the day when the Christ Centered Mass and the Holy Edifices built around that Sacrifice come together in harmony again.

  16. Mike says:

    My 14 year old son said it well: “Applauding after Mass is over for the music is like applauding after the Our Father–‘hey, good prayer, man'”.

    Neither works.

  17. catholicmidwest says:

    In most Catholic parishes the choir ought to wear masks so we can’t tell who they are they’re so bad. They also ought to wear good running shoes in case we finally rise up and inflict well-deserved justice on them. Most Catholic parish music is abominable.

  18. Dr. Sebastianna says:

    As a conservatory trained musician who plays organ and sings for Mass and has done so since the age of 14, I am truly upset when people applaud. I admit that I was not upset about it when it happened earlier in my life, but as I became aware of what the Mass truly IS, I was rather horrified that I would cause any attention to be diverted from the Sacrifice of the Mass and Jesus Christ truly present on the altar. I serve as a musician for a shore (Catholic) parish with many tourists who tend to applaud on the Fourth of July. Because of the applause, I had to try hard not to sing or play in a way that would provoke applause. In other words, I had to “dumb down” the music…. Then, I got a heartfelt complaint last year from a tourist, “People never applaud any longer. Sing something like God Bless America, and they’ll clap!” I am very glad that people no longer applaud me (and I am actually hidden in the choir loft), and I don’t want to sing/play anything that could be construed as inappropriate, but it is a shame that I often feel that I have to avoid singing TOO well… to avoid applause. It would be much easier if I could count on people not to clap…

  19. St. Louis IX says:

    Wheres George Orwell when you need him.
    Take a Catholic from the 1940s put him in current day. He would walk through a Church where Kneeling to recieve would be held as disobedient,The sanctuary would be unrecognizable, He would have to restrain singing abilities so as not to distract from the Mass, The Churches would look more like a pizza hut than a church, organs replaced by electric guitars, Catholics persecuted for promoting church teachings and defending dogmas. Nuns dressed as lay people lay people acting as religious etc etc …..My head is spinning just thinking about it.
    IT`S a MAD MAD MAD world.

  20. rakesvines says:

    Shepherds lead the flock not vice-versa. So, what’s with the polling?

    You only poll when you need buy in and when you know what the results will be e.g. on a sweltering summer day, you can poll whether the congregation wants to spend money on air-conditioning.

    Finally, it’s a worship service not a musical concert. The focus must be on God not the choir. So, no clapping – IMHO.

  21. bmadamsberry says:

    I would like to point out that the Holy Father did NOT say that applause was wrong. Rather it is wrong when it is “because of some human achievement”. Applause in and of itself is not wrong, it is only wrong when people are applauding people for human acievements. So, it is NOT NECESSARILY the case that applause after a song is wrong, if the applause is directed towards the same person that the song is directed towards… G-d.
    Some might raise the question of how often people would be applauding G-d instead of G-d in practice, which is a little beside the point that I raised. After all, if I start to applaud, are you to judge whether I am applauding G-d or man?

  22. K. Marie says:

    If I heard something worth applause I would thank the choir members after Mass for adding to the beauty of the Liturgy. Note the bit where I say AFTER Mass, not midway through, not while the priest is processing out. AFTER, when they are completely out of the church right before everyone makes a bee-line for their cars. Granted, it’s so rare that I get to hear something worth that sort of effort.

  23. cmm says:

    In my parish we applaud the bewly baptized baby after each baptism. I think it’s a way of welcoming him or her, of expressing joy, not so different from singing “Alleluia” (which we also do at that time). They didn’t do it in any parish I previously attended, but it doesn’t seem so bad too me. There is a break in the liturgy anyway between the baptism and the continuation of the Mass, at the time when the parents, godparents and child go back to their pews.

  24. cmm says:

    Oops, I misread the title of the post. Applauding for music rarely happens in my parish, and when it does it’s during the announcements at the end of Mass, a couple of times a year, when the priest thanks the choir for their ministry.

  25. kat says:

    For those of us who sing in the choir, we are not, or should not be, seeking applause. We are singing for GOD’S honor and glory, and the edification of the priest and faithful. We are not singing for our own.
    Choirs should not seek or desire applause.

    Curiously, my husband and I used to be members of a community choir. Last year we had a special concert with awesome hymns and songs, secular and religious, in a memorial held for our director who had died. We had the remembrance concert in an episcopal church. The deceased’s daughter WANTED this to be a celebration, not a sad thing. We sang wonderfully, and were supposed to receive an ovation. But the people in that non-catholic church (it was not during any kind of religious service) did NOT clap!

    So, they seem to have more respect for their church without the Bl. Sacrament than Catholics have with It!

  26. Julia says:

    I sing in a parish with many military parishioners. We are near an Air Force Base with many service people deployed and their children in our school. Each year at Memorial Day and the Sunday nearest 4th of July, we sing an appropriate patriotic song that includes something about God. The director always waits until well after everyone has gone to Communion, the species have been replaced in the tabernacle and the priest is seated. Whether it’s God bless America or Battle Hymn of the Republic or Sebelius’ Finlandia, there is always applause. But I think it’s because the people are moved, caught up in the moment and appreciative that we are recognizing them and thinking of their loved ones out in the field.

    We are the best choir in the diocese, but we don’t get applause other than for the music pieces mentioned. That’s as it should be.

  27. stuart says:

    One of the things that really gets under my skin is the placement of the choir front and center when there is a choir loft. Often, this means taking out pews. Here in New Orleans, where there are so many beautiful Catholic churches it seems that there is, as Ignatius Reilly would say, a lack of theology and geometry. One parish has the choir performing up on the side altar dedicated to St. Joseph. One the left side are a couple of guitarists, the right side a flutist and a cellist. The organ and a piano are placed where pews used to be. At another parish, the choir centers around a grand piano again on the right side of the church where several rows of pews used to be. Does the choir dress appropriately? No. Does the choir sing in a style that can only be compared to pop music? Yes. Luckily, the parish I have chosen really takes the liturgy seriously. And when the music comes from a the choir loft, it adds to the experience. The music, which is thankfully traditional, feels like it is coming from on high. Yet, it breaks my heart to see otherwise beautiful churches essentially scarred by the placement of choirs. And it begs the question, why must we rip out pews to put the choir front and center? While music has a great role to play in the liturgy, it should not be the focus and when it detracts and distracts it serves to erode the theology and geometry of the liturgy.

  28. Central Valley says:

    “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. ” (Spirit of the Liturgy p. 198)………..Many years before the Holy Fathers book, clapping was never heard at the San Clemente Mission in Bakersfield, CA under the direction of Msgr. Belluomini. Monsignor always said exactly what the Holy Father is saying, the focus is on the Mass and the action on the altar. The focus should never be on any human being on the altar or in a choir loft. Sadly today the clapping is usually started by the parish priest. In so many places the Mass is not longer the Holy Sacrifice it is just a community meeting where everyone hugs and holds hands, the sacred is banned. If only our priests and bishops would follow the lead of the Holy Father.

  29. benedetta says:

    @ bmadamsberry:

    I do believe that we are encouraged to discern whether certain “innovations” are from the Spirit or not…didn’t St. Paul say, “test everything”? So yes I think it is an excellent question to ask, whether this is in response to God or to human achievement and in this case apparently the parish itself acknowledged that it is a custom to applaud “the choir”. There does not seem to be any indication that this is a custom born out of a sincere wish to further praise God, as some even argue when it comes to such things as liturgical dance, speaking in tongues, and puppetry during liturgical worship of the Mass. It seems that this subject is the entire point of Fr. Z’s blog, namely, that as a universal matter for the one, holy, apostolic Catholic church, the faithful should be able to expect a consistency no matter what part of the world they are in when it comes to the rubrics. When certain congregations add or subtract to this by vote or custom then to what degree are we choosing to separate from what is already settled by the Church to be what sacramental worship is all about? Since a Catholic visiting the parish might not be clued in to the custom, how would he or she be expected to presume that the congregation merely prefers to applaud God as a special local embellishment to their Mass? When it comes to innovation during sacramental worship I would agree that we ought to “test everything” as St. Paul advised.

  30. Paul says:

    In my parish, the priests often solicit applause for the choir and then wait until the congregation responds. One in particular will, at the end of Mass, bring out the servers for a “curtain call”. Sadly, this is one of the most “conservative” parishes in the area, relative to others nearby.

  31. Thom says:

    Is it any wonder there’s a tendency to applaud when the choir is down behind the altar facing the people in the pews, as if it were a concert? One of the many virtues of the old custom of elevating the choir above and behind the pews is that it tends to discourage such behaviour.

  32. catholicmidwest says:

    Anymore, I prefer the masses with little music, the less the better. I’m so tired of it all. And it’s all so bad.

  33. AnAmericanMother says:

    Our choir is in the choir loft. I think it does remove some of the element of “performance” from the music. Although there was no element of “performance” in our former Episcopal church which in the traditional Anglican manner has a chancel choir. That doesn’t seem to cause as much of a problem as a “praise choir” down front, though, because the choir is facing sideways, not towards the congregation.

    The only time we hear applause is after the priest calls attention to the choir in the announcements after Mass, and he does that only when there has been something out of the ordinary (as when we sang the Faure’ Requiem for the All Souls Mass). Ordinarily nothing and nobody gets applauded, certainly not DURING the Mass, and that is as it should be.

    I sometimes think that the amount of applause is inversely proportional to the quality of the music. At least that’s my limited experience when I’m visiting around other parishes.

    Which reminds me, we were in Richmond VA for T’giving weekend, visiting my mother in law, and I wish to revise my earlier remarks about the horrid state of things in that diocese. Parish round the corner from my m-i-law’s house — the architecture is still weird (no kneelers, church in the round, no visible Tabernacle), the hymns were still execrable (OCP delenda est), but the prelude and postlude (piano, unfortunately there is no organ) were excellent, the young priest was reverent, said the black, did the red, and preached an outstanding, eloquent, straight-up orthodox homily. And nobody pitched a fit (or even raised an eyebrow) at our kneeling after the Sanctus or receiving on the tongue.

  34. Ed the Roman says:

    Applause means that the congregation has become an audience, and is attending to the art rather than to its subject.

    Some pieces promote this inherently, and hence should not be used. Some musicians promote it either inadvertently or not.

    Sometimes it’s the congregation though, and the only way for the musicians to preclude applause would be to do nothing that moved the congregation at all. That’s where the pastor would have to step in.

  35. Tina in Ashburn says:

    I’ve sung in choirs for over 20 years in this diocese. Our diocese is blessed with many competent choirs. When the music is applauded, even after Mass is over and the priest is gone, my gut wrenches. These are people who miss the point of liturgical music. True, clapping springs from good intentions, but poor instruction. Typically, those that applaud are also those who do not observe silence in church before and after Mass either. The lack of reverence for and awareness of the Blessed Sacrament seems to be related.

    The music is not a performance. Not for Man but for God.

    Its all a symptom of years of misunderstanding about the Mass and the reason for music.

    To express appreciation, approach the director afterwords and tell the priest too!

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