On applause in the liturgy

At a recent weekday Mass in the crypt chapel of the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, the Palestrina Choir of Dublin, Ireland graced the liturgy with an added air of the sacred, marvelously executing certain pieces from Palestrina’s repertoire throughout the Mass. Here was manifest the fullness and richness of sound which only a well-trained all-male choir can deliver. Now, while their rendition of Palestrina’s famous Sicut cervus left a bit to be desired in my opinion (a tad too slow, and accordingly, during certain sustained notes, one could audibly notice the breathing pauses of the young altos and sopranos), the Palestrina Choir nevertheless sets a high bar for those who dare accept the daunting task of executing worthy Sacred Music for the Sacred Liturgy.

A choir (much less a distinguished visiting choir) for a weekday Mass at the Basilica Shrine is a rare occasion; a single cantor from the Basilica’s choir or from Catholic University’s Rome School of Music normally leads the sung parts. On this occasion, the presence of the Palestrina Choir also came the presence of many family members accompanying the singers on this tour. And while any parent should be proud to see his or her son in such talented company, I doubt whether such happy parents, and indeed all others present at such a Mass, see the work of such a choir as firstly liturgical and lastly performatory. On the contrary, I would argue that the reverse is true– that in the minds of most people, the entertainment aspect overshadows the liturgical.

I think my observation is correct, based on a particular episode at this Mass. After the Palestrina Choir delivered a splendid execution of Victoria’s Regina Caeli during distribution of Communion, it was at first followed by one of those glorious moments of absolute silence that immediately contrast with the song’s final crescendo, an apt liturgical “space” for reflection, stillness, and prayer. And yet, the blissful silence lasted only a few seconds. Somebody in one of the back pews– perhaps out of a sense of politeness or discomfort with the sudden silence– commenced an applause which most of the congregation then obliged. It was clear, however, that the choristers were taken aback, not expecting applause at Mass. After all, nobody applauded after they sang during the offertory. The priest, who rose to intone the “Let us pray” of the postcommunio, was preempted by the ovation.

The presence of such true Sacred Music at Masses, once a far more common occurrence, is nowadays such a rarity such that when groups like the Palestrina Choir are actually on hand to lend musical dignity to the liturgy, people often treat it as a special performance and thus feel obliged to applaud. This is a mindset that needs correction.

Why is applause out of place in the liturgy? The flyer shown to the right, well known in more traditional Catholic circles, demonstrates by a survey of a few great Church thinkers why applause is, generally speaking, not in keeping with the true sense of Catholic worship. All these quotations are authentic and are amply demonstrate why a holy silence, one that fosters profound contemplation of the divine, needs to be recovered in our liturgies.

The quotation from Pope St. Pius X is especially piercing, for he said those words after people were applauding him in St. Peter’s Basilica. Papa Sarto, the great patron of the Liturgical Movement who gave to the Church Tra le sollecitudini, grasped that the essence of the liturgy is not directed toward man, not toward a priest, and not even toward a Pope.

The final sentence in the flyer, “If you don’t applaud the Consecration, why applaud anything else?” confronts every Catholic with a stark reality: if we must receive in silence the True Presence of God Incarnate, why indeed should we applaud any lesser thing?

To the list of quotes shown in the flyer, I would like to add two more.

First, we have the message of St. John Paul II to the bishops of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Alaska during their 1998 ad limina visit to Rome. The entire address, given in English, is entirely focused on liturgical renewal (and the full text is a must-read for any English-speaking Catholic). John Paul, ever so perceptive of the trends affecting the American Church, knew that the liturgy in the United States had a particular set of problems which he wished to correct. And so he spoke to them about the authentic meaning of active participation in the liturgy and emphasized that silence is not inimical to participation but, on the contrary, an integral part of the liturgy itself. John Paul told the bishops:

Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.

(One cannot but see the hand of Joseph Ratzinger in John Paul’s address.)

Papa Wojtyla rightly perceived that, in the increasingly hectic postmodern world, silence is accepted only with great difficulty, and otherwise often rejected. How much is silence labeled as “awkward” by millenials, who will quickly resort to inane conversation or cheap laughter to fill the uncomfortable void! This mindset, this aversion to silence– in my opinion– lies behind the perceived obligation to applaud good choirs at Mass.

On the contrary, how powerful, beautiful, and eminently satisfying is it when two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, or are locked in one another’s arms, speaking nothing, engulfed in a loving silence exceeding the eloquence of human words! And yet, what we encounter in the liturgy is far more holy and intimate than the love between man and woman.

Or, just as the full appreciation of a good bourbon’s complex flavor comes only when the elixir has passed and yielded to the taster’s breath, so too does a significant pause of silence in the Sacred Liturgy allow the listener to truly absorb, internalize, contemplate, appreciate, and “breathe” the beauty he has just experienced. On the other hand, the eruption of applause after well-executed Sacred Music is like sipping Pappy Van Winkle and chasing it with Pepsi.

The second quote I want to add comes from another sainted Pope. During a pastoral visit to the coastal city of Ostia, Pope John XXIII entered a church to wild applause and great cheering, for the people and clergy of Ostia were thrilled at his arrival. Along the streets, in the piazza, and in the church, thousands of faithful people flocked to see the Papa buono, the warm and good-natured Pope who enjoyed the popularity that Pope Francis now enjoys.

Surprising, therefore, were the first words he spoke to them. The saint began his discourse by kindly rebuking the good people of Ostia for their applause. The following quote is indubitably authentic, for it has been preserved for posterity on video.

Sono molto contento di essere arrivato fin qua ma, se vi debbo esprimere un desiderio, è quello che in Chiesa non gridiate, non battiate le mani, e non salutiate neanche il Papa, perché Templum Dei, Templum Dei. Ora, se voi siete contenti di trovarvi in questa bella chiesa, immaginate se non è contento il Papa di vedere i suoi figliuoli! Ma appena li vede i buoni figliuoli mica batte loro le mani in faccia— e questo che sta davanti a voi è il successore di San Pietro!

I am very happy to have arrived here, but if I had to express a desire, it would be that you don’t shout in church, don’t clap your hands, don’t even greet the Pope, because Templum Dei, Templum Dei [the Temple of God is the Temple of God]. Now, if you are all happy to find yourselves in this beautiful church, imagine if the Pope himself is not likewise happy to see his children! But as soon as he sees his good children, even he does not clap his hands in their faces— and the one who stands in front of you all is the successor of Saint Peter!

Templum Dei, Templum Dei— would that this admonition be respected today! The fact that those words, which one would expect from Pius X, came from John XXIII, compels us to further examine our demeanor in the house of the Lord. A Catholic church is not a music hall, nor a theater, nor a stage, not any other venue for entertainment. We enter the liturgy not for our own superficial satisfaction, but to immerse ourselves in the mystery of salvation, to participate in the exodus of this world unto the eternal Promised Land, to journey in spiritual pilgrimage toward the Kingdom of God. Within the templum Dei, the reality which we profess in the Preface of Easter is repeatedly made present: Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus— Christ our Paschal lamb is sacrificed. We are brought to the foot of the Cross on Calvary every time the priest pronounces the words of consecration; if John, Mary Magdalene, and the Blessed Mother did not applaud then, why should we applaud the same sacrifice now? Jesus Christ, through his Psalmist, asks us not to receive him with outward gestures of revelry and celebration, but with “broken and contrite hearts” (cf. Psalm 51:17), for that is the sacrifice acceptable to God.

Of course, in limited situations, applause in the liturgy may be appropriate, but again, these instances are few. I’ve attended enough canonizations, beatifications, and other Papal Masses to know that, in some cases, applause is inevitable. For example, in Novus Ordo ordinations, the people’s ceremonial “approval” of men who are about to receive Holy Orders is signaled through sober, restrained applause. This is, to my knowledge, the only place where the rubrics foresee applause in the liturgy. Of course, who could forget the funeral Mass of John Paul II, when Cardinal Ratzinger’s moving oration was interrupted thirteen times by the applause of millions of faithful present in Rome? Likewise unforgettable was how the same Cardinal Dean graciously conceded seven-and-a-half minutes to the people’s applause prior to the rite of committal. And perhaps even most moving was the applause which erupted as the Papal Gentlemen who carried the Pope’s body turned once more toward the crowd, presenting John Paul’s casket for a final ovation, before entering the darkness of the Vatican Basilica.

However, occasions such as ordinations, beatifications, and canonizations (much less the funeral of a great Pope) are rare and exceptional indeed, and accordingly, exceptions are not appropriate in most situations. In normal Masses, if there are some who, out of sincere gratitude, feel compelled to thank those who enhance the liturgy, perhaps they can seek them out more appropriately after the liturgy, outside the church building in order to thank them personally. This would beautifully demonstrate that communion between persons extends to life outside the liturgy.

A final note: the greatest moments of salvation history occurred quietly: in the silence of Nazareth, God took flesh in the womb of Mary; in the silence of Bethlehem, while the world slept “in heavenly peace”, the Word breathed his first mortal breath; in the silence of the Sepulcher on Holy Saturday night– in the silence of God himself– Jesus Christ “destroyed the prison-bars of death”.

Thus in the Sacred Liturgy, when we come into contact with the very presence of the thrice-holy Lord of Sabaoth, we should heed his admonition spoken through the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

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