AM NOT SURE HOW AND WHEN it all began, but it has been increasingly common for congregations to applaud at the end of a recessional song or hymn. While this is a very well intended gesture of appreciation for the music ministers, it is indicative of both something right and something not entirely right. A close cousin of this is loud talking in the pews after (or before) mass while others are literally kneeling and trying mightily to pray.
Before I sound too grumpy, there are a few things here that are in the right direction and a few that are not. On the bright side, for someone who used to witness with regularity one third of the congregation disappearing after communion in order to beat the traffic, I am happy to see this practice becoming far less common than it was perhaps a decade or two ago. It is good that people are happy to be at church. It is a very good thing for people to form a close community. This cannot be overlooked with depressing statistics about declining mass attendance. (That is an issue for a dissertation, not a brief blog entry.)
But perhaps in part, the overall decline in mass attendance can be attributed to what is not quite right in this circumstance.
Pope Benedict XVI famously wrote:
“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liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attractiveness fades quickly—it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does, various forms of religious titillation.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, pg. 198-199)
Mass cannot, nor should not compete on a level of entertainment. “Such attractiveness fades quickly.” The mass brings something else entirely different. It is in our very human nature, the need to worship God. Our brains are wired for contemplation. It is within our very soul to connect with the divine. This desire and need is very human. Vatican II states:
“Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work (of the liturgy) wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father.”(Sacrosanctum Concillium §7)
Take the case of applause at the end of mass. Certainly, everyone understands the expression of such appreciation. However, quite interestingly, the more transformative the music, the less likely there will be applause. The more closely the music is connected with the liturgical action, the more it “adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” This is turn builds hearts, souls, minds, and a sense of close community.
At the end of a Recessional on Palm Sunday, it would seem very inappropriate to applaud or talk loudly after such a solemn occasion. This is because the people are filled with a deep interior silence that is moved by the transformative power of Jesus’ sacrifice for us all.
Speaking as a musician, it feels very uncomfortable to hear applause. If anything should be applauded, it should be the Eucharist and the Word. Of course, this is silly. As such, applauding music is just as silly. We don’t applaud the lectors or altar servers, greeters, or ushers, etc. Yet, they all serve an important ministry.
Finally, the best way to show appreciation for your music ministers is not through applause — for if there is applause, we have somehow failed to convey a sense of awe and reverence. For music ministers, there is no greater thrill than to hear a congregation singing with full hearts, minds and voices. Still, it is never about us.
To God alone the Glory!