ROME, 20 JAN. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: The parishioners in our church used to be spontaneous in their
reactions to excellent homilies that the priests deliver. The
parishioners, sometimes, respectfully applaud after the homily, either
to communicate that they are in agreement with the priest, or to offer
their appreciation. However, when a newly ordained priest came, and this
happened after a homily he gave, he gravely scolded the people for the
impropriety of their action and reminded them that they are attending a
Mass and not a performance. From then on, people's spontaneity is gone;
occasionally, applause would be heard, but one can sadly sense the
hesitation. Could you enlighten us on the propriety of people applauding
after the homily? D.B., Denver, Colorado
A: First of all, it is a very hopeful sign of overall improvement in
the quality of homilies that the faithful consider them worthy of
That said, the young priest was correct in stating that, in general,
applause is to be discouraged during Mass.
It is not an absolute rule, however; the Pope's homilies usually
conclude with applause and are even sometimes interrupted by
enthusiastic ovations. In the ancient world, great sermons, such as
those of a St. Augustine, were occasionally interspersed with
appreciative accolades on the part of the people.
There are also some cultures where applause or hand-clapping is a
spontaneous sign of respect and even veneration. For example, some
African peoples even clap their hands during the consecration, because
this was the traditional gesture observed when their kings were present
and it seemed natural to carry it over to greet the presence of the King
Therefore, while respecting cultural differences and not excluding an
occasional spontaneous applause for a particularly inspired and
inspiring homily, I would agree that the practice should not be
encouraged or regular in Western parish settings.
First of all, the Roman liturgical tradition is usually sober in its
external manifestations. This holds true even in those Catholic cultures
that are exuberant in the demonstrations of popular piety such as the
processions of Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula and southern Italy
where applause, cheers and the like are regular features.
After the homily, the liturgy recommends a moment of silence in order
to reflect upon and assimilate the message. Applause easily breaks the
concentration and makes it harder to gather one's thoughts and bring
them to bear on the essential questions of living the Gospel.
When applause is neither common nor expected a priest can prepare the
homily with greater freedom, both regarding the doctrine he wishes to
transmit and the best means of delivery. In other words, although he
should always strive to prepare an excellent homily from the rhetorical
point of view, not having to worry about applause makes him less subject
to the temptation of striving more to please than to instruct and exhort
Not being expected to applaud also frees both priests and
parishioners from the danger of making subtle and not-so-subtle
comparisons among priests. Father X's homily received timed respect;
Father Y got a standing ovation, while Father Z's preaching on Christian
morals got the silent treatment. I am exaggerating, of course, but the
point is that any element that might induce disharmony should be
The best reaction to a well-thought and delivered homily is a
decision to move forward and grow as a Christian. If this is lacking,
then all external applause is just so much fluff.
In his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy" the then Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger wrote: "Whenever 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" (Page 198).
The context of the present Pope's remarks was regarding applause
after so-called liturgical dancing; it did not directly address our
present case of applause as a sign of respect and agreement to the
message of the homily. The principle involved, however, of not
applauding the merely human achievement of one of the liturgical actors
could be a good rule of thumb for deciding when applause is appropriate
* * *
Follow-up: Applause at Homilies
Related to our Jan. 20 piece on applause during homilies, a few readers
had inquired about the propriety of some rhetorical devices.
One Canadian reader asked: "In our parish, our pastor usually begins his
homily with a joke. There is no connection between the joke and the
homily that follows. While many at Mass seem to enjoy his jokes
judging by the laughter after the punch line
some of us find this irreverent. I have a difficult time making the
transition from the comedian priest to the priest who is in persona
Christi, and is about to help the Catholic faithful better
understand the Gospel and the readings. Are there any guidelines for
homilies that would indicate whether this is appropriate or not?"
Another, a deacon, inquired, "I have a simple question about greeting
the people during the homily. Is it all right to say good morning? Last
Monday I opened the homily with this greeting and moved on to a
reflection on the Gospel. The celebrant priest was of the opinion that
to say good morning is superfluous, since I had already said, 'The Lord
be with you.' I had just noticed the people looked a little tired after
a long weekend, and to get another response from them would help their
attention and participation."
While there is no official teaching on how to start a homily, many great
preachers have reflected on the art of preaching, for example, St. John
Chrysostom and St. Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana. There
are myriad modern books and Internet sites on preaching effective
homilies, many of which offer useful indications.
Although I believe that the preacher should greet the faithful at the
beginning of the homily, I am not convinced that "Good morning" is the
most appropriate line. The liturgical salutation "The Lord be with you"
is a preparation for hearing God's word in the Gospel and is not a
personal greeting as such. However, a greeting that provokes a natural
response from the congregation such as "You're welcome" is more likely
to break the flow between Gospel and homily than a "My dear brothers and
sisters" or words to that effect.
Something similar could be said about jokes, especially if unrelated to
the content of the homily. While this method is a legitimate opener in
some cases, it becomes trying if applied week after week.
All the same, I would not wish to be hidebound regarding either point.
There can be circumstances when evoking an immediate response is
necessary in order to connect with the congregation. Likewise, preachers
of the caliber of Fulton Sheen wielded the amusing introductory anecdote
with masterful effect.
The first lines of a homily often determine whether the faithful sit up
and take notice or settle into a wakeful slumber. Therefore it is
salient that the preacher does not placidly repeat the bland, but rather
strives to engage his listeners from the first moment in order to bring
them closer to Christ.