Applause at Homilies

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Applause at Homilies

ROME, 20 JAN. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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 applause.

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 of kings.

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 toward sanctity.

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 avoided.

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 or not.

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Follow-up: Applause at Homilies [2-3-2009]

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.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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