Applause at Homilies

And More on Substituting the Sunday Liturgy

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ROME, JAN. 20, 2009 ( 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: Shifting or Substituting the Sunday Liturgy

Related to our column on shifting the Sunday liturgy (see Jan. 6), a priest residing in the United States asked the following:

«I searched the GIRM [General Instruction of the Roman Missal] for some light on the patronal celebration of the feast on a Sunday. In Mumbai, India, we observe the solemnity of the feast of the patron saint on the following Sunday so that the entire parish can take part in the celebration.

«I am at a parish dedicated to St. George, and we are celebrating the diamond jubilee of the parish. I suggested to the pastor to have the celebration of the feast, which falls on April 23, on the following Sunday, April 26. He wants to know how it can be done. Could you throw some light on this?»

Actually, this question is not addressed in the GIRM but in No. 58 of the introduction to the Roman calendar published in 1969.

This document states: «For the pastoral advantage of the people, it is permissible to observe on the Sundays in Ordinary Time those celebrations that fall during the week and have special appeal to the devotion of the faithful, provided the celebrations take precedence over these Sundays in the Table of Liturgical Days. The Mass for such celebrations may be used at all the Masses at which a congregation is present.»

Therefore, it is legitimate to transfer the celebration of a parish’s patron saint (which has the rank of solemnity in the parish itself) to the following Sunday if this is a Sunday of ordinary time.

In the concrete case mentioned by our reader, however, the Sunday following April 23 always falls in Eastertide or, as will occur in 2011, 2038 and 2095, is Easter Sunday itself. This Sunday, therefore, always has a higher rank in the table of liturgical days than the feast of the patron saint. Thus, in this case it is not possible to transfer the feast to the following Sunday.

It is still possible to organize other activities of popular devotion on this Sunday if this is the only day that people can gather, but the Mass must be that of the corresponding Sunday of Easter.

Another priest raised an intriguing question to the follow-up article on Communion under both species: «Further to the question/answer of Jan. 6, as ‘the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ are present in both the consecrated bread and wine,’ is there anything — apart from the fact that ‘it isn’t done’ — against administering only the Blood of Christ, and not the Body of Christ? I never see the question raised this way round.»

I would say that, strictly speaking, this could be done. It is quite regularly done in case of those who are intolerant to wheat and to those incapable of receiving solid food. I would also suppose that it could be done if, in admittedly highly unusual circumstances, a group of isolated Christians found themselves with little bread and a lot of altar wine.

As far as I know, there is no explicit prohibition against this, probably because nobody ever thought of doing it before. But the law presumes that it is not done and that if Communion is given under one species, this species is ordinarily the species of bread.

There are myriad practical reasons that justify the Church’s present custom of not distributing only the species of wine, but I think that the reasons go beyond the practical and the budgetary.

Many Old Testament types of the Eucharist, such as the manna in the desert to which Our Lord himself refers to in Chapter 6 o
f the Gospel according to John, plus the reference to the Eucharist as the «breaking of the bread» found in the Acts of the Apostles, indicate that there is a clear preference toward the species of bread from the very beginning.

Likewise, the species of wine is not easily conserved, and distributing only the species of wine would have made the development of Eucharistic devotion and adoration almost impossible.

I think we can therefore conclude that the prevalence of distributing the consecrated bread rather than just the consecrated wine is a practice guided by the Holy Spirit for the greater good of the Church.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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