The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Applause in Church

There is little that gets me more riled up these days than hearing that obligatory round of applause at the end of mass at my beloved Newman Center.

When I first starting attending mass there, I thought the applause was great--a fitting tribute to a fine musical ensemble. Maybe we think we're being more Protestant that way, I don't know (do Protestants do this?) In any case, it is a way to be more expressive in a church that often needs to be more expressive.

But its just so wrong.

Without realizing it, applause creates a huge chasm between the average churchgoer and the celebrants. They are the ones performing, we are the audience. In a church where there is already too much distance between the hierarchy and Jane Catholic, this can't be good.

To give applause makes it seem like we're actually not participating, but rather just watching a show. We're being entertained. Are people actively meditating, praying and involving themselves? Do they feel like they have the opportunity to do so?

It also gives the impression that the music is the real show. While I do believe the musicians are co-celebrants with the priest, readers, Eucharistic ministers and others, I worry when the balance is thrown off to much.

A key word is "obligatory". Let's face it: The music isn't always good. It is performed by human beings who have good and bad days, who are better prepared some days than others (I used to be one of those musicians, so I can attest from personal experience). If people were so moved they just couldn't contain themselves, I'd be more gracious about the whole applause thing. But they are not--it has become another obligation.

When a Catholic mass is done "right" (very loaded language here!), it is a wonderful, flowing experience of word and music. The musicians lead the congregation in the call-and-response of the ritual. We don't just sing whole songs, but have numerous refrains, alleluias, one-liners and small bits we sing throughout the mass. This is very well done (without being too showy) at New Albany's Church of the Resurrection. When you can feel the energy going back and forth between the congregation and the celebrant, it is glimpse to what mass could and should be, rather than the dry repetitions you often see at Sunday masses these days.

The point is that the music should foster a sense of involvement. Directors often exclude music because they are performance pieces or at least relegate them to certain slots (such as the offertory) where the music can be a primary focus. Dramatic solos and show-off numbers just don't fit in so well anywhere. The Newman Center music ensemble does a fine job with this and takes into account all of these things! The applause is not their fault.

Far be it from me to tell people how to experience church (remember, I'm the guy who says that not paying attention during mass is rewarding). I take the viewpoint that there are many valid approaches and a time and a season for each. However, I get alarmed when I see church practices gravitate toward a style of consumerism and entertainment that matches our secular culture. Maybe it is unavoidable that our church traditions are going to reflect our modern culture. But sometimes I think Church traditions are the only alternative some of us ever get to secular culture, so I feel a desire to hang on to some of that.


  1. Okay, not to keep bringing up how wonderful I think my church is (but I do!), and please dont think I'm trying to sell you on it (because I'm not--just giving you an idea how other churches are doing things, even if mine is a weird non-religion religion), BUT, we have a solution to "clapping" in service after a musical performance that was enjoyable. We raise our hands and wiggle our fingers as kind of a quiet way of extending gratitude or tribute to the service. It doesnt make noise, so it doesnt disrupt anyone, and then the musician can see that people really found his/her music moving. I mean, that's why I do it. Sometimes the music is the most moving thing in the service for me. In fact, it was because of the music at my church that I was drawn to it. We have a great music director and the first time I attended, he sang a song that he wrote that just met me at the place where I was at in my life at that moment... which, in turn, was a spiritual experience.

  2. Yep, it bugs me, too, except when little kids are the ones performing. I like the finger wiggling idea.