St. Paul tells us to pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). One way to do that is by actually praying with our words. Another way is to always be thinking about God in our works of mercy, as well as through our charitable words to others. Our entire life can be a prayer if we put God first in everything we do and always keep his will in mind.
But Mass is different than the rest of life. It is not a way of praying to God by proxy. Mass is among the very few times in life when we do not have to encounter God through others, because God is right there with us. Remember what Jesus said to Martha when she was doing all the work while Mary was just sitting there with Jesus. He said:
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
Mass is the “one thing”. It is the “good portion”. There is no need for applause or accolades for others, no need to tend to earthly matters when we are in the presence of the Lord. Understandably, it is hard to remember this when we are surrounded by others, but Mass is not about us. Bringing attention back down to ourselves is adverse to the nature of the Mass. This is why popes have strong words about the matter:
“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liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment.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 attraction fades quickly – it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation” (Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy).
Here’s what Pope St. John XXIII said on the matter:
“If I must express a wish, it is that in church you not shout out, that you not clap your hands, and that you not greet even the Pope, because ‘templum Dei, templum Dei’ (‘The temple of God is the temple of God’).”
What’s the Big Deal?
But what’s the big deal, after all? Shouldn’t we be allowed to express our gratitude and admiration for fellow believers praising God with their talents? And aren’t we, by applauding them, indirectly applauding God, the giver of talents, as well?
Correct, we are indirectly praising God when we clap for someone else in church, when we should be directly praising him. Applauding during Mass is like showing honor to a fellow guest at a wedding reception during the bride and groom’s first dance.
Some people may say an atmosphere that discourages clapping in Mass only breeds a false sense of piety, but what is truly false is the notion that true piety begins with us rather than God. Clapping is a way of praising another, whether we admit it or not, and praising another human being in the place where God ought to be praised is at best an attempt to make humans a way to God, and is at worst idolatry.
We do not need a way to God because God has come down to us. A church sanctuary is the place where a person can best draw closer to God, and it is a person’s relationship with God that always ought to be first and foremost in their spiritual life and in all aspects of life. As Pat Archbold said in a NC Register article on this same issue, we will reap the benefits of deeper holiness if we “remove the anthropocentric mentality that has destroyed worship.”
Mass Is Where Heaven and Earth Meet
I'm not saying we shouldn't show any form of gratitude for the choir, the homilist, altar servers, or anyone else who assists in Mass. But why does it have to be during Mass, the source and summit of our faith? Writing for U.S. Catholic, David Phippart had some good alternatives: "We'd do better to create a climate of gratitude with occasional bulletin kudos, surprise refreshments at rehearsals now and then, an annual appreciation dinner, and the like," he wrote.
It is true that in some cultures and subcultures, clapping is appropriate as a celebration, as it reflects the psalmist’s words:
“All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with joyful cries.”–Psalm 41:7 However, the psalmist is speaking of applause directed toward God as a form of praise. We must remember Mass is a vertical form of worship, and by clapping or cheering for anyone except God we make it horizontal. We make it about us, not him. You may say “Aren’t all forms of worship vertical?” Actually, no, because we also worship God through good works toward others, as we see Christ in them, and this is horizontal worship. Good works and works of mercy, are the crossbeam of the Cross, where God is reaching out to humanity through his Body, the Church. But Mass is not the same as this. It is God’s condescension down to us, where heaven meets earth, where the head of the Cross (Christ) meets the foot of the Cross (believers). For many of us, let’s be honest, Mass is the only time we are truly focusing on our faith and intentionally living it. So we naturally try to cram all aspects of it into that one hour. We awkwardly try to be cordial and charitable toward the people sitting next to us, and friendly--as we know how--to the volunteers who have devoted their time to the music ministry or whatever else. There are times and places for these acts of bonding. This is why parishes encourage participation in after-Mass activities and other events throughout the church community throughout the week. But Mass is a person’s time to worship God, so he or she may properly receive him. That purpose is enough.
Clapping during or after Mass not only encourages praise of others over God, it also discourages an atmosphere of prayer to God. You may say applause are over quickly and therefore are not that distracting, but in this age when dozens of thoughts are vying for our attention, those several seconds can in fact derail our focus. We come to Mass for a brief opportunity to be with God without distractions. The errands we have to run, the relationships that are on our minds, even the game we may want to watch later that day, are all trying to pull us away from God. Mass may be a person’s rare opportunity to be one-on-one with God in prayer. Why would someone want to intrude upon that?
When it comes to staying focused--on anything, but especially while praying--nothing helps like silence. The Rule of St. Benedict put a high value on silence, giving a whole chapter to the subject in the work. When it comes to serving our neighbor, nothing helps like separating ourselves from them for a short time to take a moment to pray in silence--so we can rightly orient ourselves to God and thereby better serve others.
Jesus did as much. He left the crowds, and even his disciples, quite often to go pray alone. He did this because in his human nature he knew that no relationship he had on earth could be right until his relationship with the Father was right. We would do well to keep that in mind, because our relationship with God is the “one thing” that matters.