Hold the applause: Save the praise for God alone

In the Pews

Editors’ note: Sounding Board is one person’s take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

We’re all part of the Body of Christ, so why are a select few soaking up all the attention at Mass?

At the end of the Christmas Eve Mass at my parish last year, the pastor said, “We’re going to have to sing one more song before we leave.” I looked at my wife, Kathy, and whispered, “Oh, no. They’re going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jesus.”

“Yes,” said the pastor, “I won’t be here next week, and I didn’t ask his permission, because I knew he’d tell me not to do this. But it’s Father Jones’ 90th birthday next week, so let’s all wish him a happy birthday.”

With that the organist and choir started up the well-known song (which is, by the way, still under copyright, but I’m sure we got permission), and the packed church rose as one and sang “Happy Birthday” to Father Jones, followed by sustained applause for all the priest’s many years of service to the church and our community.


I, however, remained seated, feeling every bit like the Grinch.

Here we were on one of the two holiest days of the year, and we had to sing “Happy Birthday” yet again to a member of the parish staff—which we do with alarming regularity. Kathy, who teaches at our parish school, was turning 60 that same week. But there was no recognition of her. There were many others in the church that night who were undoubtedly reaching similar milestones that week, perhaps including another nonagenarian or two. But at our parish the only people who are regularly sung to on their birthday (or anniversary) are those on the parish staff.

Why can’t I just take this in the spirit that most of my fellow parishioners apparently do? They seem to feel that it is nice to sing to the priests and the deacon and the music director and the pastoral associate (but not, interestingly enough, the school principal or teachers or maintenance and office staff, never mind most “ordinary” parishioners).

All of this reminds me of an old Chevy Chase routine when he was a regular on Saturday Night Live. He would come on stage and say, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not,” always garnering a big laugh. No one was ever sure why, but it seemed to touch a nerve about the comedian’s feigned oversized ego and his disdain for everyone else. The joke, in other words, was on him.


There are many other things that parishes do that drive home the point that some among us are Chevy Chase, and most are not:

1. Applause for a job well done. Apparently the choir members in our parish are so insecure that they have to be thanked and applauded at least once a month. And here I thought they were singing to give glory to God and because they like to sing.

During a Stations of the Cross at our parish school last year, the priest led a round of applause for the good job the children had done. I know our children deserve to have their self-esteem built up, but is it really necessary—or even appropriate—when we have just finished recalling Christ’s passion and death?

2. Mentions in the parish bulletin. My parish used to list everyone on the staff but the flower arranger on the front page of our bulletin. The new pastor (the one who led us in “Happy Birthday” on Christmas Eve) has thankfully eliminated that list most weeks, under the theory that most of us already know who is on the staff.


3. Prayers of the faithful. Yes, I think we should pray for the pope, the bishop, and the pastor by name, and all the other ministers of the church. But do we have to do it every week, and do they always have to be first? How about a prayer for “Jane Jones, who is fighting to keep her business afloat and to continue to employ seven people,” or “Mark Johnson, who is balancing his job and visiting his aging mother in the nursing home every day”?

4. Announcements. I once went to an Episcopal church in New York City where they made all the announcements before their Mass began. When I mention this possibility to Catholic priests, their universal reaction is a jocular “But people aren’t there yet!”

The implication is that the announcements are so important that they must be done right before the dismissal, so that it is the sending forth on our mission to the world that becomes the afterthought, not the precious announcements about what is going on at the parish that week.

(Here’s the way to know if an announcement is really important at my parish: The homilist mentions it, it leads off the announcements, and then the priest mentions it again before the dismissal. Mostly these have to do with an event at the parish that they really, really want us to attend, such as the special concert by the contemporary choir or the St. Patrick’s Day dinner.)


5. The annual blessing of parish ministers. If there is ever a time when Chevy Chase would feel comfortable at our parish, it is the annual Sunday when we all thank and bless every single person involved in any sort of ministry in our parish.

We (about half of those present) are all called up on stage—I mean around the altar—and the priest reads a special prayer over us. Then all those in the stands—I mean the pews—raise their right hands and bless us, reminding themselves in so doing that we are Chevy Chase and they are not.


All of this reflects both a poor understanding of the church and of evangelization.

It is a poor understanding of the church because it says that “the church” is really the people who work for it, either on the staff or in a church-sponsored “ministry.” The rest become onlookers and cheerleaders and donors and “the faithful,” and it is their job to make sure that we—the ones who actually run the church—feel sufficiently loved and honored.


Whatever happened to the mission of all Christians to help bring about the here-and-now kingdom of God in our daily lives on our jobs, with our family and friends, and in our community and civic affairs? Is this not worthy of praise and recognition?

It is bad evangelization because we all say we want non-churchgoers to join (or rejoin) us. But why would they do so if every time they attend Mass they are fed a steady diet of self-congratulation on our part?

On Christmas Eve my wife and I had our three young adult children with us. They went along with singing “Happy Birthday” to Father Jones, but it had to take just a little edge off the solemnity and spiritual meaning of the celebration of the creative power of the universe becoming a human being and living among us.

I believe that if we are inviting people to join us—young people who are searching for their first spiritual home or others who have been away from a faith community for a while—then maybe we shouldn’t be telling them constantly that we’re Chevy Chase and they’re not. So I just sat in my pew with my head down on Christmas Eve while everyone else sang “Happy Birthday” to Father Jones. I worried that people around me might think that I was dissing the elderly priest.


In my own way, however, I hoped I was honoring him by my silent protest, reminding myself that the church he has served so well and so long belongs to all of us, just as he always taught me.

“And the survey says…”

1. Excessive focus on parish staff and volunteers tends to diminish the respect given to the mission of laypeople to transform the world rather than to work for the church.

65% – Agree
20% – Disagree
15% – Other

2.  If anything, the problem in the Catholic Church is that people feel underappreciated, not overappreciated.

49% – Agree
25% – Disagree
26% – Other

3. Singing “Happy Birthday” should never happen at Mass, even at the end. 

57% – Agree
33% – Disagree
10% – Other


4. It bugs me that we pray for the pope, bishops, pastor, and church ministers in descending order, before any ordinary people are ever mentioned. 

35% – Agree
52% – Disagree
13% – Other

5. My views on clapping for the choir are:

46% – Clapping turns the music into a performance and us into spectators, rather than all of us being participants.
35% – We shouldn’t clap for the choir any more than we clap for the lector or the priest.
24% – To me clapping means affirming the praise of God the choir has just sung—a modern-day version of saying “Amen.”
18% – For a truly spectacular performance it’s OK but in general it shouldn’t happen.
7% – I’d cheerfully clap every week for a good performance.
18% – Other.

6. Since Greg Pierce has a wife and family to sing “Happy Birthday” to him every year, he shouldn’t begrudge a parish sing-a-long to Father Jones, who has given up a wife and family and dedicated his whole life to the church. 

31% – Agree
48% – Disagree
21% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“Father Jones’ not having a wife and family is irrelevant. Greg should go along with singing out of joy for someone who is celebrating a 90th birthday.”

Results are based on survey responses from 322 visitors.


Keep reading for examples from U.S. Catholic readers of times when the spotlight shone brightly on a select few at their parishes…

Here are some of the outrageous responses we received when we asked our readers: The funniest or most over-the-top example I’ve seen of the “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not” Syndrome at Mass was…

At the start of the homily, the pastor said, “Some think the people are the church. Well, they’re not.”

A visiting priest who began his homily by stating how handsome he is and that the ladies should try to control themselves.

At a neighboring parish during diocesan services appeal season, the priest announced that there were baked goodies available in the parish hall, but only for those who had their slips showing they’d contributed to the appeal.

The priest who was leaving our parish and disobeyed the pastor by putting a colorful sign up that said, “We’ll miss you, Father.” He was told that he could put it up in the narthex, but chose to hang it up behind the altar–during the offertory.

The music director standing on his step stool and raising his arms in the air waiting for applause.

A Mass celebrating a priest’s 50th anniversary of ordination. The Mass lasted two hours and included one person after another praising this man. The readings and the gospel were changed for that Sunday at the priest’s request, and then to top it off, the priest handed out DVDs of himself that honored his life’s work.

A new pastor was celebrating Thanksgiving Day Mass and his cell phone rang. He turned red, but answered it, and continued his conversation on the phone at the altar, while still facing the congregation.


The current music director and her husband, who is the music director at a nearby Methodist church, combine their choirs and perform a song from their wedding on their anniversary every year during the preparation of the gifts.

The pastor selecting his “favorite” parishioners for certain activities, such as receiving tickets for the pope’s visit, even though he claimed there would be a random drawing.

The music minister was moving out of town, and toward the end of Mass she surrendered the organ to a substitute and went to the front of the sanctuary where she was joined with her family while the whole Church sang a blessing over all of them. Then they led the recessional out of the church for a goodbye reception.

A pastor who sang a solo after communion at every weekend liturgy.

The choir singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during a funeral Mass for the priest’s sister. As we passed the casket in the communion line, we heard, “And it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out…”

A priest who wrote a Mass setting, used it at the parish, and then told everyone that he wrote it and asked for compliments because he worked so hard on it. The same priest also sang a song once as part of a homily and then waited for people to applaud before he continued.

A recently ordained priest going on and on about his native heritage and modeling vestments that were specifically made for him by his countrymen.

A video, played on massive screens, in which the departing senior priest was portrayed as Captain Kirk. I saw how much the pastoral team loved their jokes and that they cared for the departing priest, but being new to the community, I felt like I had arrived at Mass to discover the closing night of summer camp.


A certain staff member who walks back and forth across the front of the church during Mass noisily jangling a huge set of keys, as if they were the keys of the kingdom.

Seeing a priest cartwheel down the aisle.

An army of 12 to 15 extraordinary ministers jostled their ways into the sanctuary to distribute communion, even though only 20 to 30 people were there to receive the sacrament.

When a pastor announced he was being awarded an honor by a religious organization for having the most efficiently run parish in the area.

A priest who had run the local marathon that day stepped up to the microphone at Mass to talk for 10 minutes about it.

At a Christmas Eve Mass for children and families, the pastor announced that the children portraying Mary and Joseph, positions that many children coveted, were actually his niece and nephew.

A pastor who gets up during the collection and walks down to put his envelope in the basket so all can see that he contributes.

When I was in college and the Newman Center had two choirs: the “Newman Choir,” which sang at Sunday morning Mass, and the folk group, which sang at Sunday evening Mass. To be in the Newman Choir, one had to be selected by the choir director and generally had to be a music major, while the folk group accepted anyone but was never allowed to sing at special Masses, such as graduation or the start of the school year. One of the music majors told me that I could join the folk group, but wouldn’t be welcome in the Newman Choir.


During the Pentecost Mass in our parish, which also celebrates graduation. The high school students all come in their caps and gowns, plan the Mass, and serve as readers, thus taking precedence over the Holy Spirit. If you attended that Mass you would have a hard time recognizing that it was one of the most important feasts of the liturgical year.

A deacon who felt the most important job for him was being seen on the altar and having the power of the microphone. He carried it with him and laid it on the altar often.

A bishop saying he was entitled to the luxuries he enjoyed because of his sacrifices for the church.

During the announcements, the priest corrects the reader after each one.

This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 12, page 23-27).

Image: Darren Thompson

About the author

Gregory F. Augustine Pierce

Gregory F. Augustine Pierce is the author of The Mass Is Never Ended: Rediscovering Our Mission to Transform the World (Ave Maria Press, 2007) and Spirituality at Work: Twelve Ways to Balance Our Lives On-the-Job (ACTA, 2001). He is the publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago.

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