A few years ago a priest shared the following story at a party. It was a casual event and he told it in a manner that garnered some laughs. The point he was making, however, was no joking matter. Father began:
A visiting priest was offering Mass one Sunday in a soft, quiet, voice. After Mass a woman came up to him and said, “Father, thank you for Mass today. Everything was so beautiful, except one thing: I could barely hear you during the Eucharistic prayer.”
To which Father replied with a smile…
“That’s because I wasn’t talking to you.”
The story reminds us of an important truth, one that we must never forget, and one that silence (or quietude) reinforces: the priest is actually doing something. In other words, he isn’t talking to us. Rather, he is offering the Mass. The priest is performing an action, and he does so in persona Christi. In fact, while we do participate by joining our prayers with him, our presence is unnecessary for the action he is performing.
Intentional silence in the Mass can therefore serve as a form of catechesis for the faithful. After years of priests offering the Mass versus populum and in the vernacular, it is no wonder that many people think he is speaking to them, even during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
There is yet another spiritual fruit gained by the reintroduction of silence into Mass: it teaches us how to pray. More specifically, liturgical silence can help to foster and nurture mental prayer.
Traditional priest, exorcist, and author Father Chad Ripperger discussed this very connection between silence and mental prayer in the Fall 2001 issue of Latin Mass Magazine. Fr. Ripperger noted:
The ancient ritual, on the other hand, actually fosters a prayer life. The silence during the Mass actually teaches people that they must pray. Either one will get lost in distraction during the ancient ritual or one will pray. The silence and encouragement to pray during the Mass teach people to pray on their own. While, strictly speaking, they are not praying on their own insofar as they should be joining their prayers and sacrifices to the Sacrifice and prayer of the priest, these actions are done interiorly and mentally and so naturally dispose them toward that form of prayer…
The reintroduction of silence into the Mass must be given a greater priority as we move forward. Authentic liturgical reform requires that the faithful have a better understanding of what is actually happening in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Silence can help reinforce the fact that the Mass is an action and not a communal conversation.
Silence also facilitates mental prayer at a time when so many are in need of rediscovering it. We need the sacred liturgy to help lead the faithful into greater silence, particularly as the world relentlessly gives us noise.
To once again reference the wisdom of Cardinal Ratzinger: “For silence to be fruitful…it must be an integral part of the liturgical event.”
The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) speaks very specifically about silence before and during the liturgy. We read: “Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its purpose, however, depends on the time it occurs in each part of the celebration. Thus within the Act of Penitence and again after the invitation to pray, all recollect themselves; but at the conclusion of a reading or a homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise and pray to God in their hearts.”
There should also be silence before the liturgy: “Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner” (No. 45).
Though not mentioned in the GIRM, there is a long practice of maintaining silence within the body of the church after Mass. Some churches erupt in noise once Mass is over. This destroys the atmosphere of prayer that is conducive and appropriate to private prayer after Mass.
The following is from the Sacramentary – or the priests’ prayer book – used at Mass. The following is taken from the Sacramentary, #23. It is part of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
“Silence should be observed at the designated times as part of the celebration. Its function depends on the time it occurs in each part of the celebration. Thus at the penitential rite and after the invitation to pray, all recollect themselves; at the conclusion of a reading or the homily, all meditate briefly on what has been heard; after communion, all praise God in silent prayer.”
With the above in mind as background, the following times for sacred silence and pauses in the liturgy will be observed:
1- After Invitation to the Penitential Rite:
2- After Invitation to the Opening Prayer
3- After First Reading is concluded
4- After Second Reading is concluded or prior to the Gospel Acclamation
5- After General Intercession that invites us to pause and add our own in silence.
How does a pastor encourage an atmosphere of silence? By giving good example himself. If he is walking up and down the aisles and engaging in audible conversations, then he is giving a wrong cue to the people. Even worse is the practice of priests, deacons and ministers chatting in the sanctuary area before Mass.
Some carefully worded admonitions during the announcements period toward the end of Mass would go a long way toward encouraging the correct atmosphere regarding silence. In my experience, people are often unaware of the distracting nature of their chatting, and they are open to correction.
One of the devices I myself use is always to respond in a whisper when people come to talk to me in the church before Mass. Mostly, they take the hint (that they should be speaking quietly) and are not offended.
This is the reason the Church calls for silence, and a great deal of silence, during the liturgy of the Mass. Silence amplifies the reality of what we experience. Silence is a proper response to a reality which words cannot express—in the case of the Mass, to the reality of God’s presence.
We are invited to silence several times during the Mass. We are first of all called to be silent before Mass begins. We need that space of time to recollect ourselves in order to enter into prayer. This is why there should be no video presentations or even choir rehearsal during those five or 10 minutes before Mass begins.
We are then called to silence as we recall and repent of our sins. We are called to silent reflection after each Scriptural reading, and after the homily. We are all called to silence after we have received holy Communion. And we are invited, at the conclusion of Mass, to kneel down for a silent prayer of Thanksgiving before departing for the parking lot.
These periods of silence are intended to bring reality into focus. At Mass we express to God our contrition, we hear his word, and we receive his physical presence sacramentally. These realities go beyond our comprehension. To hear and understand the Word of God is an expression of his great love for us. To receive the body of Christ is the deepest kind of communion with God. The silence in the liturgy punctuates a rich and profound time of prayer with opportunities to reflect on the reality of our experience. The silence of the liturgy is a gift which helps us to understand the greatest gifts we can receive.
In 2000, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, offered an insight into the silence of the liturgy. “We respond, by singing and praying to the God who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence. It must, of course, be a silence with content, not just the absence of speech and action. We should expect the liturgy to give us a positive stillness that will restore us.”
Pope Benedict described the liturgical silence as a “silence with content … a positive stillness.” He meant that our silence in prayer is not to be an emptying meditation alone. Instead, silence in prayer is an occasion to more deeply understand the Mass itself.
After the readings, for example, we can, in silence, picture the narrative of the Old Testament or the Gospel. If the readings contained advice, an exhortation, or an admonishment, we can ask the Lord how it applies in our lives. The period of silence is a time when the Lord can vivify—make alive—the word proclaimed. We need only to ask him for this, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
After Communion, as we pray in silence, we can ask the Lord to fill us with his love—to help us love our brothers and sisters, to help us see the world as he does. We can give him thanks for the great blessings he has given us. After a while, our silent prayer after Communion may become an experience of simply being in the silent, radiant, loving presence of our God.
Silence isn’t easy for any of us. The Church gives us silence in the liturgy to train our hearts and minds in silent prayer. But attentive, active, “positive silence” takes work. Often, we may find it difficult to focus. The Church encourages us to ask the Lord to help us to experience his presence. As we cultivate silence, we will begin, more frequently, to hear the voice of the Lord.
Silence points us to reality. It is a rare gift, but to understand it may take us each a lifetime. Let us give thanks for the silence of the liturgy. Let us ask the Lord to help us use it to see more clearly the reality of his magnificent and loving presence.