"By way of promoting active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 34).

Before the Second Vatican Council issued its mandate for liturgical reform, Sacrosanctum concilium, in 1963, “reverent silence” characterized the layperson’s participation at Mass. Except in those few progressive parishes where the “dialogue Mass” had taken hold, the congregation remained mute throughout the liturgy. Forty years later, silence at Mass, although specifically called for in the conciliar decree, has nearly vanished.

A friend recently described the liturgy at her suburban parish as follows: “There is no such thing as silence. Not a single pause anywhere during the celebration. Even after the homily, you aren’t given a moment to think about it. At Communion, they go quickly through three or four hymns (singing faster than Catholics are known for), and then right into the final prayer and blessing.”

This woman’s experience is not atypical. The council’s call for “full, conscious, and active participation” has generally been interpreted to mean getting the congregation “to do something”: acclamations, responses, psalmody, songs, processions, gestures. A major goal of the liturgical reform seems to have been to get people off their knees, out of their prayer books, and dynamically engaged.

Now, after four decades of active, and sometimes hyperactive, participation, Catholics are beginning to express renewed interest in wordless worship as part of the liturgy. The “moment of silence” called for by the priest is usually just that: a few seconds of restless discomfort to be endured until the next activity begins. Why provide space for silence during the Sacred Liturgy? Doesn’t liturgy mean “the work of the people”? Why waste time wasting time?

Keeping silence is work indeed. It goes against our obsessive need to communicate, socialize, produce, achieve. It is a confrontation with our emptiness, self-deceptions, even self-image—those things we try so hard to hide under blankets of activity and sound. Silence involves a reorientation of the self, a realignment, from doing to receiving. From silence emerges the most natural expression before the divine mystery: awe and speechlessness.

The benefits of silence are numerous. Silence allows the word of God to take root in the heart and to transform it. It makes space for hearing things that would not otherwise be audible. It lets us relax our grip—and allows life to grip us instead. Keeping silent is a most productive way to waste time. As Quakers have been known to say: “Don’t just do something; sit there.”

The old Roman rite, like other ancient liturgies, made no explicit provision for silence. The congregation participated interiorly throughout, witnessing the sacred action performed by the priest and ministers as one would watch a play. The kind of silence called for in the reformed Roman rite is different. Its silences are considered public acts. They demand as much conscious, active participation as the songs and the acclamations do.

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ 2003 Introduction to the Order of Mass (IOM) states that the purpose of liturgical silence is “to allow the voice of the Holy Spirit to be heard in the hearts of the people of God and to enable them to unite personal prayer more closely with the word of God and the public voice of the church.” Yet achieving a focused, purposive liturgical silence is a significant challenge because it is both alien to modern life and in some ways hindered by the structure of the revised rite itself.

Our culture is increasingly afflicted by a kind of collective attention-deficit disorder (ADD), a state of agitation fostered by a relentless media bombardment, and by the ceaseless chatter facilitated by cell phones and the Internet. Silence, sacred or otherwise, has become not only hard to find but frightening. The nervous twitch of ADD is amply evident in the “down times” of various ministers during the liturgy: priests get up during the readings to adjust the heating system; servers twirl their cinctures during the consecration; musicians flip through their hymnals during the Prayer of the Faithful; ushers prowl the church almost anytime for someone to usher—all of them compulsively doing something when they otherwise have nothing specific to do. And none of this is lost on the rest of the congregation. The more distracted the ministers, the more distracted the worshipers.

The rubrics of the Roman Missal specifically mention only three places for silence: at the act of penance, before the orations, and after Communion. In addition, the 2002 revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) recommends silences after the readings and homily, and for private petition during the Prayer of the Faithful. Still, most of these directives are suggestive rather than prescriptive, and thus have been easily ignored.

Furthermore, the revised rite—and often the architecture it inspired—has been designed to facilitate community and an atmosphere of fellowship and shared prayer. Catholics are no longer inhibited when it comes to talking in church, and sometimes carry their sense of camaraderie into the sanctuary. Unless you happen to be visiting a Trappist monastery, it is almost impossible to think of silence as a communal activity nowadays.

Still, speaking is clearly not the only means of personal sharing. When friends stand before a work of art at a museum, they contemplate it silently, individually and together at once, then offer one another their impressions. It is something like that in the liturgy, with its movement between activity and reflection and back again. That is why the IOM calls silence “indispensable to the rhythm of a balanced celebration,” and notes that times of praise can become unnerving and spiritually counterproductive—“burdensome,” it calls them—if not tempered with opportunities for quiet. Like a good visit to a museum, good liturgy cannot be rushed. As the IOM emphasizes: “Liturgical silence is a stillness, a quieting of spirits, a taking of time and leisure to hear, assimilate, and respond. Any haste that hinders reflectiveness should be avoided.”

Even when moments of nonspeaking are observed in the liturgy, it may not be enough to quiet the spirit. Sacred liturgical silence has to be carefully nurtured on two levels, the personal and the structural. On the personal level, priests and the other ministers must come to value silence and learn how to observe it in the liturgy. On the structural level, the rite itself must enhance the calm and the focus necessary for effective silence to take place. Since liturgical stillness and prayerful concentration can only be achieved by a conscious application of the will, training in these matters will be required. Cultivating attentiveness among lectors, eucharistic ministers, servers, choir and musicians, and ushers should be part of their training. The goal should be to provide techniques that quell agitation and rein in the wandering mind.

Useful in this regard are “centering prayer” and the “mindfulness meditation” made popular by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Mindfulness is little more than following the old Latin maxim Age quod agis: “Do what you are doing.” Simple exercises such as fixing attention on the “background” activities of the body—breathing, walking, eating—can help one become aware of the assault of stray thoughts and how to dismiss them.

As presider and ministers become familiar with these techniques, they in turn can instruct the entire church. Mindfulness can be deepened by inviting the whole assembly to lay aside anxious thoughts and to ready themselves for the sacred action. Before celebrating the liturgy, all the ministers might gather to focus in silent prayer. The whole Mass will then move more deliberately and the inevitable distractions will be more easily transcended.

Congregations are more likely to participate fully and actively in liturgical silence if they come to expect it as part of every Sunday Mass. Since there are no explicit formulas in the rite to invite silence—aside from the act of penance—priests must do the inviting. The GIRM allows for this, noting that it is up to the presider “to offer certain explanations that are foreseen in the rite itself.”

Besides impromptu words, formal phrases of invitation incorporated into the celebration would help indicate that silences are an integral, not optional, element of the ritual. Some suggestions follow.

• At the outset of the liturgy, the priest could orient the assembly by bidding all to quiet their minds and place themselves in the presence of God. Such an invitation establishes a clear boundary between profane and sacred time.

• The act of penance could be made more specific. The vague invitation to “call to mind our sins,” followed by the usual ten-second pause, is seldom effective. Additional time could be extended by the priest to move worshipers to contemplate their sinfulness, to recall God’s unconditional love, and to beg for forgiveness and healing, with a period for silence after each of these steps. A more intensive, deliberate act of penance would better prepare everyone to celebrate the sacred mysteries.

• After the readings. As the GIRM states, “it is also appropriate to include brief periods of silence, accommodated to the gathered assembly, in which, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared.”

• During the Eucharistic Prayer. Because of the length and familiarity of this section of the liturgy, the mind is likely to wander. Pausing at certain points in the prayer balances the words of praise with an opportunity for expressing wordless awe.

• Song may also be effectively used to elicit prayerful silence, most especially during the Communion procession. In our parish, we sing a simple refrain (such as “He Is Lord” or “Let All That Is within Me Cry Holy”), repeated slowly and continuously throughout the procession, until the Communion vessels have been cleansed and all the ministers have returned to their places. This can be a period for “prayer of the heart,” a mantra that calms the soul and disposes one to enter the silence that follows.

The liturgy is a school of spirituality. In an hour or so each week, it provides the instruction, disposition, and models that feed the interior life from day to day. The rhythms of action and contemplation, joyous praise, and peaceful silence experienced in the liturgy reawaken the natural and supernatural rhythms needed to balance the pace of ordinary life.


Related: Be Still, by the Editors

Roger F. Repohl is director of music at Our Lady of Victory Church, the Bronx, New York.
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Published in the 2005-12-16 issue: View Contents
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