On Sacred Silence

by Michael Raia

Most Catholics encounter regular challenges to the deep reflection the Church encourages before and throughout the liturgy. After all, the earthly liturgy is both a heavenly and human act. Among the possible culprits are various distractions among the assembly – an entirely expected and important one to overcome – the musicians and other liturgical ministers, and many times a celebrant who omits this critical element. Central to the active participation urged leading up to Vatican II by the Liturgical Movement and certainly thereafter, sacred silence is paramount for allowing the exterior participation (postures, gestures, responses, singing) to develop the deeper interior participation of the heart and mind. Whether in the interest of time or a lack of awareness of this essential component, the exclusion of sacred silence from the liturgy can have profound results, particularly in a society that is starved for it. Put another way, one of the key reasons that many Catholics do not experience the transforming power of the liturgy is that there is not enough in the way of sacred silence.

Consider these two sections of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

45. Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in the different parts of the celebration. For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him.

Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to 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 celebration in a devout and fitting manner.

56. The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favor meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided. In the course of it, brief periods of silence are also appropriate, accommodated to the assembled congregation; by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily.

Benedict XVI also addressed this in The Spirit of the Liturgy:

We are realizing more and more clearly that silence is part of the liturgy. We respond, by singing and praying, to the God who addresses us, by 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. Such stillness will not be just a pause, in which a thousand thoughts and desires assault us, but a time of recollection, giving us an inward peace, allowing us to draw breath and rediscover the one thing necessary, which we have forgotten. That is why silence cannot be simply “made"“, organized as if it were one activity among many. It is no accident that on all sides people are seeking techniques of meditation, a spirituality for emptying the mind. One of man’s deepest needs is making its presence felt, a need that is manifestly not being met in our present form of liturgy.

A few key points to keep in mind as context and backdrop to these excerpts:

1) Sacred silence is not merely a void of external liturgical action. It is a deliberate time to go deeper. The priest acting as head of the body must model this action and lead the assembly into it as well. As dynamic and engaging as the music, homily, and other aspects of the liturgy may be, if a priest cannot himself pray in silence at these times of the Mass, he cannot reasonably expect his assembly to do so, and they will continue to struggle to realize the vision of the Council for the renewal of the liturgy.

2) As sensate beings, we know that our surroundings play a central role in our attitudes and dispositions. The church building and all of the material signs that play a role in the liturgy affect our ability to properly engage in liturgy, which is precisely why the Church gives them such an exalted role in the practice of the faith (See the Order of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, for example). A beautiful church can contribute to fostering a rich and fruitful sacred silence that draws the faithful more deeply into the Paschal mystery. A poorly designed or badly renovated church will fail to do so because it is less than sacramental and transcendent, focusing only on the here and now and not pointing to heaven. This causes the members of the body to be unable to engage at the deeper level of active or actual participation (not just going through the motions), waiting for the next moment of “religious entertainment” that Benedict cautions is not at all what the Church has in mind for the faithful to respond to the universal call to holiness.

This can certainly be a challenge with the Mass schedules that many priests are required to keep, with tidying up of pews and loading and unloading parking lots. But this paramount element of sacred silence is not dispensable in the slightest. Even 10 deliberate seconds of silence and stillness in the liturgy are incredibly powerful, especially when a priest teaches his parish how to really pray. To our dear priests, thank you for your lives of service. Please be mindful of the importance of this component of the liturgy in bringing us all to a greater disposition to receive the grace of the sacraments and to be transformed in holiness and configured to the will of God. Please invest and likewise encourage your faithful to invest in this aspect of the liturgy that is crucial for developing the spirituality for the interior dimension of active participation that is the right and duty of all the baptized.