Our Liturgy and Silence

 By Fr. Jim Hewes

Today it seems more than ever we live in a time of noise.  We seemingly can’t escape the radio, stereo, traffic, TV and so many other forms of noise that constantly bombard us.  It is much more difficult to pray in such an atmosphere of life.

Prayer is essential for our lives as Christians, and for Catholics, prayer reaches its peak in communion with God at our Sunday Mass.  The Mass is the prayer of the Church.  Silence is a crucial part of any prayer and thus is a vital part of the Sunday Eucharist. 

            The new liturgy after Vatican II tried to emphasize the importance of full active and conscious participation of all the faithful at Mass.  The Sunday Eucharist is not just the priest’s domain, but the  celebration of the entire community as well.  The drawback with the liturgy before Vatican II was that the Mass was seen almost as a private prayer where each person did their thing, like being alone on an island.  The priest did his part and each parishioner did their own.  Nobody was supposed to “bother” anyone (I feel that is one of the reasons many people had such problems with the kiss of peace).  But the Mass was not meant to be a private prayer. It is the public prayer of the church. People can pray privately anytime they want but Sunday is the day the whole community gathers as one body, one voice to worship God together.

            The new liturgy seems to have gone a long way in renewing this early practice of the communal dimension of Mass.  The drawback with the new liturgy is that we now have a problem of non-stop celebration.  The Mass begins and moves rapidly to a conclusion with little time to pause and meditate on the profound mystery in our midst:  Jesus Christ truly present as the Bread of Life.  There is so much singing together, praying together, and so many words flowing, that we don’t have time to realize the full impact of what is happening.

            There is much we can learn from the Mass before Vatican II to correct some of the problem.  For one of the strengths in the pre-Vatican liturgy was that the people had time for silence, to pray and meditate.  It was through this (and other aspects of the Mass) that the Eucharistic Mystery was absorbed.  Some of this has definitely been lost with the new liturgy.  The answer to me seems to lie in more pauses of silence.  Many people already are uncomfortable with silence at the Mass.  I think it is because there is so much noise that we are used to in our everyday lives, that we become uncomfortable with silence, especially in church.  This shows itself when the priest or lector pauses a moment, we become anxious looking about, glancing at our watches, wanting the person to get on with the “business at hand.”  In such times, mere moments seem like hours.  This is intensified by the wordiness and constant participation demanded by the new liturgy.  What is crucial is that we come to appreciate the value of silence. 

            A small paragraph in the Liturgical Constitution of Vatican II states:  “ at proper times all should observe reverent silence.”  The general instruction appended to the Roman Missal sees silence not as an interruption in the action or more delay in the movement of the Mass but rather, states “silence at designated times is part of the celebration.”

            Four specific times where silence is designated are (1) The period of recollection provided in the penitential rite; (2) The time provided for personal prayer after the invitation “let us Pray”; (3) A pause at the conclusion of the Sunday readings or homily, (4) after communion which is a most intimate time with Jesus.  These silent pauses are recommended in the Bishop’s newsletter to be brief, but brief in terms of minutes, not seconds.

            What is important is seeing the true meaning of silent pauses at Sunday Mass.  The purpose of these pauses is not meant to make the liturgy longer nor an invitation to nervous inactivity.  These silent moments can be the most intensely personal and active times in the whole celebration, when each person, out of their own quiet faith, reinforces the spirit of the worship rendered by the entire community.  It provides the heart for worship and offsets the tendency for the worship to be empty and routine.

            Silence is not an absence of noise, but rather, sacred quiet which opens us to God’s Spirit.  It is out of such moments that God can really get through to us and move us to truly uplifting vocal praise and song.  These silent moments serve to embrace and emphasize the words or phrases that went before.  It allows us a chance to catch our breath.  Silent pauses allow us to reflect on what we are really doing.  It gives us a chance to listen to God in our heart.

            The pre-Vatican liturgy has much to teach us. Let us learn from its strength.  Let us grow to value the silence of the pre-Vatican II liturgy in order to give depth to the participation and celebration of the new liturgy.  Then we will be like the wise scribe of the Gospel who brings out from his storehouse both the old and the new.  Let us learn to accept the best of our tradition so that we may realize God’s love more fully.  In this way each one of us will be able to truly worship God from the quiet of our heart with loud hymns and prayers of thanksgiving together.

This article is written to explain the value of silence in the liturgy as well as why the priest sits down and pauses after the homily and after Communion.  This is also the reason that we will be taking up our second collection after the first collection in order to give an uninterrupted time of thanksgiving after Communion.