Prescribed Periods of Silence During Mass

The Church prescribes silence in several places of the Mass. The first instance where it should occur is not in the actual Mass itself but in the preparations: “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”13.  This, of course, sets the tone for ministers and it helps to foster silence in the people who can “hear” the silence rather than the traditional hoopla that oftentimes goes on in the sacristy. There is nothing worse than a priest in the sacristy saying to ministers just before the start of Mass, “It’s show time!”

The next place of silence is during the Penitential Rite where all are invited to take a moment of silence to call to mind our sins.  That is, we acknowledge our unworthiness to be there in God’s holy presence but grateful that he has still, nonetheless, called us to worship of him.

The Collect (Opening Prayer) is when Father says, “Let us pray” and gathers all of our prayers and, as mediator, offers them to God, “through Christ our Lord”. This prayer is so important it is reserved to the priest celebrant — a deacon may not offer it for he does not stand “in persona Christ”.

We pause for a moment or two after the First Reading (before the Responsorial Psalm) and then again after the Second Reading — before the Alleluia. We allow the Word of God to seep into our being. Perhaps we simply receive it or perhaps it brings forth a word or two of praise and/or thanksgiving.

Following the solemn proclamation of the Holy Gospel is the homily — a vital component to the Liturgy. It is the time when Father or the deacon explains the readings and teaches us how to live what they express. There should be a more prolonged (2-3 minutes) duration of silence after the homily. For many people this specific period of silence along with that after Communion may be the longest they will experience all week given so many busy and hectic (and even chaotic) schedules of the week.

The GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) has this to say: “The liturgy of the word must be celebrated in a way that fosters meditation; clearly, any sort of haste that hinders reflectiveness must be avoided.  The dialogue between God and God’s people taking place through the Holy Spirit demands short intervals of silence, suited to the assembly, as an opportunity to take the word of God to heart and to prepare a response to it in prayer. Proper times for silence during the liturgy of the word are, for example, before this liturgy begins, after the first and second reading, after the homily (56)”14.

While not a prescribed period of silence I would wish for Father to allow the Sign of Peace to “finish” completely before he walks over to the tabernacle to take out the ciboria. I usually follow him with my eyes and body posture and I bow in silent Adoration the entire time he is at the tabernacle and returns to the altar. Remember, there was silence in heaven for half an hour before the seventh seal on the seventh scroll was opened — how much more should there be a deep reverent silence at this point of the Mass?

Finally, after Communion is another opportunity of prolonged silence. It is a time to offer our prayers of Thanksgiving for having fed us with his very self in the Holy Eucharist. It is a time when words fail me the most for “Thank-you” seems as just a mere pittance to give to the Father.

So…what’s this all about? In a 2004 article from Zenit, the author Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeumhas this to say:

The specific periods of silence recommended in the GIRM encourage a general atmosphere of interior and exterior silence for all the participants at Mass. This silence should be sought while listening to the readings, the homily, or the proclamation of the Eucharistic and other priestly prayers. This helps quiet our imagination, our worries and our toils so as to join our hearts to the prayers and be fully attentive to whatever the Holy Spirit should inspire in us. Thus silence at Mass is an active, not a passive disposition.

This form of interior silence does not impede, and indeed favors, full and active participation in those parts of the celebration where the community is united in acclamation and song, for each person is more fully aware of what he or she is doing.

Yes, being present to what one is doing is key. But too many pastors do not speak about the necessity of silence at Mass because they themselves do not observe it. Listen to Cardinal Sarah scold us here — he especially scolds the priests but includes the Faithful as well:

…apart from the homily, all other speeches or introductions of persons should be forbidden during the celebration of Holy Mass. Indeed, we have to avoid turning the church, which is the house of God intended for adoration, into a theater in which people come to applaud the actors who are rated according to their ability to communicate, to use an expression that you often hear in the media. Nowadays, you sometimes get the impression that Catholic worship … has gone from adoration of God to the exhibition of the priest, the ministers, and the faithful. Piety has been abolished, including the word itself, and has been liquidated by liturgists as devotionalism, but they have made the people put up with liturgical experiments and rejected spontaneous forms of devotion and piety. They have even succeeded in imposing applause on funerals in place of mourning and weeping. Did Christ not mourn and weep at the death of Lazarus? “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy…it is a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared….”

Again, from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — “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, 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”.

What, then, to do in order to make a return to the various places of silence in the Liturgy? Education is a must — for priests and deacons and for the laity as well. One suggestion would be to put on our church doors the sign referred to in a previous paragraph: For the sake of Jesus present in the tabernacle, kindly maintain silence in this place.  Also, as previously stated, install a sound system (most churches already have one) and allow for quiet meditative music to be played from a CD — there are plenty to choose from. Another action item would be to put at least a small blurb about the need for silence in the parish bulletin and on the parish website. An article of lengthier duration could be used placed as a bulletin insert.

Finally,  with all due respect to those members of the faithful (and clergy) who wish to pray the Rosary before the start of Mass, kindly begin your Rosary at least 30 minutes before Mass. The Rosary is neither a prelude nor pre-requisite to the Mass.  I come to church early in order to recollect myself and to pray in silence — not in praying the Rosary or even in listening to it. It is a private devotion and it should not interfere with one’s preparation for Mass. Some parishes now have the recitation of the Rosary in the back pews of the Church or off to the side in very low voices. Similarly, one should actually wait about ten minutes after Mass for the public recitation of the Rosary for the sake of those who wish to prolong their prayer of Thanksgiving in silence. As beautiful a devotion as the Rosary is, it should not be rushed into. I’ve seen in parishes where Father has barely stuck his big toe out of the sanctuary when someone begins praying the Rosary in a loud voice. It is all about educating people and leading them by example — starting with the pastor (and, at times, the bishop) and the ministers — lectors, acolytes, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion — most especially when the take their seats in the sanctuary.

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Cynthia Trainque is an author who is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Ministry (MAM) for the Laity at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA. She has served the church for several years as a worker, writer, and volunteer and is presently an active member of Our Lady of Lourdes in Worcester, MA. Cynthia is available to come to speak as a guest speaker/teacher on the beauty of the Catholic faith.  She gives talks and also creates/uses PowerPoint presentations. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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