ROME, 20 JAN. 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: What is the role of silence in a Mass? When should there be silence?
J.C., Perth, Australia
A: Silence has a very important role to play in the celebration as
indicated by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 45.
"Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the
designated times," the GIRM says. "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 the homily, all meditate
briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise and
pray to God in their hearts. Even before the celebration itself, it is
commendable that 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 action in a devout and fitting manner."
To this we would add that silence should also be observed after Mass until
one is outside the Church building, both for respect toward the Blessed
Sacrament, and toward those members of the faithful who wish to prolong
their thanksgiving after Mass.
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
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.
Our modern world is starved of silence and Holy Mass should be a
privileged moment to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life and,
through worship and participation in Christ's eternal sacrifice, become
capable of giving an eternal value to these same daily and transitory
To help achieve this, we should foment by all available means the spirit
of attentive and active silence in our celebrations and refrain from
importing the world's clamor and clatter into their midst. ZE04012022
* * *
Follow-up: Sounds of Silence [02-03-04]
In response to our column on the importance of silence (Jan. 20), a reader
from England who had long experience in Africa suggested that my comments
were too centered on the realities of the noisy Western world.
He writes: "In many parts of the world Catholics will spend the whole week
on their farms with little hustle and bustle, no radio, just the sound of
wind and birds and an occasional human voice. When they gather for Mass on
Sunday in parts of Africa, it can seem like a very noisy affair and this
is frequently misunderstood by Western missionaries. They have been silent
all week, farming in an almost contemplative manner. At Mass they want to
sing together, pray aloud together, much more than we who are saturated
He continues: "here are also cultural differences that are often
misunderstood. Africans typically live in a talking culture. What they
think is expressed verbally, or, to put it another way, without verbal
expression, where is thought? So to pray silently may be not to pray at
all. ... The point of all this is that silence will be experienced and
received in different ways around the world. Where life is noisier, Mass
will require more silence. But where life is already silent, Mass may
require more song and verbal prayer."
Our reader certainly makes some valid points. I should perhaps plead
guilty to being at times overly centered on Western situations. One of the
advantages of this column is the opportunity to mine the wisdom and
experience of our readers.
That said, I do think that the fact of living in a relatively silent
ambience is not exclusive to the African experience nor does it
necessarily translate into a desire for a boisterous liturgy. Before the
arrival of portable radios, this general atmosphere of silence was, for
centuries, ubiquitous in rural Europe and America. Yet the Mass was far
more silent than it is today.
The argument from cultural differences is stronger; it is true that
silence will be experienced in different ways in different cultures. While
I have not yet had the privilege of visiting Africa, my ministry brings me
into daily contact with Africans from several countries. They certainly
pertain to a talking culture and have no difficulty in assisting at long
Masses with multiple reflections and frequent common prayers and songs.
Yet my personal experience is that they are also frequently gifted with a
great capacity for silent personal prayer and weave both traits into a
harmonious whole. It is no accident that of the Africans recently raised
to the altars, two of them, Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi and St.
Josephine Bakhita, were cloistered contemplatives.
Liturgical law grants a wide swathe to the bishops to adapt aspects such
as these to the concrete demands of local culture. But I harbor strong
doubts as to the wisdom of completely eliminating silence. While it is
certain that we can vocally talk to God as a community, the experience of
silence makes it a lot easier for God to talk to us.
From the West, some readers from the United States and Australia asked
about the importance of silence before and after Mass in the light of the
need to form community.
Before Mass there should be a general atmosphere of silence. This does not
exclude a quiet word of greeting, a nod of recognition or a friendly
handshake among the parishioners. What should be avoided is the steadily
rising hum of multiple conversations in the pews, often on frivolous
themes, interrupted only by the announcement that the celebration is about
When this happens the result is that while the body and the voice are
ostensibly raised in prayer, the mind tarries on the theme of
conversation. In contrast, an overall spirit of silence allows for an easy
transition from the world to the celebration of the mystery.
This transition is also very necessary for the priest, even when he has
the custom of greeting the faithful before Mass. He should strive to
reserve some moments of silent preparation for the celebration. He may use
the traditional vesting prayers, the prayers before Mass provided in the
missal, or any prayer that helps him to recollect his thoughts before the
Sometimes, people desire to speak with the priest before Mass. Although
there will always be special cases which need immediate attention, in
general it is best for the priest to take the opportunity of a teaching
moment and tactfully point out that Mass is about to begin. He should
always seek to meet them halfway and propose a concrete and convenient
time in which he will attend them. If done charitably, this will edify the
people and help them to value the importance of the Mass.
Other ministers and servers should likewise strive to foment this climate.
As far as possible, all practical details should be resolved beforehand so
as to avoid inopportune interventions.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in No. 45, says: "Even before
the celebration itself, it is commendable that 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 action in a
devout and fitting manner."
Some readers also asked about the respect for the silence after Communion
and what, if any, activities should be carried out during this time.
As we saw in the previous article, after Communion a period of silence
should be observed or a hymn may be sung which is different from the hymn
sung by all during the reception of Communion. In general it is best to
observe the period of silence and even on those occasions when a suitable
hymn is sung, it seems preferable that it be a meditative piece executed
by the choir so as to also allow for silent thanksgiving.
It may sometimes be possible to combine both methods, either leaving a
brief period of silence after a hymn or else concluding a period of
silence with a psalm or song of thanksgiving either executed by the choir
or by the whole congregation. I remember participating in a Mass where the
latter form was used to great effect, a modern setting of the ancient hymn
Anima Christi (Soul of My Savior) concluding the period of silence.
It is inappropriate to use this period of silence for other activities
such as second collections or announcements. The proper time for these is
after the concluding prayer and before the final blessing. If necessary,
the congregation may be invited to sit down until the announcements are
After Mass, the most charitable approach is to quietly leave the main body
of the Church so as to facilitate the recollection of those who wish to
extend their personal thanksgiving for Communion. This quiet is similar to
the situation before Mass as it does not exclude a friendly greeting. But
actual conversation should not begin until outside.
Even in those cases when the tabernacle is not present in the sanctuary
the church remains a sacred space and its character should be respected.
It is true that this may sometimes hinder the formation of a parish
although this is above all a fruit of the liturgy rather than a result of
Many older churches do not have a contingent indoor space where the
faithful may gather after Mass, a difficulty especially acute in areas
with harsh winters. Some pastors strive to overcome these obstacles by
organizing other activities after Mass in the parish hall that allow
parishioners to get to know one another in less formal settings.