Sounds of Silence

Author: ZENIT



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 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.

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 activities.

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

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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 with sound."

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 to begin.

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 celebration begins.

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 over.

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 community spirit — although this is above all a fruit of the liturgy rather than a result of human endeavor.

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. ZE04020323


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