The Need for Intentional Silence in the Mass

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A few years ago a priest shared the following story at a party. It was a casual event and he told it in a manner that garnered some laughs. The point he was making, however, was no joking matter. Father began:

A visiting priest was offering Mass one Sunday in a soft, quiet, voice. After Mass a woman came up to him and said, “Father, thank you for Mass today. Everything was so beautiful, except one thing: I could barely hear you during the Eucharistic prayer.”

To which Father replied with a smile…

“That’s because I wasn’t talking to you.”

The story reminds us of an important truth, one that we must never forget, and one that silence (or quietude) reinforces: the priest is actually doing something. In other words, he isn’t talking to us. Rather, he is offering the Mass. The priest is performing an action,  and he does so in persona Christi. In fact, while we do participate by joining our prayers with him, our presence is unnecessary for the action he is performing.

Intentional silence in the Mass can therefore serve as a form of catechesis for the faithful. After years of priests offering the Mass versus populum and in the vernacular, it is no wonder that many people think he is speaking to them, even during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

We can look to Pope Benedict for a better understanding of this integral role of silence in the Mass. In his classic work Spirit of the Liturgy, (then) Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

We are realizing more and more clearly that silence is part of the liturgy…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…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…For silence to be fruitful, as we have already said, it must not be just a pause in the action of the liturgy. No, it must be an integral part of the liturgical event.

There is yet another spiritual fruit gained by the reintroduction of silence into Mass: it teaches us how to pray. More specifically, liturgical silence can help to foster and nurture mental prayer.

Traditional priest, exorcist, and author Father Chad Ripperger discussed this very connection between silence and mental prayer in the Fall 2001 issue of Latin Mass Magazine. Fr. Ripperger noted:

The ancient ritual, on the other hand, actually fosters a prayer life. The silence during the Mass actually teaches people that they must pray. Either one will get lost in distraction during the ancient ritual or one will pray. The silence and encouragement to pray during the Mass teach people to pray on their own. While, strictly speaking, they are not praying on their own insofar as they should be joining their prayers and sacrifices to the Sacrifice and prayer of the priest, these actions are done interiorly and mentally and so naturally dispose them toward that form of prayer…

The reintroduction of silence into the Mass must be given a greater priority as we move forward. Authentic liturgical reform requires that the faithful have a better understanding of what is actually happening in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Silence can help reinforce the fact that the Mass is an action and not a communal conversation.

Silence also facilitates mental prayer at a time when so many are in need of rediscovering it. We need the sacred liturgy to help lead the faithful into greater silence, particularly as the world relentlessly gives us noise.

To once again reference the wisdom of Cardinal Ratzinger: “For silence to be fruitful…it must be an integral part of the liturgical event.”

Photo credit: Patrick Craig

Posted on March 22, 2017, in liturgy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’ve been attending the Old Rite Low Mass twice a week for about 3 years, with a Missal in hand. That’s long enough to become very familiar with all the prayers whether I can overhear them or not, so I pray them silently too.

    I appreciate exactly the point you make about how the silence fosters our own prayers. In the New Rite High Mass on Sunday, our priest now says the whole Roman Canon in Latin, obviously out loud. Somehow, even though it is all ad orientem etc, that makes it more something performed which I listen to, and my intense prayer focus is harder to sustain.

  2. I recently had occasion to be near the Grande Chartreuse. I probably shouldn’t even have emailed them, but I was glad they refuse everyone entry on account of not wanting to disturb the quiet of the monks there. I think often of their documentary “Into Great Silence” made a while back.

    I’ve been trying also to rediscover ways as a layman to bring back reverence to the Mass, and made a YouTube video I hope will help others to do the same: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHM70uysCdg

    Much depends on the priest of course, but there are things any person can do while simply attending Mass to help the liturgical situation in the Church. As you referred to, rediscovering the intimacy of the moment of the consecrating priest is important.

  3. I really enjoyed this article and what it points too. Just one comment of concern about the priest’s response to the elder lady .. i hope he was able to flavour his response to her in a way that’s not as blunt as it sounds in the story. … surely then, his practice of silence would have cultivated sweet, albeit honest, speech when he does talk….. just an observation.

  4. Yes its true in silence we can talk to God more in mind .and heart we can even cry as if he is really beside us expressing our own self to Him in Eucharistic Liturgy. This is the time when the priest perform the actuation of the holy sacrifice Jesus did on the last supper.We the faithful will uphold this holy moment to adore and worship Him ,never say a words vocally but in the silence of our heart.

  5. This is so very good true. I know I am now one of the older generations and I am guilty of not always being as reverent as I can and should be. When I was I my teens and twenties I saw that as a Roman Catholic we appeared and were different. We did not visit in the church proper and children were never allowed to run ANYWHERE in the church building. We had our church or Sunday clothes that were only worn for church which included weddings and funerals. We need to back and BE more fun reverent and Remember that Jesus is in the tabernacle. HE is THERE. I hope one day the communion kneeler will be put back and that those receiving the Eucharist will do so and show the respect that JESUS and GOD deserve. Instead of walking away as if they are chomping on a picture of gum.

  6. Not directly related to the article, but I seem unable to find the information otherwise. You linked to an article from The Latin Mass Magazine. It seems many of their links are broken – do you know if they are still publishing new issues? Thank you.

    • It seems the link you’ve used is to an older version of their website, thus the problems I encountered. They’re still very much in production. Thank you!

  1. Pingback: The Need for Intentional Silence in the Mass – Epiphany of Our Lord Church

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