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The Need for Intentional Silence in the Mass


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

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