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Why Silence is Important to the Mass


I remember the general quiet and stillness associated with test taking back when I was in school. Everyone understood the necessity of maintaining silence in order to allow for each student to achieve his or her best possible results. Teachers for their part facilitated this by establishing an atmosphere conducive to learning through limiting noise and movement.

Schools of Prayer

What do you experience when you participate in the Holy Mass each Sunday? Do you enter into the sacred, thereby experiencing the same comparable stillness that you would expect to have in a classroom at school? Is noise and motion minimized so that concentration and silence can be maximized? Does your parish allow for the necessary environment that is conducive to deep prayer?

In his 2001 Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Inuente Pope St. John Paul called for our christian communities to become “genuine schools of prayer”. He continued:

Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully, above all in the liturgy, the summit and source of the Church’s life…is the secret of a truly vital Christianity, which has no reason to fear the future, because it returns continually to the sources and finds in them new life. (NMI, 32)

Our Sunday liturgy should indeed create an environment for “learning”. The motion, noise and atmosphere of the profane must give way to the silence and mystery of the sacred.

At times in the past my family and I have experienced a liturgy that fully embraced the concept of the Holy Mass as celebration. By this I mean that the typical commotion we might usually associate with a party environment has been transferred to the sacred space of the Mass. In these instances the imposition of the temporal and visible are so aggressively incorporated within the liturgy that the sacred and invisible becomes nearly impossible to “see”. What you then have, as noted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his memoirs, is a community which is celebrating only itself.

Unfortunately, I have seen this much more prevalent among communities that exclusively offer the Ordinary Form of the Mass. From my experience, the Extraordinary Form better establishes and sustains a prayerful environment through such means as the use of Latin, Ad Orientem worship, the use of Chant and frequent kneeling on the part of the faithful.

The Spirit of the Liturgy

Our schools (parishes) need to rediscover an environment conducive to prayer so that we the students (laity) can deepen in our relationship with the Lord through participation in the Holy Mass.

Five years before he was elevated to the Chair of Peter, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote his seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy. With regards to silence he noted:

“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. 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…One of man’s deepest needs is making its presence felt, a need that is manifestly not being met in our present form of the liturgy. 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.”

The Consequences of a Failing School and Things You Can Do

Is there a real danger when our “genuine schools of prayer”, our parishes, are not facilitating the needed silence for the faithful to hear our Lord and respond to Him? Later in Novo Millennio Inuente Pope St. John Paul warns that we are wrong if we believe that “ordinary Christians” can sustain simply with shallow prayer. Without a deep prayer life, he argues, we will only be “mediocre Christians” at best, but more likely “Christians at risk”; at risk to lose our very faith when confronted by indifference or even outright hostility from a hyper-secularized culture.

There are some things that we the laity can do, however, to help strengthen our “schools of prayer”:

We can educate our own immediate family on the need to remain quiet and prayerful while in Church, instructing our children that the Lord is in the tabernacle before, during and after Mass and that conversation should be reserved for outside.

We can also utilize our time before Mass to prayerfully place ourselves in the presence of the Lord to better prepare for the Holy Sacrifice. If you have a longer drive to get to Mass then pray your family rosary in the car. If you have a shorter commute, arrive early and spend that time in prayer, particularly if your parish offers a rosary before Mass begins.

Incorporating the wisdom and pastoral advice of Pope St. John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, may we seek to foster genuine schools of prayer by instilling silence in our churches and restoring a sense of the sacred to the liturgy.

An earlier version of this article was posted on July 21, 2013.

Photo Credit: John Cosmas

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