Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Does the Silence Have to Teach Us?

Today I was privileged to participate in a Mass in our Pastoral Center chapel to welcome our new Bishop-elect, Most Rev. R. Daniel Conlon, who will be installed as Bishop of Joliet on July 14.  Much  shorter than our tall auxiliary, Bishop Siegel, he entered almost unobtrusively at the end of the opening procession, took his place at the presider's chair and began the Greeting in a confident, resonant voice.  Impressive.

Delivery of the prayers - excellent. Homily - short, pithy and totally appropriate.

Even more impressive, however, was his observance of significant periods of silence during the Mass.  Even more than what he said, was the space he left around the words. When he said "Let us pray," he actually allowed enough silence for all present to bring a thought to mind - something few presiders bother to do. He did this several times during the Mass.

I came away with a clear impression that Bishop Conlon cares deeply about the celebration of the Mass - but even more deeply about the ability of the faithful to be part of it. Good qualities to be sure.

Why is the experience of silence during Mass essential?  Pacing, rhythm and space have as much to do with good liturgy as the spoken parts.  In the silences, we can either gather our prayers into one, or just wonder when the presider will continue.  In the silences, we can either meditate on the proclamation of the Word that we have just heard, or gather wool - our choice.  What makes the difference?  Good catechesis on knowing why we have silence in the liturgy at all.

In the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#45), we are told, “Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times.”  It is "sacred" because it is in the silence that we meet the holiness of God - and discover the depths of the holiness of our relationship to God and to the Body of Christ.

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship 118 fleshes out this wisdom about silence during liturgy:
118. Music arises out of silence and returns to silence. God is revealed both in the beauty of song and in the power of silence. The Sacred Liturgy has its rhythm of texts, actions, songs, and silence. Silence in the Liturgy allows the community to reflect on what it has heard and experienced, and to open its heart to the mystery celebrated. Ministers and pastoral musicians should take care that the rites unfold with the proper ebb and flow of sound and silence. The importance of silence in the Liturgy cannot be overemphasized.
During the Mass, we are to have silence at these five times:
• at the Act of Penitence (to reflect on our sins and God's forgiveness)
• after the priest says, “Let us pray” before the Opening Prayer (to allow us to gather our intentions for prayer - which is why it is also called the Collect.)
• after each reading from Scripture   (to reflect on what we have just heard)
• after the homily  (to reflect on what we have just heard)
• after all have received Communion  (to allow time for people to pray privately in thanksgiving to Christ in the Eucharist.)

This last silence is perhaps the least practiced and the least understood.  During the Communion procession and song, we are all actually to be singing, lending our voice to the thanksgiving of the assembled Body of Christ. It is only after that, when the presider sits after the Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle, that it is time for personal prayer.

The final "Let us pray" at today's Mass spoke volumes. We were being given permission to add our own prayers - that this new bishop, newly appointed and sent to us - will be a channel of God's Grace for the Diocese of Joliet.  Somehow, I think he will.


  1. I really enjoy a lot of silence at Mass. Am I right that the Mass is fundamentally supposed to be oriented toward fostering the contemplative?

    I like this, thanks!

  2. Marc - The primary purpose of the Mass, as the public, ritual prayer of the Church, is to join our voices as one as the Body of Christ, united with Christ, in prayer to the Father and in concert with the Liturgy of Heaven. However, contemplation is certainly not unimportant. Mass is, actually, not "me and Jesus" time - but in order for us to be able to offer our lives as a sacrifice along with the Eucharist and to be open for the Eucharist to transform us, we do need to connect our lives to the celebration. That's where the silence comes in. I would say true contemplation would more naturally take place in the context of Adoration or another form of private devotional prayer. However, we can snatch short periods of this at Mass if the silence is sufficient to allow us to immerse ourselves, even if just for a moment.

  3. Thanks! That's a great explanation! I appreciate it. Makes perfect sense to me.

  4. When he said "Let us pray," he actually allowed enough silence for all present to bring a thought to mind...

    My wife would approve.

  5. That is a first-class answer.