People in Nashville, Tennessee, pray during the litany of saints at a Mass for the dedication of Sagrado Corazon Church in this 2016 file photo. CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register

Silence as Participation in Worship

How incorporating moments of silence into Mass benefits our union with God

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One of my earliest childhood memories is of entering my parish church in Yonkers, New York. This church was massive, dark, yet sprinkled with light and color from its windows. It had a smell of wood, incense and candles and carried an invitation to the senses and soul to come and rest in the presence of God. On occasion, I would go to daily Mass with my mother or maternal grandfather.

These were always “mystical” affairs in the eyes of a second-grade boy. What were we doing at Mass when hardly anyone was in the church? On these occasions, the weight of liturgical silence was heavy with Divine Presence. It was a different silence than any other; and to this day, the daily Mass carries me with ease into God’s presence. In this subdued environment, one eagerly slips into a disposition of attending to him interiorly, welcoming him in and by way of the silence.

Alternately, on occasion, I have experienced Sunday liturgy to be a bit hurried, wordy and mechanical. Even its music can be distracting — so many verses to sing or to listen to. The Gloria, the Creed, even the monetary collection and the homily, all can either make me impatient or contemplative, but it is hit or miss.

I would be the first to admit that perhaps my love of the daily Mass is aided by my personality. I am an introvert and of Irish heritage. In other words, in me is a Celtically depressed misanthrope who suffers from an allergy to singing. Attraction to empty silent space is a congenital condition.

But such a heritage does not completely explain the daily Mass’s attraction and its objective beauty. There is something in its essence that gently opens the soul over the years. This opening of the soul, from the interior out, is coaxed into such by the daily Mass’ simplicity and silence. One becomes habituated to the silence of daily worship, the expected silent appearance of the presider, his quiet demeanor at the altar or chair.

There is even a deepening community among the few attendees. You may not know their names, but you see them; you almost take attendance if they are not in their pew. “I wonder where he is today,” pops into your thoughts. The lighting is usually dimmer. There is breathing room between worshippers that invites the mind and soul to behold the art and architecture of the church. Sitting there in the pew before the priest emerges, one delights in the silence of the building; its very meaning becomes focused by that silence. The priest enters the sanctuary and intones the Trinitarian greeting. After the greeting, I think, “God is here. This is his dwelling.”

I remember once meeting a convert to Catholicism who said, “How could I not be convinced that the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of truth about Christ after knowing Catholics receive him every day, every day, at daily Mass?” I was struck by her awe in saying, “every day” twice, pondering, as it were, the generosity of God.

Some may object, thinking I am promoting only interiority and not the communal gathering. The Mass is meant to be therapy for individualism not a celebration of its victory. Mass is not about ‘my’ interior comfort but a participation in the Church’s faith and its surrender into the self-sacrifice of Christ upon Calvary. It may appear that I am promoting the emotional, the personal, that I am looking only for some private “payoff” in prayer.

I certainly agree with those cautions. I recognize the perennial tension as we exist here in time to press the value of either the communal or the personal in worship. Such tension will never be resolved, but I think it can be lessened. How best can an individual better participate in a communal event that carries the objective truth of a perduring supernatural reality? What leads the individual, in the midst of an objective religious mystery, to participate more deeply in that reality? What can actually “cure” our culture’s obsession with defining reality around the self? I believe we can be more deeply fastened to the objective if our hearts, the subjective place of encounter, are made vulnerable to being so affected within the communal ritual itself. The daily Mass has made me aware that this encounter can occur.

It is true that the goal of sacramental worship is not to leave one with a self-satisfying “experience.” Worship is ordered toward the adoration of God. Whether one “feels” anything personally is secondary to the objective truth that God is owed our praise in and through the surrender of Christ as he willed worship to be within the Eucharistic gift.

Even still, the Mass is the occasion for a relationship to deepen; it is not simply a place to record a contract satisfied.

The Solution Is Silence

Silence is the reality that integrates our participation in the objective truth of worship with our desire to know we are personally loved by God and offered in love to him.

If we see the silence of the Eucharistic liturgy as optional, or race through its designated time in seconds, we miss the clearest opportunity for individuals to subjectively appropriate the truth of worship.

For the last decade, I have promoted two simple reforms of the Sunday Mass: shorter homilies and silence. If enacted, these two reforms yield the possibility that integration between what is objectively true of the Mass with personal engagement may occur. In other words, silence assists worshippers in letting Christ’s actions affect their own. I have only been inviting clergy to notice something already in the Mass but often overlooked.

Arguing for brief homilies is as strongly resisted as is arguing for a prolongation of silence. Such resistance is difficult to understand, especially in the current climate of Western popular culture that, in some ways, simply carries noise and sound. We have to recognize that many are looking for relief from noise, even as they are addicted to it.

There is a contradiction to the principle of contemplation at work in a Mass heavy on read and lengthy sermons juxtaposed with a dearth of silence. My attention span for lengthy (10-20 minutes) or read sermons goes like this: “Good point, another good point; there goes another one. … I wonder why that lady in front of me chose to sit that far away from her husband? … Is he winding down now? … OK, nope, he is revving up again. … OK, he is leaving the pulpit. He is sitting in the presider’s chair for silent contemplation; oops no. … He’s up already for the Creed. … Now, what did he say again in that homily?”

A homilist spends time preparing a lengthy homily and then wastes that preparation by denying the congregation an opportunity to receive it in the silence that follows. What was the point of preaching then? Silence carries and cradles the homilist’s prayerfully communicated truth to rest in each worshipper’s soul. If the homily’s truth is lodged in the soul, it can then affect the vocation of the laity: to transform culture with the Gospel.

But in order for the Word to be internalized, it has to be heard in faith, heard within public worship. In the Eucharist, our humanity is being engaged in its deepest need: that of salvation from evil by Christ. In silence, that deepest need can be better apprehended. Within the silence, we perceive an invitation to participate in the divine life flowing from the Word proclaimed and the altar of sacrifice. From within the liturgy, we listen to truth, moving beyond the noise of popular culture; we receive spiritual nourishment, moving beyond the substitute “fast foods” of the market economy.

Yearning for Silence

When we are generous with silence within the liturgy, we create the condition for individuals to personally appropriate the salvation offered at baptism, to behold the mystery offered and to participate in it as one’s own. In this, silence can assist us to move from thinking worship is an externally imposed obligation to it being what it is: an objective invitation from the divine to participate in his love, thus receiving human fulfillment and freedom.

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As the Liturgy of the Word concludes, we transition over to the altar. Here, too, we notice that silence can be rushed after the congregation has received the body and blood of Christ and then settles down in the pews. Quite often, the priest will begin to purify the vessels after the distribution of Communion is complete; and since he is the only movement in the church, people will watch him instead of entering prayer. This is understandable.

The priest then returns to the chair for a matter of moments, conscious that some time has passed since distributing holy Communion; so he moves to conclude worship. In reality, then, the congregation only gets “moments” of silence after receiving the Eucharist, which is not sufficient to truly engage with what has been given to them.

To enter silence more deeply and effectively, perhaps the priest can simply return the vessels to the tabernacle and go to his chair to enter the silence. Those vessels needing purification can be attended to after Mass, or by a deacon who serves more obscurely at a credence table. In this way, we move immediately from holy Communion to silence led by the presider.

The priest may even wish to invite the congregation with such words, “Let us enter silent prayer and welcome the Lord with gratitude and prayer.” This instructs the congregation that silence is the Mass right now. There is no music, no singing, no audible prayers and no movement … simply an internal yet unified action of silently receiving the gift that has been bestowed.

Length of Silence

Will all this silence unduly prolong the Mass? Remember, I am inviting this silence to be coupled with a brief homily. The silence I am advocating needs to be no longer than a total of four minutes — two minutes after the homily and the same after the priest has reached his chair following holy Communion. You can put down this essay now and simply begin the stopwatch on your cellphone and see how long two minutes is. It is more than sufficient for the kind of prayer I am inviting.

As the congregation gets accustomed to silence, it will desire it more — people may even ask for it to be longer. More time, more intimacy with the Lord, more personal appropriation of what is happening at the Mass is a good thing — and worshippers will begin to hunger for it.

What was given to me in my childhood, experiencing silence as the fullness of presence, is not simply my private nostalgia. I see it as the normal way God wishes to be with us. God comes to be in communion with us, and communion is established within a rhythm of self-revelation and listening. In seeing our openness to be affected by this rhythm, he always responds generously. If we gift the congregation with both the knowledge of what to do in silence and the actual space within which to enter it at Mass, the whole Church will benefit from its fruit.

Pope Benedict XVi, addressing the bishops of Brazil in 2010, said, “The main, fundamental attitude of the Christian faithful who take part in the liturgical celebration is not action but listening, opening themselves, receiving.”

DEACON JAMES KEATING, Ph.D., is a professor of spiritual theology at Kenrick Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.


 Papal Expressions of Silence in the Liturgy

Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI recognized the directive of the Second Vatican Council concerning sacred silence.

Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic letter Spiritus et Sponsa: “One aspect that we must foster in our communities with greater commitment is the experience of silence. We need silence ‘if we are to accept in our hearts the full resonance of the voice of the Holy Spirit and to unite our personal prayer more closely to the Word of God and the public voice of the Church.’ In a society that lives at an increasingly frenetic pace, often deafened by noise and confused by the ephemeral, it is vital to rediscover the value of silence. The spread, also outside Christian worship, of practices of meditation that give priority to recollection is not accidental. Why not start with pedagogical daring a specific education in silence within the coordinates of personal Christian experience? Let us keep before our eyes the example of Jesus, who ‘rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed’ (Mk 1:35). The Liturgy, with its different moments and symbols, cannot ignore silence” (No.13).

And in “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (Ignatius Press, $19.95), then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “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.”


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