Silence is a prerequisite to prayer. Only when distractions are eliminated can the heart express itself unencumbered. This truth about our spiritual practices applies both to personal and public prayer. We must quiet even the noise within ourselves if we are to truly listen and speak to God. But since the Mass and Divine Office are public acts of worship, since they are the genre of ritual, more structure is necessary for the sake of the common good and conveying the meaning of the prayer.
Some forms of worship require audible words: “Only the utterance of the ritual formula endows the gesture with meaning.” Thus, in Catholicism, a sacramental celebration is comprised of “matter” and “form,” or “stuff” and “words.” And yet silence adds another essential dimension; silence itself is a sacramental sign of the interior disposition of the one who prays.
In American culture silence is polyvalent. Children often experience it as restriction. “Speak only when spoken to,” is one example. Mom’s mantra “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is another.
The tennis match and the chess tournament tout a different type of silence—and there is no need to explain why. Symphonies are occasions for unqualified calm: the conductor approaches the podium to the accompaniment of roaring applause. Then suddenly a stunning silence ensues. Why? Partly by respect. Perhaps so as not to distract the musicians, the fellow listeners. Certainly to catch every note.
Even the ancient Greeks had various understandings of keeping quiet. The disciples of the philosopher Pythagoras, for example, were not allowed to speak for the first five years of their training. They were listeners, hearers, learners. And once instructed, they were less chatty and more sage when they did speak.
Invitation not Interdiction
In the worship of God, silence is meant to be more invitation than interdiction, especially in the reformed liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. Silence in the liturgy is intended to give expression to the prayers of the people, albeit in the quiet of their hearts; its aim is not to make them passive. And yet, although liturgical norms consistently call for moments of sacred silence, liturgical formation in this area has not always been effective. For example, some lectors are trained to count to 15 or 30 between readings. Some in the assembly even go so far as to track these lengths of silence with their watches! Oftentimes, too, the silence required for worthy participation in the Mass is disregarded by ministers who seem to desire gold stars for speed.
The Roman Missal is very direct in what it says about silence in the liturgy: “Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in the different parts of the celebration. For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him.”
In offering this beautiful insight, the Roman Missal demonstrates what the meaning of silence depends on when it occurs during Mass. Some categories suggest themselves in this insight too. We can infer that silence is aimed at recollection, meditation, and praise. Further, the Missal notes that there is also a silence of preparation that should occur before Mass begins, “in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas.”
Silence for Recollection
About 50 years ago, the bishops offered insightful instruction regarding the purpose of silence in the Mass. “There is a religious silence in which we hear God’s word,” they write in a 1966 letter, “another silence in which we listen to the prayer of the priest and then respond in affirmation, and also a prayerful silence of priest and people together, recently restored to public worship.”
In the Act of Penitence, the priest’s invitation, “Let us acknowledge our sins…” should be followed by a brief pause (“A brief pause for silence follows” is what the Order of Mass tells us.) This pause should not be so short as to give the impression that one has no sins; nor should it be so long as to make the people think the ministers should have gone to confession before Mass began. This pause gives everyone the opportunity for recollection, to think of their failings and to entrust themselves to God’s mercy.
Moments later, the Missal calls for a second moment of silent prayer. Let us be clear. Oremus (“Let us pray”) does not mean “Bring me the book.” It does not mean “Watch me flip through the pages of the Missal because the server lost the ribbon on the way up.” It does not mean “Please stand.” It does not even mean “Listen to this prayer I am going to read.” It does mean “Pray.”
If the liturgy is respected and the rubrics followed, “Let us pray” is followed by a moment of silent prayer, as the Missal instructs us:
“Next the Priest calls upon the people to pray and everybody, together with the Priest, observes a brief silence so that they may become aware of being in God’s presence and may call to mind their intentions. Then the Priest pronounces the prayer usually called the ‘Collect’ and through which the character of the celebration finds expression.”
Any other thing done at this moment obscures the meaning of the liturgy and thwarts the participation of the faithful.
“After ‘Let us pray’ a brief but real pause for silent prayer should be made by the celebrating priest—and the people themselves should be prepared so that they know the meaning of this time of prayer. In it each one, priest and people alike, may reflect briefly on the needs of one and all, on concrete and personal petitions and pleas.”
The dynamic of this rite joins the disparate and many into one. In the Collect, countless individual prayers are gathered or collected in a unity, bundled like the strands of a cable which give the whole a greater strength than any one part alone. In this way, the private petitions are given public, ecclesial expression. This is why it is so crucial that the faithful be instructed on what to do during the sacred silence and the celebrant allow time for the prayers to be formulated. The Collect cannot possibly serve its ritual function if the people are not given the opportunity to formulate their own prayers.
Silence for Meditation
Silentium facite! Silence! Certain generations of Christians were told quite emphatically to keep quiet before the proclamation of the Gospel. And certainly, this makes sense. After all, the gospel is not simply a text; it is the living Word that should be welcomed in an attitude of prayer. “By silence and by singing, the people make this divine word their own.”
The Roman Missal describes the importance of silence during the Liturgy of the Word: “The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favor meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided. In the course of it, brief periods of silence are also appropriate, accommodated to the assembled congregation; by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily.”
Likewise, Musicam Sacram helps us understand what we are to do during the silence: “At the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence. Through it the faithful are not only not considered as extraneous or dumb spectators at the liturgical service, but are associated more intimately in the mystery that is being celebrated, thanks to that interior disposition which derives from the word of God that they have heard, from the songs and prayers that have been uttered, and from spiritual union with the priest in the parts that he says or sings himself.”
Another, if subtler, instance of silence in the Mass is especially poignant. After the Consecration of the Chalice, the priest says: “The mystery of faith.” As the Order of Mass indicates, “the people continue, acclaiming: We proclaim your death, O Lord.” At this moment, the priest alone is silent. But why? Why doesn’t the Missal include the acclamation among the things to be said by the priest? Why does it impose a ritual silence on him?
To understand what is happening here, we must turn to the etymology of the word “mystery”—musterion. It comes from an ancient word (muo) which means “to shut the mouth.” It is the same word from which is derived the English cognate “mute.” At this moment, immediately after the Consecration, with the Divine Presence before him—Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity—the priest realizing it, utters “the mystery of faith” and is dumb-founded by the Presence before him. In this instance, silence before the ineffable God signifies the uselessness of words. The priest simply stands in awe and wonder at what God has done. Meanwhile, the faithful lend voice to sing of the mystery.
In preparation for Holy Communion, the “Priest prepares himself by a prayer, said quietly, so that he may fruitfully receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The faithful do the same, praying silently.”
Sometimes our silence is speechlessness, sometimes it signals caution or serves as a corrective against words that could offend God.
Silence for Praise
After the reception of Holy Communion “a sacred silence may be observed for a while, or a psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may be sung.”
Having heard with our ears, seen with our eyes, and tasted with our tongues the marvels God has done for us, the liturgy calls us again to silence. This “staging” of silence in the ritual provides an opportunity to praise God for his presence and action in the world. We learn that “silent worship is the least imperfect homage that one can pay to the only God, who, being one, baffles the multiplying operations of language: the only true language to speak to God, and of God, is silence.”
Since a sacramental celebration is a fabric, “woven from signs and symbols” each of the various parts adds to the whole of the celebration. Silence is one of these sacramental signs. Far from being an absence of meaning, silence is charged with meaning. We use silence to honor, to reverence, to appreciate, to learn. Ministers who observe the ritual silence in Mass enable the faithful to fully, consciously participate in the liturgy. Those who have learned that silence has many meanings will be able to profit from the unique and varied senses at the different parts of the Mass. They will seize the opportunity to collect their thoughts, formulate their prayers, meditate on the awesome mysteries presented in the celebration, let themselves be dumb-founded at the self-revelation of God and finally praise God for his goodness to us.
Father Douglas Martis is a priest of the Diocese of Joliet-in-Illinois. He holds doctoral degrees in Sacred Theology and History of Religions and Religious Anthropology. He is director of Sacred Liturgy and professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio.
1. Silvia Montiglio, Silence in the Land of Logos, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, 10.
2. Cf. Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium 30; Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction, Musicam Sacram, 5 March 1967, 17: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 59 (1967) p. 305.
3. IGMR, 45. Emphasis added.
4. IGMR, 45.
5. Bishops’ Commission on the Liturgical Apostolate Newsletter, February 1966.
6. See also IGMR, 51.
7. IGMR, 54. Emphasis added.
8. Bishops’ Commission on the Liturgical Apostolate Newsletter, February 1966.
9. IGMR, 55.
10. IGMR, 56.
11. n. 17.
12. IGMR, 84.
13. Order of Mass, 138. Cf. IGMR, 88, 164.
14. Montiglio, 9.
15. CCC 1145.