“Quiet, please! Can we have a moment to pause and reflect?” These phrases come to my mind during many of the Masses I celebrate throughout the diocese and even in my recent trip to Europe. I am referring to the pace of praying at Mass. We move from one prayer and action to another with little or no pause. This is not true in all parishes but is, nonetheless, a common occurrence.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) invites us to pause at specific times during the Mass. These moments occur just after the introduction to the Penitential Act; just after the priest invites the congregation to pray before the Opening Prayer (the Collect); during the Liturgy of the Word (after the first reading, the second reading and the homily); and following the reception of Communion. Many of these moments of prescribed silence are frequently ignored. You might be asking what difference that makes. Let me venture an explanation grounded in our understanding of the Mass and my own experience.
The general guidelines for the celebration of the Mass are deliberate and purposeful. There is a reason for each aspect of these guidelines. According to the great spiritual masters of the Catholic tradition, silence is the place where God speaks to our hearts. That is not the only way God can reach us, but it is indispensable.
If the purpose of the Mass is to encounter Jesus risen and present to us, then silence is an essential element of that encounter. By entering silence at certain times, we are being invited to open ourselves to the presence of the risen Lord. We are invited into a relationship with Jesus that is a true dialogue. We believe that Jesus wants to speak to us, and the silent moments are among the key ways to allow that communication to happen.
During the Penitential Act, we are asked to acknowledge our sin and reminded that Jesus is waiting to offer his mercy. Before the Collect, we are invited to pray, and to bring our petitions to the Lord, knowing that he wants to receive them and respond. We allow Jesus to speak to us in the scripture readings and the homily, but also in the silent pauses which allow that message from him to sink into our hearts. After all of us have received Christ in Holy Communion, we are asked to be still — to be present with the Lord so that he can truly enter our lives and transform us. Taking this time to truly be silent will open the doors to a fuller encounter with Jesus. I know this on a personal level, and at any Mass where this silence is missing, I experience a sense of loss at the absence of that encounter.
In the liturgy, silence means stillness, no sound and no movement. As meaningful as it can be at times, background music is not silence and lacks the solitude that pure silence offers. Certainly, silence can be uncomfortable for those who are not used to it. To a certain extent that would be all of us in our culture.
We are a people whose lives are filled with noise and movement. When we first encounter significant silence in the Mass it might be uncomfortable or even jarring. There is a need for formation — to explain that the moments of silence are carefully chosen and deliberate. It is also important for each of us to be prepared for the encounter that silence is intended to facilitate. Those who are responsible for liturgical ministry must be trained in the mechanics of how this silence is structured during the Gathering Rites, the Liturgy of the Word and the Communion Rite. Above all, it is important to simply do it. Be silent.
Some months ago, the Diocesan Liturgy Commission developed a video that explains the purpose and value of silence in the Mass. The video also suggested ways to develop this practice in the parish setting. It is available on the Office of Worship page of the diocesan web site. I would encourage pastors, lectors and all the faithful to review this presentation. I would encourage parish liturgy committees and liturgical ministers to explore this aspect of the Mass. Work together to figure out how to best achieve these moments of silence and explain them to the people in the pews.
The Diocesan Liturgy Commission also produced a worship aid for silence in the Mass. These were made available for pastors to use in their parishes and can be downloaded from the Office of Worship web page.
I would invite you to make Sacred Silence a priority in this Year of the Eucharist. This is an essential element in the encounter with the risen Lord that is at the heart of this yearlong effort. Once you become accustomed to these silent moments in the Mass, you will cherish them. Then, when you are in a setting where the words all run together, you will, like me, hear yourself say, “Quiet please! Can we have a moment to pause and reflect?” And you might add, “I think Jesus wanted to share something with me in that silent moment, and I lost it.”
Links to the video and the prayer cards are on the liturgy page: www.rapidcitydiocese.org/office-worship-liturgy.