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A time to keep silence and a time to speak (Eccl 3:7)
In recent days, I have heard expressions of concern about two related issues – the disturbing noise level in some churches before and after Mass and the absence of the opportunity for personal prayer during Communion.
With regards to people talking in church before and after Mass, it is important to keep in mind that the church building serves a variety of functions. The main body of the church, the worship space, is where key celebrations of the community such as Mass take place while other spaces are used for reconciliation, baptism, private devotions, and so on.
Conflict arises when one area has to serve several functions, as happens when there are not separate spaces for gathering and private prayer within a church building. Where that is the case, understanding and tolerance are called for on all sides.
Hospitality and interaction as we gather for Mass help build a sense of community and an understanding that we worship as the Body of Christ. On the other hand, all members of the assembly need to respect the fact that the church is not simply a meeting hall but a sacred space for celebrating the rites of the Church.
Strategies for encouraging people to keep noise levels to a minimum immediately before and after Mass include placing notices in the parish bulletin requesting everyone to respect those who are praying in the church and announcing before Mass begins that the next few minutes will be spent in silent preparation for the liturgy. Parishes might even consider asking those who arrive during this period to wait until the entrance hymn begins before taking their seats.
What about singing and silence during the Communion Rite? According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the communion song begins while the priest is receiving the Sacrament, and continues for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful (# 86). We sing as we process to the table because the distribution and reception of Holy Communion is a communal, not an individual, act.
The time for individual quiet reflection is after the Communion procession. The period of silence that follows Communion is intended for people “to praise and pray to God in their hearts” (General Instruction # 45). Too often this time is taken up by a communion hymn or a so-called ‘thanksgiving hymn’.
This silence must be respected by everyone – collectors, special ministers, musicians included - and modelled by the presider and others on the sanctuary. Again it might help, especially if the practice is new, to inform the assembly that a time of silence will be observed after Communion and to suggest that it be used for giving thanks to God and asking for the strength to be Christ in our world of family, work and community in the days ahead.