Silence in Liturgy

The Sound of Silence
What some people will miss from the days of the old Latin Mass is the hushed atmosphere and prayerful silence which gave them a sense of the presence of God.
It seems that the call of Vatican II for full and active participation has been interpreted as meaning that any gaps in the liturgy should be filled up with words and action. The Vatican Documents however make it clear that times of being silent together at Mass is an aspect of our active participation.
“Silence should be observed at the designated times as part of the celebration” (General Instruction to the Roman Missal #23).
“The dialogue between God and his people taking place through the Holy Spirit demands short intervals of silence, suited to the assembly, as an opportunity to take the word of God to heart and to prepare a response in prayer”. (Lectionary for Mass: Introduction #28).
The sort of silence intended here is not something passive. The collective silence of the assembly at worship is a deliberate, conscious activity, not just a space where nothing is happening. It is a response to the call of the psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God”.
The rubrics (instructions written in red) of the current Order of Mass indicate where silences should be observed. (It seems that these rubrics can be ignored with no repercussions!). According to the General Instruction, the “Let us pray” of the opening prayer (collect) is followed by a brief silence so that the people may realise they are in God’s presence and call their own petitions to mind.
The Lectionary introduction names the time before the readings begin as well as after the first and second readings, and after the homily, as proper times for silence during the Liturgy of the Word. If we believe that God is speaking to us in the readings and that we are nourished at the table of the Word, we must take time to listen to the voice of God and to digest its meaning for our lives.
The prayers of intercession can be rightly called “prayers of the faithful” only if the petitions are announced then followed by a pause when the faithful can indeed make the prayer their own. The general intercessions from the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday offer a model for every Sunday.
The General Instruction also suggests that the priest and people may spend some time in silent prayer after communion and the singing of the communion hymn.
Our culture is unaccustomed to and therefore often uncomfortable with silence. On the beach, in shopping centres, even while jogging, we cannot escape the noise of radio broadcasts, Muzak or walkmans. People not used to silence may find quiet periods during Mass disconcerting. They may even spend the time wondering who lost their place or missed their cue!
By giving careful preparation and explanation beforehand, and by having worship leaders who invite the assembly into quiet time through their words and actions, we can help people learn, or rediscover, the art of reflection.


Elizabeth Harrington