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The Role of Silence in Lenten Liturgies  
Anthony Ruff  

A primary theme of liturgical reform in Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the liturgy constitution of the Second Vatican Council, is active participation. It is the "aim to be considered before all else" (SC, 14). But active participation is not activism, as if we must get the assembly to do something. Participation is entering into the heart of the mystery celebrated in the liturgy. Just as acclamations, responses, gestures, hymns, and posture are means of participation, so is silence. "At the proper time all should observe a reverent silence" (SC, 30). Neither an exception to, nor contrast to participation, silence is a profound manner of active participation.

Since Lent is a season of increased prayer and reflection, it is an ideal time for the renewal of silence in the liturgy. While silence is appropriate in all liturgies and in all seasons, Lent might be a time for longer periods of silence, and for increased catechesis on the purpose of silence in the liturgy.

Communal Silence
The silence noted here is for each member of the community at prayer, ministers as well as the assembly. Another important kind of silence in the liturgy is when all listen reverently to, for example, the chanting of the choir or the priest's parts of the eucharistic prayer. This article will discuss those times when all keep silence together.

Silence Following Words
Communal silence in the liturgy often follows a scripture reading, a psalm, or the homily. Such silence allows for a back-and-forth movement between God's word to us and our reflective taking in of that word. The Lectionary for Mass: Introduction (LMI) of 1981 states: "The dialogue between God and his people taking place through the Holy Spirit demands short intervals of silence, suited to the assembled congregation, as an opportunity to take the word of God to heart and to prepare a response to it in prayer. Proper times for silence during the Liturgy of the Word are, for example, before this liturgy begins, after the first and the second reading, after the homily" (LMI, 28). The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH) recommends a period of silence after each psalm of the Office "in order to receive in our hearts the full sound of the voice of the Holy Spirit and to unite our personal prayer more closely with the word of God and the public voice of the Church" (GILH, 202). Other times, silence follows an invitation to pray. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) #54 instructs that all observe a brief silence after the priest says, "Let us pray," so that all "may be conscious of the fact that they are in God's presence and may formulate their petitions mentally."

Silence Following Communion
Another kind of silence is after the Communion banquet. GIRM, 164, refers to observing a "sacred silence" after all have communicated (see also GIRM, 88). Here, silence is a way of reflecting on God's great gifts in a spirit of gratitude. Receiving Communion, singing the Communion song during the procession, and keeping communal silence after the procession are complementary ways of participating in the Communion Rite. In all of them, we participate in the mystery of the Eucharist.

Silence and Sensitivity
Silence in the liturgy is meant to be a gift. Pastoral ministers need to show sensitivity as they form and lead people in the practice of liturgical silence. As GILH, 202, admonishes, "Care must be taken to avoid the kind of silence that would disturb the structure of the office (i.e., liturgy) or annoy and weary those taking part." Sudden changes in familiar practices or exaggerated implementation of a good practice should be avoided. Changes and adjustments are best made gradually, with information, explanation, and openness to worshippers' feedback.

A Spirituality of Silence
We see a spirituality of silence presented in the liturgical documents cited above. Silence is communal, drawing us together into the liturgy. Silence is dialogical, involving communication between God and his people. Silence is a response, something we do to answer God's call. Silence is for receptivity: we are called to be more open to God's speaking to us. Silence is in the Holy Spirit, whose voice is heard in silence. Silence is sacred, placing us in God's presence. Liturgical silence is used with moderation and sensitivity. One of the gifts of the liturgical reform since the Second Vatican Council is the rediscovery of the ancient tradition of liturgical silence. Among the ways the congregation in the early centuries of the Church kept silent were after a call to prayer, a scripture reading, or a psalm during the Liturgy of the Hours. With its rhythm of prayers, readings, songs, and silence, the liturgy was a "school of prayer," teaching the faithful to hear God's speaking to them in words, song, and stillness. The practice of liturgical silence was cultivated especially in monasteries. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict states in Chapter 20 that communal prayer is to be brief. Since Saint Benedict lays out a demanding regimen of liturgy in his Rule for Monasteries, with eight offices per day and the entire Psalter chanted every week, one wonders what "brief" means to him! In fact, he is referring to liturgical silence. He means that the period of communal silent prayer after each psalm or reading is to be kept but should not be long. Succeeding generations of monks and nuns did not hold to Saint Benedict's advice, and the practice of communal liturgical silence was lost in the course of the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the Second Vatican Council revived it-now for the whole Church.

Liturgical Silence in Practice
Liturgical silence is a wonderful means of spiritual renewal. Making it work involves practical details. The following advice may help ministers renew the practice.

For Liturgical Planners

  • Through adult education classes or articles in a bulletin or newsletter, educate the assembly about the role of silence.
  • Educate liturgical ministers about the role of silence in their annual training and enrichment sessions.
  • Develop a plan with the priest and the other liturgical ministers, so that all have a common understanding of when silence will be kept, how long it will kept, and who will set the pace. For example, develop a policy about whether the silence after the second reading is timed by the celebrant (who stands for the Gospel) or by the musicians (who begin the Gospel acclamation).
  • Offer reminders to the liturgical ministers, for example, in their instruction sheets, or in notes on their music.
  • Move slowly in increasing the amount of silence, with feedback on how it is being experienced. Take care to explain what is being done and listen to the reactions.
  • Periodically remind yourself and others about the practice of keeping silence, so that the silence does not gradually get shortened or lost over time.

For All Liturgical Ministers

  • It may sound obvious, and yet we all need to be reminded: pray during the liturgy! Learn to treasure the silence as a time of entering more deeply into the liturgy.
  • Prepare yourself before the liturgy, so that practical concerns (location of music, determination of reading option to be proclaimed, setting of ribbons) do not take over silent time during the liturgy.
  • Eliminate pauses resulting from planning difficulties. Pauses after something (e.g., a reading, a chant, Communion, the invitation "Let us pray") have a purpose. Pauses before something are sometimes experienced as an uneasy delay. An example: a long pause while the first reader walks up to the ambo is a delay. Instruct readers to be ready to begin the reading as soon as all are seated and settled.
  • Renew the discipline of daily silent prayer outside the liturgy.
  • Use liturgical silence to offer your ministry to God. A way of dealing with nervousness is to pray silently: "It is all right. I am letting go of myself and trusting God. I am accepted by God and this community, and so is my ministry. I am at peace."

For Catechists and Teachers

  • Teach about the role of silence in the liturgy in age-appropriate ways.
  • Use silent prayer during classes and meeting sessions. For example, model liturgical prayer in the classroom by using the invitation "Let us pray" followed by silent time, before offering a spoken prayer.

For Priest Celebrants

  • Say what you mean and mean what the liturgy says. If you mean, "Let us stand for the prayer after Communion," then do not say, "Let us pray." Gesture for all to stand, and when all are standing, say, "Let us pray."
  • Discipline yourself to maintain silence after the invitation, "Let us pray." If necessary, count slowly to 20, so that the pauses do not get lost.
  • Make sure that the pauses are reflective prayer and not a time to get organized, e.g., gesturing to a server or finding a prayer in the Missal.
  • Develop a sense of the assembly's comfort level with silence. Be sensitive to signs of restlessness. Ask for feedback.
  • To focus your homily, think of the silent time after the homily as the goal of preaching. At daily Mass, for example, where the homily is generally brief, considering the homily as an introduction to the silence that will follow can help ensure that you have only one main point, a point that moves the listener to prayerful reflection.
Anthony Ruff, OSB,
is an assistant professor of theology and liturgical music at St. John's University, Collegeville, MN. He is the author of Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations, published by Liturgy Training Publications.
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