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.
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
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."
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 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.
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 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
- 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.