Non Solum: Silence at Mass

Today’s Question: Silence at Mass

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal places great emphasis on the value of communal silence during Mass. It calls for or recommends silence at these points:

  • before Mass – in the church, and in preparation areas (45);
  • within the Penitential Act (45, 51);
  • after “Let us pray” of the opening collect (45, 54);
  • before the Liturgy of Word (56);
  • after the first two readings (45, 56, 128, 130);
  • after the homily (45, 56, 66, 136);
  • after communion (43, 45, 164);
  • after “Let us pray” of the post-communion prayer (165).

How do you determine when to insert silence? Which of the items in this list seem more important than others? How long do you make the silent pauses? How do you maintain the pauses consistently, and who is responsible for timing it and giving the signal? What formation or education do you give to the assembly, and how? Does it seem that the silence fosters a spirit of prayer and reflection?

Moderator’s note: “Non solum” is a feature at Pray Tell for our readership community to discuss practical liturgical issues. The title comes from article 11 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Therefore there is to be vigilance among holy pastors that in liturgical action not only are laws for valid and licit celebration to be observed, but that the faithful should participate knowingly, actively, and fruitfully.” (Ideo sacris pastoribus advigilandum est ut in actione liturgica non solum observentur leges ad validam et licitam celebrationem, sed ut fideles scienter, actuose et fructuose eandem participent.) May the series contribute to good liturgical practice – not only following the law, but especially grasping the spirit of the liturgy!

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21 comments

  1. We have silence at all but 1 and 4. We used to have the cantor before Mass invite people to call their minds and hearts to prayer, followed by about a minute of silence, but that seems to have dropped out at some point, so people are pretty much chatting right up until the opening hymn is announced. I appreciate the need people have to catch up with each other before Mass begins and it certainly fosters a good sense of community in the assembly, but I wish we could restore an period of silence before we start.

    The pauses after the readings and before the orations are brief — I’d probably call them “significant pauses” more than periods of silence. The longest silences are after the homily and communion; I would guess about a minute or a minute and a half (which seems pretty long).

    I think the longer silences definitely foster a more contemplative spirit in the liturgy. The brief pauses help with pacing.

  2. In many places, the purification of vessels after Communion at the credence table has taken the place of silent reflection. There may be a minute or two with no words spoken, but it doesn’t have the feel of silent prayer. I think it’s helpful to distinguish between aural silence and visual silence. A priest puttering around in the corner of the sanctuary does not signal prayer.

  3. In my parish we have silence in all the places mentioned except perhaps before the readings although it takes a moment or two for the readers to arrive at the Ambo from their place in the congregation so there is silence in that movement. We have also asked for silence in the church after Mass. Pope Francis uses the wonderful Italian word “chiacchierio” for chatter boxes which we should avoid I think in the church proper. At Sunday’s papal Mass we, well over 100,000 of us, prayed the Rosary prior to the start of the Mass of Conescration of the world to Our Lady of Fatima, followed by requested silence prior to the Mass. Then we were invited to long silences following the homily and Holy Communion. It was very effective and prayerful with so many pilgrims.

  4. As for number one, it depends on how long before Mass. I’m unconvinced that silence immediately before Mass is healthy or even possible for a good community in a live acoustic space. That said, our church is full of chatterboxes after Mass, and that’s okay, I think.

    #4 is interesting. I will have to consider it.

    #5 is insufficient, imo. We frame readings *and* the psalm with silence. It doesn’t make much sense to rush from the psalm into the second reading. That’s an oversight on the part of the CDWDS.

  5. One of the local parishes has a beautifully toned hand bell which it sounds slowly for about thirty seconds to a minute before Mass begins. It is very effective in creating a very calming transition from the busyness before Mass to the opening hymn.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #6:
      Brilliant idea. I periodically have to call an unruly group to order, and this is a great way. Last week I played for a regional gathering of Catholic school teachers where I had to yell-REALLY YELL AND SCREAM into the microphone for at least one minute to get their attention to begin Mass. My voice was shredded before the opening hymn!

      1. @Scott Pluff – comment #7:

        Many parishes now have Bell choirs but they don’t use them much. In part because they reserve them for special occasions but also because there really isn’t much music written for Bell choirs.

        However the Orthodox use bells very effectively at many points in their liturgies, actually to broadcast the liturgy to the whole surrounding area. I have some records of their use of bells, some of it is very modern in the use of the bells to effectively shape silence.

        Perhaps some musically talented person could choreograph the use of some common bell tones that would be used in slightly different ways to mark some of the more common silence periods. The object would be not to fill the silence with bell ringing but to use tones to sculpt out a shape of silence.

        (For a simple example after a reading or homily a first bell could begin the meditation, followed by a second deeper bell a little later, then even a third deeper bell, followed by a higher tone signfying the end of the meditation period).

        I have a set of deep sounding chimes that are struck, like Russian Bells. They not only sound for a long time if you just strike one of them but just when the sound seems almost to be gone it gets a “second wind” and become slightly louder before dying down again. It certainly gets everyone’s complete silence and attention.

        (one could probably do the mediation above after a reading by striking a different chime in succession after each had died out, and end the meditation with a multiple strike)

        The Buddhists have used bells and gongs as well as breathing to promote mindfulness, attention to the present moment as a spiritual exercise.

  6. JR – great suggestion and it addresses in a better way number one (agree with Todd).
    Last month, we had a parish rubric change that *mandated* silence in the sacristy and among ministers before mass…..and yet, there is almost no silence in the rest of our liturgies (that only changes if silence is imposed by the presider – it is not planned nor is it part of the parish culture). To the post’s point, number one, IMO, is the least important.
    Silence before readings – well, that would be nice but only if there is silence after readings, resp. psalm, etc.
    My experience is that most parishes/pastors are more concerned about *time* and silences are sacrificed for utilitarian purposes. When, in fact, careful planning would allow for silences without having to sacrifice time.
    Think that Paul Inwood has also suggested a *manner* of doing the *universal prayer of the church* so that silence is a part of each petition/response? That, IMO, may be more important than others.
    Our parish fails after communion – there is no silence except the time required for EMs/deacons to take cups to the sacristy and bread to the tabernacle – it is distracting because of the constant movement and door opening/closing for each EM. (talk about no understanding or appreciation of silence)

  7. At our place, we observe the silences listed with longer silences at parish masses and somewhat shorter silences for televised masses. The one silence that is not observed is the first. There is no real observance of a sacred silence in the sacristy just before mass or in the vestibule where the ministers line up for the procession.

    I am not certain if I understand why a bell or gong sounding is the same as sacred silence. Nor do I understand why the Psalm as a response should have a concluding silence.

  8. Wow, I’m surprised at all of the responses. We usually have a very hushed whisper at #1 and silence at all the other places. Do you mean that the assembly actually “chatters” before the readings?

    At one church I attended there was respectful whisper chatter before Mass began then about 7 minutes before Mass started the organist would begin softly playing “Water music” (?) by Handel(?) possibly other classical religious organ music (I’m not a musician so I do not know the terminology). But that was our signal to listen attentively, not because we were told to or a bell but rather is was so beautiful to listen to that it put everyone in a wonderful contemplative mood. You could hear a pin drop, was this way practically every Sat/Sunday.

    I sometimes actually hated to see Mass begin!

  9. In our parish we have developed the habit of communal silence at the times listed, plus after the responsorial psalm. For the after-Communion extended silence, when all the people are kneeling, the presider returns to his chair and kneels for the duration of the silence. Rather than an audible bell, this visual marker has worked very well to preserve a stillness unbroken by the former noisy change of posture since the people always shifted from kneeling to sitting as soon as the presider sat down or standing up when he reached the chair and stood in front of it. I hope his kneeling in silent prayer doesn’t qualify as an ‘abuse’!

  10. This is very good topic for consideration, Fr. Anthony.
    At my parish we pride ourselves in good liturgy, yet silence is something we definitely need to work on. The whole concept sure does make folks uncomfortable. My biggest pet peeve is immediately after Communion when the priest celebrant sits the parish announcements are made BEFORE the Prayer after Communion. No silent prayer allowed. It’s on my list…..

  11. Though it is not on the list of possible places to observe silence, since the rubrics seem to allow the praying of the prayers on reception/preparation of the bread and then the chalice quietly, even when there is no offertory chant/hymn, I often pray all the prayers quietly. My logic is quite simple – after the Liturgy of the Word, with its focus on the Word and use of many words – a time to recollect on the Word heard and preached, to prepare oneself, to allow the congregation to prepare themselves for the Eucharistic prayer in silence, is surely not out of place.
    Sadly at many Masses I have attended or concelebrated here in Japan, even though Japan is considered the home of Zen, and the quiet almost prayerful discipline of the Way of Tea (Sado/Chado), many priests fail to take advantage of possible times for silence.

  12. We try, but psychologically most of us get nervous in silence, especially younger people. Before Mass we have some organ music to try and cut back on chattering and to set a mood, but that’s not really silence. When I am reading we have silence before the readings, maybe up to 90-120 seconds. My experience is that with the first reading in particular there is a lot of scuffling: People getting settled, latecomers finding seats, kids wanting to be held, people reaching for Missals, opening and thumbing to right page, etc. So, I wait, and look down at the reading until I hear no noise and am satisfied that everyone is waiting to listen and then I wait a few more seconds, look up, and announce the reading. Basically the same thing with the second reading, but not as big of a pause because folks are settled by this point. We also have a reflection period after Communion, but it isn’t very long. I think even Father worries a little about what broadcasters call dead air.

    1. @Charles Day – comment #17:

      We try, but psychologically most of us get nervous in silence, especially younger people.

      nervous in silence. I find your observation Charles to be very interesting. I do my best to cultivate silence in my life. I deliberately plan for it, as one would make time to visit a friend. I do listen to the radio for an hour or two a night and when driving, but rarely watch television. I will refrain from being one of those crazy anti-TV self-righteous types, as there is no use in such behavior. There is good programming on television, and especially on national public television networks in various countries.

      Still, I’ve found that in the hyper-electronic age some persons cannot even sit still without an electronic device. I respect that some persons need to be in constant contact with clients, patients, etc., but if there is time to turn off the smartphone, why not savor that moment? Sometimes, only a few brief moments can be had, but I find it important to take those brief moments to pray, think, just even mentally doodle.

      If there is anything to be learned from participation in a religious service, it is the ability to be quiet with one’s thoughts, if not in peace. Perhaps silence isn’t programmed into a Mass, but rather organically grown from the Mass. Perhaps it is best to let the assembly grown into a pattern of silence best suited for most, rather than let the leaders of a parish presuppose “what works”. Nervousness might result from having quiet placed onto a person unexpectedly.

  13. This is an interesting conversation, and one that we’ve been having in our parish. There has been a very vocal push for silence immediately after mass. For those of us with young children, having just made it through a 90 minute service, it’s hard to stay quiet for the extra 5-10 minutes it takes to leave the sanctuary.

    Prior to having children, I was all for extra periods of silence before and after mass. Now that I know they will have to be quiet for an additional 90minutes during the service, I’m less strict about silence before the service. Perhaps this distracts from others’ silence before and after mass. Without a cry room or nursery, it’s a struggle to stay through mass with an active 2yo, much less the quiet time before and after

  14. Jack Rakosky ==

    I think that bells provide a great way of focusing attention on the high points of the Mass. One of the joys of my childhood was the beautiful sound of those silvery little bells during Mass which concentrated my attention on the momentous event that was happening. The bells introduce the deep silence which permits undistracted attention to what is going on.

  15. I know this is an old thread – I just came looking for information on a moment of silence in mass after communion. It looks like having one is advised? There is never a quiet moment at our parish mass except when the music ministry people are receiving communion themselves (Which is given to them first, along with the Eucharistic ministers.) They return to their microphones and music starts and the congregation begins receiving communion. It feels like interference to me, having just received the Eucharist, that I cannot just pray and listen to whatever God might “whisper” at that time. People I’ve asked about this tell me they “just tune out” the singing, but that does not happen easily for me and I keep being distracted from my attempt to pray. Even the song of meditation, which I appreciate after the hymns during receiving, is the words and thoughts of others, and not really a chance to meditate. Ironically, we get homilies on not having full awareness of the Eucharist. Yet the music rolls on without giving us time to experience that awareness. I asked a music minister friend about it and she said the silence between the “Amen” of the Eucharist and the receiving gives her time to pray – I agree – but that is “before” and I am interested in a moment of silence afterward. Especially since silence is increasingly rare to find in our world it might be a gift to people to have just a moment. I am very glad of the music at mass, from beginning to end, only seeking a little quiet at appropriate moments.

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