Seeking “Sacred” Silence

Since I’m a professor and not a pastor, I’ve moved around my fair share of parish Sunday liturgies over the past twenty-three years, ranging from one-time substitution for a vacationing pastor to regularly weekly service in a local parish. While such ministry is an immeasurably rewarding dimension of my vocation as a Jesuit priest, I cannot help but bristle at ways in which deeply entrenched ritual practices subvert the primary symbols of the Sunday liturgy of word and sacrament. My presiding at two morning masses in a local parish (at which I shall be helping regularly for the next ten months, at least) prompts this present post.

What tries my patience (a virtue admittedly always in need of self-improvement, I readily admit!) is the prevalence of what I’ll call the “silence of the gaps” and the all but absence of what I’ll call “prayerful or contemplative silence.” In the Introductory Rites of the Roman Catholic Mass the moment for a fulsome silence (versus a pause, such as in the penitential rite) is what we might still colloquially call the opening prayer. As Robert Cabie so helpfully summarized in his The Eucharist (The Church at Prayer, vol. 2), the ancient pattern of that prayer was/is: 1.) invitation to prayer; 2.) time for all the assembled to pray in silence; 3.) presider collects the prayer (thus, the “collect”), and 4.) to a doxological conclusion the assembly responds “Amen.”

But, alas, as again at yesterday’s parish,  I find the deacon and young servers are ritually habituated (trained … *sigh*) “to bring Father the book” when he says “Let us pray.” Thus, what should be an invitation for all the assembled — and that means all, including presider and servers (quoting here the rubric in the current Roman Missal: “Let us pray. And all pray in silence with the priest for a while“) — to actually pray in silence for a good while as the Holy Spirit moves in each, becomes clunky useless silence while the presider waits for the server to bring the book, open it, adjust the angle, etc. That activity signals to the entire assembly that this is anything but a time of silent prayer (and, after all, if the priest is getting the book set up in that silence, he precisely is not praying and, thus, all cannot pray in silence with the priest for a while). One of the two principal ways the Introductory Rite bonds the people as the assembled body of Christ, namely, an intense period of silent prayer is obliterated (the other being song, namely, the entrance hymn/antiphon).

I regret the current (ultra-clerical) English-version Roman Missal’s elimination of the suggested prompts for the Opening Prayer that the 1975 Sacramentary had provided. Those prompts, I found, helped all the assembled to enter into silent prayer. They were sufficiently open-ended and very brief, so that the Spirit could move as s/he wills in the spirits of each and all. To help people “get it” each Sunday, I would slightly expand the invitation to: “Let us pray together in silence,” adding whatever the prompt. I continue that practice to this day, except now I must prepare in advance by reviewing the content of the Collect so as to know exactly what my very brief, suggestive prompt will be. Yesterday, for example, I invited as follows: “Let us pray together, in silence, for the good use of the gifts of creation.” That prompt drew on the “upshot” of the Collect that will follow, but please note how I did not say “that we might make good use” or the like. Why make it so indefinite? I used such open-ended wording because it might well be that for some in the assembly the thought would go immediately to a self-examination, while for others it might spark an image of wider society, or concern about a particular friend or relative, etc. My point: the presider should not try to control how unique individuals might be moved to pray while, simultaneously, trying to guide people nonetheless actually to pray. Yes, of course, some people will be distracted or unengaged in any given instance, but that all belongs to God. My effort is to preside over a praying community, to foster full, conscious, active participation, and that includes (especially) prayerful silence (not “go get me the book” silence).

The other preparation I must make, of course, is to ask the assigned server to bring the missal to me toward the end of the Gloria (of course, the server could also be holding the missal opened for me earlier in the Introductory Rite, but rarely have I found this to be the practice in nearly any parish … just my anecdotal report, here). The server (of whatever age) most often looks at me dumbfounded by my request. So I explain: “Please don’t wait for the Gloria to end and for me to say ‘Let us pray’ to then bring me ‘the book.’ When we reach the latter part of the Gloria, please bring it to me.” Most often the server says s/he doesn’t know what I’m referring to. So I talk about what the Gloria is, how we sing it, and that when they hear (for most often the servers, I find, do not join in singing the Gloria) “For you alone are the Holy One …” that they should bring me “the book.” If that proves too daunting, then I ask the server just to “bring me the book” at the beginning of the Gloria. While some older servers (although in most parishes the upper age tends to be middle-schoolers), of course, understand better and also are physically able (and non-fidgetty) to simply hold the book open for me throughout the Introductory Rite, the deeply engrained ritual pattern of “bringing Father the book” for the “Opening Prayer” requires my gently preparing them to do so during the Gloria. I am thereby able to have the Missal completely positioned so as immediately at the end of the Gloria to invite all, “Let us pray, together in silence …,” making it possible for us actually to do so.

Other challenges exist: At the local cathedral, where I preside almost every weekend (when in town), the “worship aid” is a trifold piece of paper, most often requiring turning and refolding precisely between the opening rite and the responsorial psalm. Thus, after the Gloria this presider hears a great rustle of folding paper. So, I simply wait for that to quiet down before I say “Let us pray.” But that actually didn’t prove to work. Rather, when I’d say “Let us pray,” precisely then many people would start refolding their papers. So, when that (regularly) happens I simply wait for it all to quiet down and then repeat, “Let us pray, together in silence … .” Also, with some regularity in my homilies I refer to the Opening Prayer we all do/did together, including the point for why the fulsome silence (20-to-30 seconds … very long, indeed!).

Yikes! I know how much in this matter I come off as a fussy liturgical terrorist (insert the old canard of a joke here, if desired). But this time for silent prayer, I am arguing passionately, is integral to full, conscious, active participation in the liturgy of the Lord’s Day. There are, of course, other key moments for the silent prayer or reflection for all the assembled (after each reading in the Liturgy of the Word [but that proves to be contemplative time only if it’s not a matter of watching/hearing the lector process between the ambo and a seat in the pews], after the homily, and later, after all have completed the communion procession and music). My ongoing effort to form local assemblies in praying, as is their right and duty, in silence together in the Introductory Rite I like to think of as a step in the right direction. The “opening prayer” is a silent prayer done by “all in silence with the priest” (per the Roman Missal), with the priest truly functioning as a presider by leading all in the silent prayer and concluding it with the Collect.

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27 comments

  1. Amen.

    I also devise a quick or brief introduction after “Let us pray…” taking it from the prayer itself. I have also returned to the breviary for the old “translation” of the collect. Its several sentences and the “We ask this through…” make it all more intelligible for the people.

    Pauses after the readings and such would also be wonderful but I am retired and not the pastor here where I live. People definitely respond positively to prayerful liturgies.

    Thank you for a much needed post.

    Father Dave Riley

  2. Thank you, I wish you success. Our Pastor gives us plenty of time after the sermon and after communion, but not in the Introductory Rite.

    I must also point out that to some of us older folk fulsome has an adverse sound as in the following I got by googling : “Fulsome definition, offensive to good taste, especially as being excessive; overdone or gross”

  3. A few times I have experienced a presider who pauses for prayer following the invitation, “Let us pray” before continuing with the collect. This is good in theory, but I suspect that most people experience it as, “What’s he waiting for? Say the prayer already.” The invitation, “Let us pray” by itself doesn’t give people much to go on. Pray for what?

    I occasionally hear how average churchgoers find the Catholic liturgy to be confusing while they find evangelical worship to be more engaging. Our “let us pray” followed by a long silence may not prompt people’s active participation as well as, “Right now I want you to raise your hands to God in prayer and thank him for all the blessings he has sent into your life.” One is immediately clear what we’re supposed to be doing, while the other requires layers of formation which are most likely lacking in the average churchgoer.

    1. @Scott Pluff:

      It’s funny you should say that, Scott. I have known my Dad to occasionally say, under his breath, “Well, get on with it already!” when the priest pauses for any significant period of time at any point during the Mass. To some degree, at least with my Dad, this comes from an older way of thinking about the Mass–the priest says the Mass for all of us and we’re just there to periodically assent to what he says. The priest does the work and we function as spectators, albeit restless, antsy spectators at that.

      @Anthony Hawkins

      Your definition of “fulsome” sounds like it could also apply to the word “foolsome”. Are these alternate spellings of each other, e.g. one is Old English and one is more modern?

      1. @Paul Fell:
        Yes, though I wouldn’t characterize it as an “older” way of thinking. In my experience, most Catholics have little or no concept of going to Mass to do something vs. going to see or hear something that the ministers do.

        Relatedly, for every priest I can think of who effectively presides over the liturgy, leading and fostering the actions of everyone in the room, I can think of many other priests who seem not to notice whether there are 5 or 500 other people in the room. I attended a funeral recently where the presider either had his nose in the book or stared at the floor the whole time.

  4. When teaching children to read aloud at school assembly, I often used the phrase ‘silence is the space between words’ .

    It is the silence of a pause that gives value and meaning to the words both before and after it.

    In our rush to move on, or our nervousness in facing a silence, we neglect its real meaning.
    Paul Simon got it right with his song title
    ‘The sound of silence’ .

    Let’s listen a bit more

  5. On more than one occasion at weddings (or sometimes funerals) I’ve had fun noting who in the assembly is there from a – most likely – evangelical tradition; when the priest says “let us pray” some heads bow, a few hands are raised in what the Latin rite calls orans.
    I don’t think it’s fair to RC congregations, however, to blame them for the generation+ in which they have largely been formed to equate “let us pray” with “now the priest will read from the big book.” A fair amount of notice and catechesis is only fair to try and counteract/contradict this; it also reinforces the practice if each intercession of the Universal Prayer allows for real silence: “Let us pray for the Church [silence] may we grow in . . .”

  6. Have you ever thought to tell the people about this? Most parishioners think a GIRM is a failure of the five-second rule for dropped food. And yes, they just follow along whatever other folks do.

    Maybe a sermon about silent prayer. Even a little trial run from the pulpit could be amusing and educational. Then do it in the Mass. If the server appears, let her wait while you all pray. Then get on with it.

    Make us a part of the celebration, not just a trained audience. That’s really all we ask.

  7. I agree with Sean (#7): rather than confecting introductions to the Collects, why not engage the faithful in some liturgical catechesis in the homily? A series of homilies on the practice and benefits of contemplative/silent prayer, or even prayer generally, would be beneficial for most of us! For if, in this always-on world we in the West live in, people are cultivating silent prayer in their day-to-day lives, they will be better at it during Mass. And, likewise, if they experience silent prayer during the Mass and are encouraged to persevere in it, that will build them up in their own prayer life.

    As well-meaning as ad lib introductions are, IMO they inevitably force most people down a particular thought/path of prayer that the person who has composed the introduction is in control of. That isn’t the priest’s job (or anyone else’s!): it’s the Lord’s job, through His Church’s liturgy.

    @Scott Pluff (#2): One is immediately clear what we’re supposed to be doing, while the other requires layers of formation which are most likely lacking in the average churchgoer.

    That’s a rather damning indictment of how little attention has been paid to SC 14!

  8. Every year at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress there are a number of different liturgies offered on Friday and Saturday. Several years ago I attended one billed as a Contemplative Liturgy. It was announced early on that after communion we would observe 10 minutes of silent prayer.

    That turned out to be a wonderful experience. A ballroom full of people who were joined in silent prayer. No fidgeting, no whispering, no flipping through the missalette. Just pure silence.

    That Mass was the highlight of Congress that year, but I thought it must just be my odd preferences. It turned out that the following week I was at a meeting that included the person I had attended Mass with. A question came up about the best part of Congress, and her immediate answer was “there was a contemplative Mass with this incredible silence built in.” It wasn’t just me!

  9. I like the “Let us pray in silence . . .” vs. simply “Let us pray . . .” The former helps all to know (a) that the silence is intentional, not a mistake by the presider, and (b) what they are to do with that silence. It guides the ritual action, rather than assuming that everyone knows what is supposed to happen.

    If you have to explain ritual action, you have what Ronald Grimes termed “ritual infelicity” in which the ritual breaks down for one reason or another. At its best, ritual action is intuitive; at its worst, ritual action has to be explained. The ritual action should invite participants to immediately grasp what is to be done or said, and join in, in a manner that accords to the ritual. The participants may not be able to explain why a given action is to be done at first, but they do not wonder what is to happen.

    Formation and explanation have their place, but they are no substitute for well-crafted ritual action.

  10. Might I suggest that a more fundamental problem is that, even if people apprehend the idea that prayer is a conversation with God, they have more difficulty with the idea of finding God’s presence in God’s wordless part of the conversation, so that when we say, “Let us pray”, people assume that words are to be addressed to God, not that we are giving a space for God’s wordless enveloping of us?

    In American society, with its uber-emphatic emphasis on human-doings and sensory consolations, this kind of prayer is pretty alien. (Even in the EF Low Mass, there’s a sacred pantomime unfolding in the sanctuary to console the eyes if not the ears in the “silence”. )

  11. Please significantly turn down the microphones. It’s nearly impossible to think when the mic volume is permanently set to ‘Nuclear Winter’. Honestly, I’d wish we’d just get rid of the durned things.

    I never understood why older churches, with well designed acoustics, nevertheless have audio systems installed. Sadly, the new prayer barns (some converted gymnasiums, for example) do need some amplification given that acoustics were an afterthought or a never-thought. Still, there is not a direct correlation between higher volume and higher FCAP. Indeed, I would say that the correlation is inverse.

    I am not unsympathetic to persons with hearing difficulties. Yet, perhaps it would be better for a pastor or rector to discuss volume and acoustics with those who have difficulty hearing rather than just turn up the knob. I have been known to carry -30dB earplugs to certain Masses simply for some “mental space” while Mass is said.

    Silence in the Mass is most certainly important. Yet, these punctuations are often negated when the explicit parts of the Mass destroy any tranquility of internal reflection.

  12. It is unfair to change the people’s liturgy – to the proper celebration of which they have a right – in order to compensate for one’s failure to provide liturgical catechesis. And even were the supposed defect considered impossible to remedy through such catechesis, is there not an obviously perverse logic in claiming that “I am going to introduce a change in the liturgy on my own authority,” i.e., an introduction of my own devising rather than the mandated ‘Let us pray,’ “in order to get people to adhere properly to the liturgical directives”?

    There is similar dissonance in the observation that, if the priest is arranging the server and book he is not praying, only to “solve” this dilemma by having the priest and server ‘not pray’ during the Gloria itself as opposed to ‘not pray’ when there is no appointed prayer currently underway. Again, the stated goal of making sure we get a vague directive right (how does one “correctly” pray in silence?) is used as justification for getting a very simple thing wrong (first saying three words without alteration, now praying the Gloria aloud with attentiveness). I don’t happen to think that moving during the end of the Gloria is necessarily a bad practice, but I do think it is if done for the stated reasons.

    Lastly, if the introductions are interpolated in order to facilitate recollected silent prayer “with the Priest for a while,” celebrants ought to be aware that some of the people in the congregation will have read, perhaps even studied, the liturgical books, and be distracted by priests’ ad-libbing where no such thing is allowed. This distraction can then perpetuate itself since any licit ad-libbing later often serves as a reminder of the initial malfeasance and even if everything else proceeds by the book the trust between priest and worshipper has been broken.

    1. @Aaron Sanders:
      Your dedication to liturgical uniformity is certainly thoroughgoing. From your perspective there is never any justification for any liturgical minister–especially priests–to alter or add a single word or gesture which, in your judgment, lies outside the texts or rubrics. I suggest that this unyielding stance is derived from a very faulty understanding of what it means to worship God in spirit and truth. For a very long time the Mass (in particular) was regarded as a fixed, almost magical, formulary which only needed to be “performed” accurately in order to be “valid”. The rites of this Mass were designed by and for clergy in order to achieve its two perceived purposes: The re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary, and the bringing down upon the altar of the true body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. This understanding guaranteed the exaltation of clergy over the “merely” baptized. The latter could benefit from the Mass but could not offer it. There was virtually no consciousness of initiation rites through which all Christians become holy and priestly people entrusted with a share in the mission of Christ and his church. In that Mass the priest cast his gaze at the official books to make sure all the words were said and all the rubrics were observed. This Mass needed to be and was reformed under lawful authority to reflect the higher sacramental theology and ecclesiology which emerged at VII. The Novus Ordo in the vernacular continues to represent Christ’s sacrificial offering which requires his real presence not only in the consecrated elements but in the word proclaimed, in the midst of the assembly, and in the ministry of the priest. But by using language clearly accessible to all worshippers the cognitive dimension of the rites require a flexibility heretofore thought of as unneccesary. The GIRM warns priests not to make a single change in a futile effort to maintain the notion of validity based on strict adherence. The genie is…

      1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
        So you’re saying the GIRM supports my position, a GIRM governing the Mass that “was reformed under lawful authority to reflect the higher sacramental theology and ecclesiology which emerged at VII” and happens to be echoing the very conciliar constitution which birthed it. I guess I should be content to say thanks.

        Yet call me irascible, but I can’t help but point out that priest’s altering the Mass on their own volition is just as clericalist if not more so than any of the supposed instances you feign to condemn, Father (and, for the record, the Pauline Missal was created by priests, so does that make it clericalist?). Perhaps you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be part of the captive audience in the nave, but when an ad-libbing priest is worshipping “in spirit and in truth” I’ve yet to hear one ask where the spirit might be leading anyone but himself.

      2. @Aaron Sanders:

        Aaron, I completely agree with you. Please, though, be kind to Fr. Feehily, and do not patronize him. He is a thoughtful and intelligent priest who, from what I can gather from reading PTB, cares deeply for his flock and only wants the best for them. We have not been to Mass at his church.

        The new translation is rather obtuse at times. Even as an educated native speaker, I have to “bank” the relative clauses of the collects in my mind and take a few seconds to put it together at the end. I can’t imagine what the new translation sounds like to a person who learned English as a second language. I think that a priest can be forgiven if he elides a few phrases here and there, or breaks a phrase into a finite sentence, in order to clarify the rather mechanistic translations.

        Silence before prayers is not just time for the congregation to prepare for the collect, but also the priest. Yes, the collect is a prayer to God. I have some difficulty with the notion that the collects are addressed to the assembly. Still, if a priest holds that the collects are to be directed to the assembly as well as God, the question of whether or not the collect is able to be proclaimed is a question. I consider the latter question rather difficult to understand, but Fr. Feehily has a stronger conviction of its importance. He must adhere to his understanding, as do we.

      3. @Aaron Sanders:
        I think we need balance and perspective and have to avoid the extremes. I agree that the people should come first, not the priest, and the priest should not change things arbitrarily just to meet his needs rather than the people’s. I certainly tend toward following everything in the book when I celebrate Mass and I try to keep my personality out of it in any distracting way.

        But for Christians the law isn’t absolute and it shouldn’t become our idol. Other priests who change the liturgy more than I ever would are sometimes acting out of love for the people, and are close enough to their people that they sense what will build them up rather than irritate or distract them. When I’m ‘stuck’ with an irritating presider, I try not to cling to the law and sit in judgment on the priest. I look around and think to myself that others probably don’t share my rubrical hangups and are genuinely edified by some of the things that bug me. I’m called to let go of my narrowness and to be stretched by the rest of humanity that experiences things in a different way. And of course sometimes the changes priests make are for the better.

        We never would have gotten from the Last Supper to High Mass in the Tridentine missal if priests and ministers hadn’t improvised and inserted their own creativity non-stop for 1,500 years to get there. If everyone had only followed what was the permitted convention, the rite never would have developed (organically or otherwise).

        Priests should follow the rubrics and the appointed texts as the general default. But they and everyone else should, as Christians, avoid idolatrous attachment to the rubrics and official texts, and relax a bit when they encounter freer interpretations of them.

        awr

      4. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        Priests should follow the rubrics and the appointed texts as the general default. But they and everyone else should, as Christians, avoid idolatrous attachment to the rubrics and official texts, and relax a bit when they encounter freer interpretations of them.

        Sacrosanctum Concilium takes a very different view, as does the Church more generally. Further, it is not idolatrous to insist on things, and it seems very overwrought to use such loaded theological language just to find a stronger pejorative.

      5. @Scott Smith:
        Sacrosanctum Concilium is a document requiring interpretation. Don’t say “the Church more generally” when you mean “Scott Smith.” There’s a lot of diversity out there and not everyone thinks like you.

        Now let’s stay on the topic of the post – no more on this side issue.

        awr

    2. @Aaron Sanders:

      @Matthew Hazell:

      “…failure,” “defect,” “impossible to remedy,” “perverse,” “adhere properly,” “dissonance,” “dilemma,” “not pray,” “justification for getting….wrong,” “saying words without alteration,” “a bad practice,” “distracted by priests’ ad-libbing,” “no such thing is allowed,” “distraction can…perpetuate itself,” “licit ad-libbing …initial malfeasance,” “trust…broken.”

      If the result of having read or studied a liturgical book is to employ language from the semantic field of violation or desecration, relating to the Eucharist, to refer to the thoughtful, perceptive, profound and prayerful approach of the original post, one can draw one’s own conclusions.

      Fr Jack, 1++

  13. No one has commented that moving around and flipping pages during the Gloria detracts from the prayer which is the Gloria, in this case it is a sung prayer. The Gloria is not finished until the music ends. This is the same kind of abuse as flipping pages during the Holy Holy and the doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. Many celebrants put the eucharistic elements on the altar and start flipping pages to be ready for the Our Father. (And let us not comment on unctious MCs.) The singing of the Amen is the people’s assent to the sacrifice offered to the Father. This kind of telescoping of the rites for the sake of efficiency is bad liturgy. If the celebrant is focused on each element of the rite then the people will be also. Let the rites speak for themselves.

  14. In the early years of the vernacular, there was much complaining about not having “time to pray” at Mass. Latin on the altar, apparently, left many folks ample time for the rosary and the prayers on the Mass cards scattered through their missals or purses. You don’t hear those complaints any more except after Communion in the case of hyper-efficient priests. My impression is that most Catholics have given up on silence, and no longer expect it, at any other time but post-Communion. If silence is offered without ample — and comprehensive — explanation, it is going to be received as dead air.

    One priest can’t do it. We all have heard convincing explanations of why we should be doing what the GIRM expects at one or another point in the liturgy, rather than what we’ve been doing for years. And we, who attended the Mass at which the celebrant made a point of it, do it the GIRM way for awhile. But no one from the other Masses heard what we did, so we drop it and go with the old flow. If you are going to use silence, it has to be taught and pounded home on at least the diocesan level. One priest in one parish will get nowhere,

  15. My favorite thought so far has been from #11 …so that when we say, “Let us pray”, people assume that words are to be addressed to God, not that we are giving a space for God’s wordless enveloping of us?
    I tried to introduce contemplative pryer at a parish where every liturgical moment was filled with sound or action and every scripted moment of silence was rushed through. I grew up with the latin mass and I tell you, it wasn’t much different.
    We have a disconnect with the concept of prayer in any form. Even the rosary is done at a ridiculous clip before or after mass. I have been “slowly” introducing silence after the first reading before I go to the ambo to sing the psalm. In a year, the assembly can now quietly sit for almost a full 90 seconds. When I walk to the ambo, I am slow, respectful, and already praying internally.
    At my previous parish, we would always print a special worship book for the Triduum each year. In it I would insert a note (at the appropriate times) indicating a brief or prolonged period of “sacred silence”. I would use a larger font to make sure it was noticed. The result always amazed me. The entire assembly could comfortably live with the silence, no matter how long.
    The poeple of God need our help. We have to not just teach but inspire. More importantly, we have to model it whenever we are among them in prayer.

    1. @Ron Jones:
      The Triduum is often the place where silence is practiced and practiced well in many parishes. There is not the same “we better be done in X minutes” that one may find on a Sunday, the liturgy itself is different (and thus expectations are different), and in the best sense of things, the liturgy has a strong sense of drama — which is often enhanced with appropriate use of silence.

      On most Sundays, if there is no gentle direction, silence is “dead air” as has been noted by several here. But during Holy Week, silence is critical, and most folks know it.

  16. Similarly to #11 and #19, I think we need to clarify what we mean by silence. (Having been raised as a Quaker, I immodestly claim a bit of experience here.) I find that brief silences sprinkled through the liturgy are often feel like mere awkward pauses. If we “pray together in silence” before the Collect, are we expressing some sort of inner verbal prayer, or somehow achieving an incredibly instant apophatic prayer? I don’t really know how to process that. As I reflect on it now, I suppose that during these brief pauses I might experience an inchoate yearning, or simply make an effort to be present. I’d be very interested in hearing others talk about what they mentally “do” (for lack of a better word) at these moments. I think asking for the wisdom of our parishioners might be a great place to start.

  17. Returning to the topic of silence, people are always saying that we need more silence at Mass, but when we give it to them they don’t know what to do with it, as Scott Pluff pointed out further up the thread. Mostly they are thinking “Uh-oh — someone’s forgotten what comes next” or “Poor old Elsie — off in a trance again!”. Or they may be thinking “Get on with it already” or “Mass is long enough without THIS!”

    GIRM 45, 56, etc tell us that silence is important, and yet we often don’t tell the people this or encourage them. A 10-15 second silence after “Let us pray” (and a lot depends on the way in which you say those three words) is only the start. A similar amount of silence at the end of every scripture reading between the end of the text itself and and concluding switch-off formula “The Word/Gospel of the Lord” can do wonders. And again after the announcement of each intention for prayer in the General Intercessions, before “We pray/Let us pray to the Lord” or whatever introduction to the response you are using, so that all have the opportunity actually to pray about what they are being asked to pray for.

    By example and repetition, people can and do become accustomed to silences and embrace them, recognizing that they add prayerfulness. But that alone will not satisfy the “Get on with it!” brigade. For them, some kind of brief explanation will be needed, often many weeks in succession, until they too get the message.

    People often think that young children cannot do silence either. And yet in my experience a classroom teacher who is prepared to work with the children can easily get even the most hyperactive of them to sit in quiet stillness for at least 30 seconds and often longer (“Listen for God’s Word”) during a time of prayer. It can help to associate the silence with a symbolic gesture, for example the lighting of a candle. You reach a point where the lighting of the candle becomes the cue for silence, and no hushing words need to be said.

    One of the biggest obstacles to silence can be not the extraneous noises that our world is full of but something rather more prosaic. Those with hearing difficulties assume that when they cannot hear anything going on then there is something wrong with their hearing aids or the deaf loop system. And so a prayerful silence can be wrecked as dozens of people in a large assembly turn their hearing aids up to the max, with the resultant high-pitched squealing noises sending everyone else running for cover. Even one person doing this can be purgatorial for everyone else. Here again, repeated explanation is needed so that hearing-impaired people, too, can bask in a few seconds of prayerful silence without worrying that they are missing out on something.

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