Pope Francis on Liturgical Silence

At his general audience on Wednesday, January 10th, Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the Mass. Taking up the Gloria and the Collect, he made reference to the GIRM’s instruction for the presider to observe a brief moment of silence ahead of the Collect, which led him to some further reflections on the nature of silence in liturgy.

The need for and observation of silence has been a key reason cited by advocates for the Extraordinary Form. Often, this is contrasted with some versions of the Ordinary Form and/or with the culture at-large. Cardinal Sarah’s recent book on the topic comes to mind. The emphasis on silence is more or less polemical against “full, active, and conscious participation” and the perceived interpretations of that phrase to mean only vocal participation.

Of course, the OF itself explicitly makes room for a good bit of contemplative silence in the liturgy, whether or not it is well-observed. My sense is that in many parishes–certainly not all–we have become accustomed to the pace of liturgy such that if there is time for contemplative silence, we think that someone has forgotten something and we begin to look around.

Yet, there is a broader recognition that silence is something our culture needs. Interestingly, silence is an important component of what a sui generis group such as The Liturgists are doing as well.

I wonder if this is one of the places of common ground to be sought among liturgical advocates of various stripes and those who are less connected to the liturgical life of the Church. Of course, there is much to be hashed out in terms of what we mean by “silence,” when and how silence happens, and just how polemical we see the matter.

The topic has been has been taken up on Pray Tell several times across the years, e.g. here, here, here, and here.

Pope Francis goes on to emphasize that silence has different aims at different points in the liturgy, but that ahead of the Collect, the silence gives us the opportunity to gather ourselves, what we bring to the liturgy and to offer our silent intentions. Thus, then, the Collect actually collects all of these into one (this is also Bruce Morrill’s point in the post linked above).

At many parishes, I have seen time offered at the end of the General Intercessions for each to offer intentions in silence. Observing the space for precisely this kind of silence at the beginning of the Mass, ahead of the Collect, would alleviate the other time during the Prayer of the Faithful, which always strikes me as odd as because those prayers are specifically petitions that apply to all of us.

The pope says that when we don’t observe this silence, we “risk neglecting the recollection of the soul” (Zenit’s translation).

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21 comments

  1. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “Of course, the OF itself explicitly makes room for a good bit of contemplative silence in the liturgy, whether or not it is well-observed. ”
    Especially for days with multiple liturgies; at which times parking lot congestion is all but guaranteed no matter what one does:
    – Sometimes the necessary time for silence could be ensured by reminding the homilist that an 8 minute homily is already too long. That is, the celebrant, due to eloquence, is not lead into shaving silence out of the liturgy to assuage the afore-imputed automobile owners.
    – Also helpful is ensuring that the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are at the ready prior to the start of the Eucharist Liturgy and that there are enough to serve all the community within about 15 minutes or less.

  2. It should be kept in mind that the silence envisioned in the OF and EF are different. In the OF, the silence usually has to be purposely inserted, and stands alone as the only action taking place at that moment. I could see why this might create an occasion of awkwardness, and it’s easy to see why it would be jettisoned in favor of saving time or to keep the flow of the Mass moving. The only time silence might accompany an action taking place is at the Offertory (but in my experience, the prayers are usually said aloud when a hymn isn’t sung) or during communion when the hymn runs short.

    In the EF, silence can be purposely inserted, but it usually accompanies and draws extra attention to an action (such as the Roman Canon). The worshipper is to be meditating on and uniting him or herself with what is happening at that time. An effort usually has to be made to not have silence by filling the time with organ music, and shortening the Mass (by having a Low Mass) generally results in more silence rather than less.

    1. One might say that the silence provided in the Roman Rite is purposeful and directed. Silent prayer before orations permits a community to assert its priestly role as baptized believers, a time for direct intercession with God. The presider then puts a cap on the silent prayers of the assembly, drawing matters into a unity, even if mental uniformity might be lacking.

      It is a fruitful thing for silence to be established as a liturgical event to itself. It is part of the formation of the baptized. If, as you propose, silence is to be “purposely inserted” into ritual, then perhaps it is like singing at the Mass as something less laudable than singing the Mass. It confirms in my mind the wisdom and superiority of the liturgical reforms for today’s Catholic. The 1570/1962 remains a spiritual backwater, in some ways struggling to justify the needs of modern believers at worship.

      It is unfortunate that some parishes and liturgical leaders lack the self-confidence and the trust in God to permit a deeper silence to become part of their liturgical practice. Perhaps it reveals a lack of good example in seminaries.

    2. Yes, I agree with Jack. Intentional, communal, stand-alone silence was apparently a strong part of the liturgical life of the Church in early centuries, and it was retrieved by Vatican II.
      awr

      1. Agreed, and priests should provide it. Providing a 30 minute Mass will form a 30 minute laity.

      2. I can rejoice that we agree about something, though I come to different conclusions that you likely would not agree with. A retrieval of “intentional, communal, stand-alone silence” may have been an intention of Vatican II, but in practice we have had an overall loss of such silence, as well as the loss of the deeply participatory silence found in the EF. To me, the fact that the EF more or less forbids the removal of all silence – even when poorly celebrated – “confirms in my mind the wisdom and superiority” of the liturgy that was handed down to the reformers, flawed and in need of reform as it may be. These responses, for me, touch upon what has become more and more of a struggle for me regarding the liturgical reform, which is a seeming disconnect between its intentions and outcomes.

    3. This characterization of the OF and EF could not be more wrong. Meaningful silence is possible only with a congregation that actively and consciously participates. If that happens with the EF, it is only because of the reforms from VII that called for it. Silence cannot be purposely or appropriately added unless it is in a purposeful context. With a conscious and active congregation, it can be done in the OF as well as it is done in the EF; with a passive, disengaged congregation, silence is just as irrelevant as anyhing else being done.

      There are styles of celebrating the EF that seek to “get it done.” Some priests had a rhythm to their voice that always sought to start on the last word of the lead in. The Lord be with yAonud with your spLiertiuts. Interesting, but the very opposite of purposeful silence. Or reciting as fast as possible! We use to compete on the bus over who sould sing the school song fastest, and when we went to mass, the priest sounded just as garbled as we did on the bus. The OF doesn’t really allow that kind of prayer, because it obscures the meaning, but the EF certainly did. The priests who did that must have felt no one was really paying attention whether he was speaking in Latin or English or anoher language. (Who could tell what he was saying!)

      Enough nostalgia for priestly quirks. Be grateful that active participation has made such styles obsolete even in the EF.

      1. “Meaningful silence is possible only with a congregation that actively and consciously participates. If that happens with the EF, it is only because of the reforms from VII that called for it.”

        I see the assertions but not a clear argument for them. (Reminder: I am neither an EF nor a Reform of The Reform, person; OF only.) It’s not clear me why one would need to assert or argue this point, which seems to come out of some of the Elder vs Prodigal Brother energy that too often plagues EF-OF polemics.

      2. “Meaningful silence is possible only with a congregation that actively and consciously participates.”

        I think the argument is obvious: you cannot have anything meaningful to those who are unconscious or not participating. That is an extreme way of putting it, but the milder form apparently wasn’t understood.

        Both the OF and the EF require conscious participation, but the liturgical movement started because this was not the case with the pre-V2 ritual. Since conscious participation is is what inspired the OF, it is a fundmental part of it. But it can be, and in fact was, lacking in the earlier rite, it is an extra. This is not a matter of arbitrary choice, but of a fundamental principle.

        This means that for the OF, silence is added as a word in an intelligible sentence. It is prompted by the ritual to bring you into it. As it has been described here, silence in the EF cuts you off from the ritual. You don’t hear the words, you don’t see the gestures (because the priest is in the way). How can there be conscious participation if you can’t see or hear what is happening?

  3. Another view from the pews:
    At first glance, I love this. But as a parent to three boys, one who is a noisy 2 year old, I wonder if part of the problem is that this is really hard to achieve in the typical parish. Our priest does the best he can to provide for moments of silence, but there seems to be a tension between the ideal and the actual as they play out in the pews. For every pause of several minutes, our service is that much longer. Many children have great difficulty remaining silent for our 75 minute service. I’ve seen toddlers literally kicking and screaming “I don’t like this place” as their parents carry them inside to the sanctuary. On one hand, it’s easy to say that kids need to toughen up and realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them. On the other hand, there are young children (like my son at 5 years old) who have decided that God only loves them if they’re quiet.

    I’d love to hear about ways in which parishes embrace families and their noisy children, yet manage to embrace silence as well.

    I love the silence I get to experience on retreats or when I rise to pray before my family wakes up. I just don’t know that it’s easy to achieve in a parish setting, when some of those tiny parishioners have been known to have 10 minute tantrums because their parents cut their toast the wrong way.

    1. In my experience, we don’t do anything specific about noise (as opposed to expressions/indications of urgent personal need – that person having a seizure does not get ignored unless they instruct so…), other than to abide with it, because reacting to it tends to beget more of it. Regardless of age.

      However, a habit to identify and maintain big-picture focus is worth cultivating – self-management, in current jargon (mindfulness is too recursive a term). And I write this as a contemplative person who finds God and angelic instructions sometimes lurking in “distractions”. The habit is less likely to be cultivated when we aren’t given generous opportunities to practice it.

      1. PS: Which reminds me about how, when we pray for patience, what we tend to get is….more opportunities to practice patience (which opportunities will likely annoy rather than soothe us). Rather than grace in the form of a mood-altering booster shot.

    2. I hear your concern, but i respectfully disagree. Part of my early childhood carechesis with my mom was spending time in church alone having her explain everything in the church to me. Once i could teach the place back to her, she taught me the mystery, wonder, awe and reverence of being with the Trinity in their holy home (i had already been taught to see them in all of Creation, and all human beings). Once i could teach that back to her, and i knew i had to be quiet, we progressed through small portions of the Mass at a time. Same process. Only after i could explain the whole Mass back to her, did i go. I understood the meaning of all of it, and i treasured it (never needed toys or coloring books, never loudly interrupted). Did it take time; yes, but it was important to her to form me well in my faith. And i am grateful she did.

    3. My experience with my one child was that she acted out when she wanted or needed attention. But I’ve also known children who expected to be the permanent center of parental (or adult) attention, and liturgy is difficult because it moves against this option. For some parents, child care is a helpful option, at least for part of the Mass. Except for persistent and extreme cases, I think fussy children are more of a distraction to a parent than to others. If that means a parent’s silence is filled with attending to a daughter or son, that might make quiet time during Mass an impossibility. But it might well remain an opportunity for grace. Rushed liturgy isn’t going to help a needy child any more than a hushed liturgy will.

    4. We have a box of books suitable for young children. That often does the trick. If not, then those of us at the family Mass seem to have adopted the gospel instruction to not keep the children away from the Lord …. but it is hard at times.
      Despite that we always have a minute or two of quiet after communion, and a brief pause at the start of the penitential rite, before the opening prayer and after the homily.
      Children won’t learn to be still if they are never given opportunities.

    5. I don’t think it’s possible to have both a thriving parish and dead silence at Mass. As someone who has often found himself to be one of the youngest people at Mass (I’m in my 30’s), I take a lot of joy in seeing fidgety chattery little kids and families at Mass – and I know a lot of other people who feel the same way.

      Though, I think if a kid is having a total meltdown, then the parent should take the kid out to the vestibule or walk around the back of the church for a little while. My favorite instance of a noisy kid at Mass was when I went to a solemn high EF Mass set to an elaborate choral setting from the early 1800s. The amazing music and full orchestra inspired the toddler two pews ahead of us to start loudly singing “LA LA LA LA LA!” The mother seemed embarrassed, but the kid was having a great time.

    6. This is an important and excellent point, Melissa. Thanks.

      I find that with my three, among whom is also a loud 2 year-old, there is a stage in which it is so much fun to experiment with the acoustics, especially when it’s quiet.

      Recently we got a new parochial vicar, whose name is Fr. Jim. The first time he celebrated, my 2 year-old repeatedly called out during the Eucharistic prayer, “Jim! Jiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmm!!! JIM!” Everyone had a chuckle, which I happen to think is a lovely thing.

      It’s a travesty for a little one to think that God only loves them if they’re quiet. And I think that much of this is on the congregation themselves. Impressions like that only come from the reactions of adults. Adults are able to pray interiorly even if a child is making noise. That’s part of life. The liturgical aim is a pause for silence instead of rushing into prayers. Pristine silence will have to be left to retreats or early mornings.

      I think that if we eliminated the chattiness we tend to experience at Mass, we should have plenty of time for the “brief silence” (GIRM 54) ahead of the Collect as well as the other silences without making the Mass onerously long for little ones.

      1. Thanks Tim. The acoustics issue definitely plays a role for our 2 year old. When we have a different priest, he shouts “Where’s Father Steve?” which is much better than repeating “we done yet?” or “donut time?” when we’re only on the second reading.

        In our parish, homilies can be quite lengthy, and the moments for silence sometimes seem to push our little ones over the edge (and maybe their parents too, if it’s 75 minutes into mass). What’s interesting to me is that I never felt this way before I had children. I was a quiet girl who was happy to color and always wanted to please adults. My boys have different energy levels, volumes, and temperaments. While I was in grad school, I I belonged to an African American parish with 2 hour services, so I’m not opposed to lengthy masses.

        I realize my comments are more about raising children in the faith than about silence specifically. It just seems like this is an area where the lived experience may depart from the aspirational or theoretical. I sometimes wish church leaders would be open to listening to these lived experiences rather than blowing them off as complaining (I don’t feel that way about comments here).

  4. Whilst agreeing with the general tenor of the article (tho’ might it be necessary for a time to introduce the Collect with something like “Let us pray in silence for a space for our own intentions at this Mass”, at least until the congregation is used to the idea?) with regard to

    “At many parishes, I have seen time offered at the end of the General Intercessions for each to offer intentions in silence. . Observing the space for precisely this kind of silence at the beginning of the Mass, ahead of the Collect, would alleviate the other time during the Prayer of the Faithful, which always strikes me as odd as because those prayers are specifically petitions that apply to all of us.” (Not ‘petitions to be made by each of us’?)
    I believe that this reflects a mis-understanding of the purpose of the Universal Prayer/General Intercession/Prayer of the Faithful, modelled on the mediæval Bidding Prayers. See the model prayers at the back of the Missale Romanum) and GIRM #69-71,.
    The celebrant ‘tops and tails’ the Intercession with an opening call to prayer and a closing Collect. The reader announces the intentions, inviting the faithful to pray for x [and that y may happen]. The reader is thus addressing the Assembly, not the Almighty, and each in the Assembly should be given an opportunity to pray (silently) for a space. Addressing God in spoken prayer is a specific role of the celebrant.
    Unfortunately, many of the printed collections of prayers fail to observe this distinction.

    1. Thanks for your reply and thoughts, John.

      I guess my point is that in the Prayer of the Faithful, we’re all focused on the announced intention as we pray silently or, more often in the U.S., offer our verbal invocation (GIRM 71). The structure of this prayer is indicated by the norms in the GIRM–moving from the needs of the Church, to public authorities, to those in struggle, to the local community.

      By contrast, before the opening collect we’re focused on what we’re bringing to Mass with us as we “formulate our petitions mentally” (GIRM 54).

  5. This line of thought may be off the wall a bit, but being in the military, I find myself frequently at or near a lot of “blended” worship services. The use of music in those can help inform the use of silence. In my own background, music usually isn’t an end unto itself, but rather, something that happens while liturgical action is going on. For example, we process in, and so there’s a processional hymn. We recess out, and so there’s a recessional hymn. We’re doing ablutions, and so there’s a post-communion hymn. (Or the choir chants the minor propers, or whatever.) The pattern, though, is that music isn’t done for its own sake. In “blended” services, music is almost entirely disconnected from liturgical action, not least because there usually *isn’t* much liturgical action. It’s an end unto itself, or else it’s designed to evoke a certain emotional response for that part of worship: we get jazzed up at the beginning, we get settled down before the sermon, and we get jazzed up again to leave on a high note.

    Silence, too, can either be in response to liturgical action, and so contemplation during the offertory, during the canon, or immediately after communion. Or it can be an end unto itself: “And now we’ll have a moment of silence,” either announced or not. As with music, I prefer the silence to be in response to liturgical action or to complement it, rather than for its own sake once worship has started. Prior to worship and after worship are excellent times for a silent nave, too — at least, for me!

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