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.