Cardinal Sarah on Silence

Perhaps you’ve seen the reports on the interview of Cardinal Sarah (prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship) about, among other things, silence. Lots of wise words, such as this:

Under the pretext of making access to God easy, some wanted everything in the liturgy to be immediately intelligible, rational, horizontal and human. But in acting that way, we run the risk of reducing the sacred mystery to good feelings. Under the pretext of pedagogy, some priests indulge in endless commentaries that are flat-footed and mundane. Are these pastors afraid that silence in the presence of the Most High might disconcert the faithful? Do they think that the Holy Spirit is incapable of opening hearts to the divine Mysteries by pouring out on them the light of spiritual grace?

I’d like to think that this was more of a problem 30 years ago than now – but I don’t have an overview of the whole church around the world either. I don’t have an accurate sense of how many priests are still overly didactic and chatty, who distract from the rite and call attention to themselves in their casual presidential style. I hope more and more priests are able to let the reformed liturgy, in all its simple dignity, speak for itself, so that it will unobtrusively lead us to God in Christ, and to fellowship with all those who are in Christ.

I wonder about this from the cardinal, though:

Vatican Council II stresses that silence is a privileged means of promoting the participation of the people of God in the liturgy.

As Martin Stuflesser commented on Facebook, one would sure like to see a source citation. The Council did uphold silence, to be sure, but not as a privileged means of participation, and never at the expense of external participation in word and song.

And then there is this:

How can we enter into this interior disposition except by turning physically, all together, priest and faithful, toward the Lord who comes, toward the East symbolized by the apse where the cross is enthroned?

How? Maybe by turning to the Lord who comes who is present in the priest, the Word, the assembly, and especially the consecrated elements? It’s hard to see why facing East is a better way of turning toward the Lord than is facing the Bread and Wine, as we gather around  the altar. You can’t really see the elements if the priest is in the way.

I mean, really. Early Christians apparently faced east when they prayed in private, but I don’t know anyone who does today. When I was growing up, we all knelt on the living room floor, leaning on the furniture, facing all the walls in all directions. It was the furthest thought from our piety that we should all face East. I suspect it’s the same with most all Christians prayer in private today.

Let’s be honest: we don’t see East as a sign of Christ who is coming today. But surely we do see Christ in the altar, the community, consecrated elements, the ordained minister? Let’s think more about that.

But on the value of silence in the liturgy: this monk likes what the cardinal says.





  1. The only thing I read in the interview that I heartily disapproved of was his comment about keeping our distance from the Lord. This Sunday’s Gospel illustrates a contrast: ten lepers who kept their distance and shouted at Jesus, and the one who returned who threw himself at the Lord’s feet.

  2. I would say that chattiness is still a very big problem in many developing world countries, where liturgical formation seems to stress long and wordy introductions and conclusions.

    It is true that in some families there is no directional prayer. But others do – for example, by turning to face a particular image or a family altar/prayer corner/etc. Many of the families I visit during this month for example, have small group prayer of the rosary and that is exactly what they do. Even occasionally in public worship this happens in both big and small ways – witness the standing in front of the images of the Virgin for the final antiphon in the Vatican for example.

    It is true that Christ is present in people, priest, reading, etc., etc. But all these things do not have a visual similitude to Christ. I would adapt and apply here the same reason that the orthodox Fathers gave for why we require icons of Christ instead of just the Eucharist. And the Cross particularly represents the East because of its association with the coming of Christ.

    1. @Joshua Vas:
      In college, when I had to observe high school teachers as part of a class I was taking, I spent some of that time in a Catholic school. At one point, the teacher led the class in prayer and all turned to a statue of Our Lady. So I would second that directional prayer is not completely lost – if anything, it is more in line with what many people unthinkingly do.

      Also, ad orientem does not rule out seeing “Christ in the altar, the community, consecrated elements, the ordained minister.” We still face the altar, the consecrated elements, and the priest when worshiping ad orientem, and we are still together worshiping as a community.

      Also, I agree that silence is a good thing, perhaps the most natural time for that in the OF is during communion.

      1. @Jack Wayne:
        There are certain definite times of silence proposed by the GIRM. Communion is not one of them. The Communion Chant, in fact, is intimately bound up in the the ritual action of Communion, helping “express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the ‘communitarian’ character of the procession to receive the Eucharist.” GIRM 86. Few elements of our liturgy demand singing as strongly as Communion.

  3. On facing East: I wonder how widespread is the custom in cemeteries of having graves & headstones facing (rising) East? It certainly was the practice in our older cemeteries in Ireland.
    Exception, however, was made for a priest: his grave faced West – facing his people! Perhaps echoing the custom that at a funeral, in the church, the coffin is normally facing the altar; but, for a priest, the coffin faces the congregation. Is this the custom elsewhere?

  4. I am always intrigued to think how the Italian context shaped the Roman Catholic liturgical reform and subsequent Vatican observations and pronouncements. Four years on in Italy, whether because of the natural Italian penchant for conversing or poor liturgical training, I find Italian liturgical celebrations either painfully chatty, or vacuously quick. Recently I attended an infant baptism in which the pastor explained every single ritual gesture, insisting the child was not possessed during the ‘exorcism’. The ritual was drowned in words (and non preparation) to the extent the ritual enactment was non-existent. I take some comfort in the fact that Guardini warned this would happen when he questioned if the contemporary person was even capable of ritual acting and reasoning. That being said, Sarah ‘s assertion that the primary means of participation in SC, and hence the liturgical reform, is silence, is just not true.

  5. Well, he’s already been talked to about the facing east, but that first excerpt on silence is good — after the readings, homily, communion procession.

  6. This is what Sacrosanctum Concilium says about silence:
    30. To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.

    Nothing about silence being a privileged way of promoting participation.

    I do however think it is worth revisiting the role of silence in the Liturgy:
    General Instruction on the Roman Missal

    45. Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times.[54] Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in the different parts of the celebration. For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him.

    Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner.

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