The first reading for this Sunday reminds us that God speaks to us in our hearts: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).
The U.S. Bishops reminded us, in their 2007 document on “Music in Divine Worship”, that, “Silence in the liturgy allows the community to reflect on what it has heard and experienced, and to open its heart to the mystery celebrated” (n. 118).
That is why Pope Benedict XVI, in his exhortation Verbum Domini said, “This principle — that without silence we neither hear nor listen nor receive the word — applies above all to personal prayer, but it also pertains to our liturgies: in order to facilitate an authentic listening, they must also be rich in moments of silence and unspoken receptivity.”
Of course, during the Mass celebration, we are not usually silent. Prayer has a communal aspect and this is most perfectly revealed in the Mass. We pray together. We sing. We greet each other in peace. We hear the homily. However, there are still moments when silence is appropriate and even necessary for us to experience the fullness of the Mass.
Silence at Mass offers us a chance to pray with our entire being, praise with our entire spirit and just “come away and rest awhile” with God. To ensure opportunities for this during Mass, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) explicitly reminds us of certain times when silence is observed:
within the penitential rite;
after the opening invitation to pray;
before the Liturgy of the Word;
after the first and second readings;
after the homily;
and after the Communion song ends.
However, each silence serves a different role in preparing our hearts for the Lord. In its 2011 version, the GIRM noted that “sacred silence … 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” (no. 45).
Silence is not a break in the action of prayer and worship. Silence is, in itself, a form of prayer — prayer without words or action.
We are not used to this form of prayer — which is both contemplation and meditation. We are used to activity, movement and noise. So we are more comfortable with vocal prayer. Silence, sitting still and saying nothing can make us squirm.
Pope Benedict acknowledged this at his March 14 general audience: “In fact, ours is not an age which fosters recollection; indeed, at times one has the impression that people have a fear of detaching themselves, even for a moment, from the barrage of words and images that mark and fill our days.”
However, the pope said, in prayer and at Mass, “Interior and exterior silence are necessary in order that this word may be heard.”
But there is always an interchange going on, he added, even in silence. As the U.S. bishops noted in their 2010 teaching on prayer at Mass, “These times of silence are not merely times when nothing happens; rather, they are opportunities for us to enter more deeply in what God is doing in the Mass, and, like Mary, to keep ‘all these things, reflecting on them’ in our hearts (Lk 2:19).”
In December 2003, Blessed Pope John Paul issued a letter stressing the importance of “the experience of silence” during Mass. He cited Jesus, who sought quiet moments of prayer — as during his 40 days in the desert. During Lent, we also walk with Jesus in those 40 days. The desert, remember, is a silent place.
Blessed John Paul added that we need silence “to receive in our hearts the full resonance of the voice of the Holy Spirit, and to unite more closely personal prayer with the Word of God and with the public voice of the church” (n. 13).
Silence in the midst of Mass — or any form of prayer – offers healing for the soul, peace in God’s presence, support in the prayerful presence of others and a quietness that nourishes our spirits. The noise of everyday life will be upon us again, soon enough. And that is good, too, because it reminds us that joyful noise of the Easter Alleluia — and unveiled statues — will again be upon us soon.
Sources: GIRM; vatican.va; John Paul II’s letter at CatholicCulture.org; “Praying the Mass”; whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com; the U.S. bishops’ website at usccb.org.