Silence and the liturgy

I’ll never forget the silence of Sept. 11, 2001.

Most of us remember the chaos of that day—the sirens, the alarms, the confusion and pandemonium.   The senses were assaulted—especially for those who were physically present in New York, Washington, D.C., or Pennsylvania.

But like many, I watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold on television from afar.  I was still in Rome at the time, working for the Vatican Congregation for Bishops.  I watched the Twin Towers begin to collapse on a television set, with other American priests assigned to Rome. All of us sat in stunned silence, helpless to do anything.  What amazed me was that the television commentators also sat in silence.   For long periods of time, the television displayed terrible images, with almost no sound, commentary or interruption.  Everyone seemed to know that words were nearly useless in the face of something so unthinkable.

Silence amplified the magnitude of what we were watching.

I think I remember that silence so vividly because silence, especially on television, is a rare thing in contemporary culture.  Rarely in the world do we encounter a silent moment.  Media blares and, more than that, we are a people who talk a lot.  In some ways, our culture seems uncomfortable with silence.

But I learned, on Sept. 11, 2001, the power of silence.  A silent moment, in a loud, chaotic, confusing world, amplifies reality.  In silence, without distraction, we see what is real—what is truly before us. We are given the time to better comprehend the true meaning of things.

This is the reason the Church calls for silence, and a great deal of silence, during the liturgy of the Mass.  Silence amplifies the reality of what we experience.  Silence is a proper response to a reality which words cannot express—in the case of the Mass, to the reality of God’s presence.

We are invited to silence several times during the Mass.  We are first of all called to be silent before Mass begins.  We need that space of time to recollect ourselves in order to enter into prayer. This is why there should be no video presentations or even choir rehearsal during those five or 10 minutes before Mass begins.

We are then called to silence as we recall and repent of our sins.  We are called to silent reflection after each Scriptural reading, and after the homily.  We are all called to silence after we have received holy Communion.  And we are invited, at the conclusion of Mass, to kneel down for a silent prayer of Thanksgiving before departing for the parking lot.

These periods of silence are intended to bring reality into focus.  At Mass we express to God our contrition, we hear his word, and we receive his physical presence sacramentally.  These realities go beyond our comprehension.  To hear and understand the Word of God is an expression of his great love for us.  To receive the body of Christ is the deepest kind of communion with God.  The silence in the liturgy punctuates a rich and profound time of prayer with opportunities to reflect on the reality of our experience.   The silence of the liturgy is a gift which helps us to understand the greatest gifts we can receive.

In 2000, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, offered an insight into the silence of the liturgy. “We respond, by singing and praying to the God who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence. It must, of course, be a silence with content, not just the absence of speech and action. We should expect the liturgy to give us a positive stillness that will restore us.”

Pope Benedict described the liturgical silence as a “silence with content … a positive stillness.”  He meant that our silence in prayer is not to be an emptying meditation alone. Instead, silence in prayer is an occasion to more deeply understand the Mass itself.

After the readings, for example, we can, in silence, picture the narrative of the Old Testament or the Gospel.  If the readings contained advice, an exhortation, or an admonishment, we can ask the Lord how it applies in our lives.  The period of silence is a time when the Lord can vivify—make alive—the word proclaimed.  We need only to ask him for this, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

After Communion, as we pray in silence, we can ask the Lord to fill us with his love—to help us love our brothers and sisters, to help us see the world as he does.  We can give him thanks for the great blessings he has given us.  After a while, our silent prayer after Communion may become an experience of simply being in the silent, radiant, loving presence of our God.

Silence isn’t easy for any of us.  The Church gives us silence in the liturgy to train our hearts and minds in silent prayer.  But attentive, active, “positive silence” takes work.  Often, we may find it difficult to focus.  The Church encourages us to ask the Lord to help us to experience his presence.  As we cultivate silence, we will begin, more frequently, to hear the voice of the Lord.

Silence points us to reality.   It is a rare gift, but to understand it may take us each a lifetime.  Let us give thanks for the silence of the liturgy.  Let us ask the Lord to help us use it to see more clearly the reality of his magnificent and loving presence.

This column continues the Denver Catholic Register’s series on the New Roman Missal.