Liturgical silence

You should take a moment to read the latest post by His Hermeneuticalness, Fr. Finigan, about liturgical silence.

Here is a bit.

One of the attractions for many people, of the celebration of Mass according to the usus antiquior is that there is more silence. I can heartily sympathise with this preference from my relatively rare opportunities to assist at another priest’s Mass in addition to celebrating my own.

Interestingly, though, the ceremonies of the usus antiquior provide little in the way of pauses for silence. The "silence" that people love so much is mostly when the priest is praying secreto, that is to say, he vocalises the words in such a way that he can hear them but others don’t. Thus the "silence" is a more or less determined length of time which comes to an end when the priest reaches the next part that is to be said out loud or sung.

In the older form of Mass, there are three moments where the priest pauses in silence. At the memento of the living in the Canon, he remains for a short time in silence, remembering those for whom he wishes to pray (stat paulisper in quiete). In this case, the rubric explicitly says that he does not need to express the names but may remember them in his mind. The instruction for the memento of the dead says that he remembers them in the same way (though now that the sacred host has been consecrated, he is instructed to look at the host.) In fact, the priest may have many names or classes of people he wishes to remember and may simply recall in general those for whom he has made an intention to pray during his preparation for Mass. When people ask for my prayers, I usually promise to remember them at my Mass in this way.

The third pause for silence in the usus antiquior is after the priest has consumed the sacred host (not after he has received Holy Communion from the chalice.) He is instructed to be quiet for a short time in meditation on the most holy Sacrament (aliquantulum quiescit in meditatione sanctissimi Sacramenti).

The Missal of Pope Paul VI provided for more pauses for silence; though you might not realise this since the overall impression of the Mass is that there is virtually no silence since the Eucharistic Prayer is said out loud, something that Gueranger deplored: Cardinal Ratzinger suggested that an option should be provided for saying it quietly. Very often the Offertory is also said out loud as well, so that the only time when there is a prayer of any length said secreto is before the priest’s Communion. In fact, many priests, I think, feel slightly embarrassed at this and rush the prayer or say it out loud. The pauses for silence are detailed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM – I will refer to the edition promulgated with the 3rd edition of the Missale Romanum in 2002)


I would love to redo the whole piece here, but I would rather all of you go to visit Fr. Finigan’s excellent blog and spike his stats while reading the rest.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Geremia says:

    Yes, I know at least one lapsed Catholic who seemed attracted to the silence of the pre-Vatican II masses. He said it gave him the opportunity to meditate. I think people do indeed thirst for quiet in this noisy world. Read Pope Benedict’s World Youth Day 2008 speech on silence.

    Also, in the Novus Ordo, there is an awkward silence after the homily which then-Cardinal Ratzinger mentions in his Spirit of the Liturgy.

  2. 3D says:

    The reason that I appreciate silence in the Extraordinary Form is that I can actively participate in Mass by reading the prayers without noisy distractions. And the silent prayers of the priest, especially during the Consecration, demonstrate the humility with which Christ came into this world: in silence.

    I have found the optional moments of silence in the Novus Ordo to cause my mind to drift . . . I don’t think silence should be employed for silence’s sake.

  3. Magpie says:

    Geremia, I don’t suppose you have a link to that WYD speech on silence?

    I’ve had a look here but can’t find it:

    Many thanks in advance if you can help me with this!

  4. Kate says:

    Fr. Finigan also states, “The other problem is that if the pausa is genuinely quiet, nobody knows how long it will last. It is very much at the discretion of the priest, and people are left wondering “When is he going to start again?” rather than engaging in considerations, affections and resolutions, or resting in infused contemplation, depending on their spiritual state. ”

    I completely agree. Especially when the priest sits after the Gospel or Communion. Fr. Finigan’s point about seated priest pauses is right on the money. I am never more prayerful or reflective at these times; I just keep wondering how long the priest is going to sit there, and, to be honest, I get annoyed because it seems to become a holier-than-thou-because-I-can-sit-silent-longer-than-you. Very uncomfortable.

    I never feel this way at a Latin Mass; the silences in the Latin Mass seem natural while the sometimes-imposed ones at Novo Ordus Masses always feel manufactured. After reading Fr. Finigan’s post, I see that there are real guidelines for them, but they are so infrequently applied that they always make me feel uncomfortable.

  5. The silence is precisely one of the things I appreciate most about the old rite. Silence is the language of God. It is also the sound of true active participation.

  6. Sedgwick says:

    Silence is not the same as liturgical solemnity, nor a substitute for it. The mysterium fidei of the Traditional Mass is one long ineffable silence of the priest’s recollected mind and humbled heart, and the profound awe among the laity at the miracle transpiring at the altar. The Novus Ordo silence is merely the holes in a threadbare cloth, stripped of mystery by the despicable Bugnini and his fellow travelers/butchers.

  7. I have often wondered about the “silence” issue. In the Novus Ordo there are points at which silence is recommended: before the collects, after the readings, after communion. My experience is that on one really feels satisfied with these. They are either 15 second distractions or 60 second frustrated pauses.

    This problem is NOT essental to the rite. And such “breaks in the action” are totally alien to the Eastern Rites. At my recent 25th anniversary Mass (where everything was sung — including the Roman Canon and all three readings), there were no pauses at all and everyone that commented said it was the most “contemplative” or “prayerful” Mass they had ever attended. They especially commented on the singing of the Creed. Silence is not necessary to prayer in a liturgical function, essential as it may be to private meditation.

    I have nothing against the traditional three silences in the older Roman (and Dominican) Rite: at the Offertory, during the Canon, and after the Pater Noster. But it is their regularity that seems to have made them useful as periods of prayer for those at Mass (even if two are very short). I suspect that the attachment to them by many Catholics is simply that they got used to them before the Vatican II reforms — which is not a bad reason. I support their retention in EF and Dominican Rite Masses, but I would not dogmatize such things.

    The practice of continuous singing, as in the Easter Rites, can be just as prayerful, I think. And in the old rite it was common to sing a motet to fill up the silence at the Offertory, and (in the Roman Rite) to split the Sanctus-Benedictus so that the “silent” Canon was completely covered by singing. At Communion, the silence after the Communion version was usually filled by another motet or (Latin) hymn. So at sung Mass the only “silence” was usually the period of the Libera nos after the Pater. Not much really.

    Frankly, I think the silence issue is often a red herring. The real issue is about good music at Masses with music and ending the priest’s ad lib patter at Masses without music.

  8. Jack Hughes says:

    I second Fr. Thompson

    The Missa Canta I attend every other Sunday is sooo much more prayerful than the weekday N.O which is not helped by the constant switching of readers which is done so that everyone gets a chance to ‘do something active’.

  9. Tom in NY says:

    Cf. Rev. 8:1 and ff.:
    “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour…” It’s a marvelous scene. Can we contemplate that our worship is connected to this scene, even if we can’t create it again?

    Salutationes omnibus.

  10. susanna says:

    Let’s hear it for silence! :) I think it was mostly the noise in the noise in the novus ordo churches that sent me fleeing to the Latin mass.

  11. Henry Edwards says:

    I would suggest that the more important issue is prayer rather than silence. One can pray silently and privately either during a period of silence in the liturgy, or during a musical period when the choir is singing.

    I hope (and believe) that many or most people at an EF Mass (by choice, nowadays) participate prayerfully in the manner recommended by Pope Pius X:

    ”If you wish to hear Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart, and mouth all that happens at the Altar. Further, you must pray with the Priest the holy words said by him. You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens on the Altar. When acting in this way, you have prayed Holy Mass.”

    Whereas I fear that most people at an OF Mass are not praying during the periods of silence that are artificially imposed, and which are interruptions to the liturgy, rather than part of it. Nor are they praying the Mass itself (a la Pius X) while they are singing hymns rather than proper parts of the liturgy.

    Nor, indeed, do I suspect most people are praying when they are listening passively to the audible Canon, which is rather like sitting on a couch at home and listening to a Mass broadcast on TV. Rewarding, perhaps, but usually not really prayful. More like a spectator sport rather than a participative one.

  12. The Egyptian says:

    I believe that the silence in the NO is jarring because there is “nothing” happening. from my very limited attendance at EF masses and especially at a low mass the silence is not really silent, we know the Priest is silently praying, not just sitting there to make a statement. One old Pastor of mine, back in the late 70’s announced “all sermons will last at least 20 minutes and there will be a silent reflection of 4 minutes after” his sermons were not worth 4 minutes, it just got your mind wandering and usually to not good thoughts on what you would like to do to said Priest

  13. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    I was a guest at a St. John’s Day Mass celebrated by Francis Cardinal George in English using the Missal of Paul VI. After Communion, he allowed a period of silence, and it was complete silence with complete stillness.

    In a time when Liturgy is ruled by Dramaturgy, it was a dramaturgically unpardonably long pause, but from the point of view of worship, it was, appropriately, heavenly.

  14. JulieC says:

    With all due respect, I must take strong exception to Anita’s comment above that silence is true active participation.

    If the pre-conciliar Popes equated silence with participatio actuosa why did they complain about the people being silent at the Mass? They used pretty harsh, almost insulting, language to describe the faithful who had been conditioned not to
    respond audibly during the Liturgy:

    According to Popes Pius X, XI and XII, during the sacred liturgy, the laity should not be . . .

    “. . . detached and silent spectators”—-Pope Pius XI, Divini cultus

    “. . . .outsiders or mute onlookers”—-Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei

    “. . . strangers”—-Pope Pius XII, De musica sacra

    “. . . mute spectators”—-Pope Pius XII, De musica sacra

    “. . . dumb and idle spectators”—-Pope Pius XII, Musicae sacrae disciplina

    I believe the goal was for the liturgy to have brief periods of silence, not total silence. It is the contrast between silence and activity/sound that causes those hushed and reverent moments during the Canon and Offertory and after Communion to be all the more precious.

    The Mass is meant above all to be the public prayer of the Church. All the Popes from Pope Pius X to Benedict XVI clearly wanted the faithful to interact with the celebrant and not sit silently and passively in the pews in their own private sphere of devotion.

    Cardinal Ratzinger praised the work of the liturgical movement for instructing the people to become more involved in the liturgy. Even he recognized that the Mass had become too privatized, in a sense. As he says in his preface to The Spirit of the Liturgy:

    “In the Missal from which the priest celebrated, the form of the liturgy that had grown from its earliest beginnings, was still present, but, as far as the faithful were concerned, it was largely concealed beneath instructions for and forms of private prayer.”

  15. Henry Edwards says:

    JulieC: With all due respect, I must take strong exception to Anita’s comment above that silence is true active participation.

    Perhaps you and Anita don’t really mean entirely different things. She actually said not that silence is true active participation, but that “silence is the sound of true active participation.”

    At any rate, silence may be one of the sounds of active and prayerful participation. I attend a Sunday high Mass (EF) that is probably participative by any standard. The people sing the

  16. Henry Edwards says:

    JulieC: With all due respect, I must take strong exception to Anita’s comment above that silence is true active participation.

    Perhaps you and Anita don’t really mean entirely different things. She actually said not that silence is true active participation, but that “silence is the sound of true active participation.”

    At any rate, silence is certainly one of the ways that active and prayerful participation can sound. I attend a Sunday high Mass (EF) that is probably participative by any standard. The people sing the Gloria and Credo along with the choir, etc. They make all the usual responses, plus some — e.g., the Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium … and the triple Domine non sum dignus … — that are not always made by the people at a high Mass. They even sing the Pater noster along with the priest, which is currently approved but unusual.

    However, I still feel that their prayerful participation is probably deeper and more actively spiritual during the silent Canon than during the audible ordinary and dialogues.

  17. Andrew says:

    These quotations are taken from various documents, each of which deals with Sacred Music. When you read it that way you realize that this has little to do with the concept of sacred silence. Here are some sentences that preceed or follow your quotations:
    “In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it.” (Divini cultus)
    “Besides, “so that the faithful take a more active part in divine worship, let Gregorian chant be restored to popular use in the parts proper to the people.” (mediator Dei)
    “… also popular religious hymns which derive their origin from the liturgical chant itself.” (musicae sacrae disciplina).
    “ The first way the faithful can participate in the low Mass is for each one, on his own initiative, to pay devout attention to the more important parts of the Mass -interior participation.” (de musica sacra)

    Reading it in context you see that these statements (that the faithful should not be “mute outsiders” do not support the kind of activism that is being interpreted as participation in these days of ours. It has something to do with the faithful being able to sing the responses in Gregorian chant or to say them in Latin.

  18. JulieC says:


    Thanks for bringing up those valuable clarifications. You are correct that the balance between silence and saying/singing in Latin those parts that pertain to the people that the Church has been seeking in her official teaching on the liturgy.

    That is precisely the balance that Cardinal Ratzinger was speaking of in The Spirit of the Liturgy.

    I think the danger lies in the extremes between almost frenetic activity/sound in the OF and of almost total silence in the EF (esp. during Low Mass where the people have been conditioned to make no responses.)

    The beauty of the sung EF Mass lies in its marvelous mix of different modes of active participation which taken together satisfy the deepest needs of the soul and the human heart.

  19. JulieC says:


    I hope it’s clear I’m not interpreting the Popes as advocating anything other than what you have correctly pointed out: singing or saying in Latin the parts of the Mass that pertain to the people.

    I’m not really sure what else you thought I meant. I hope you don’t think I was referring to dancing girls or jumping up and down in the pews or some other kind of liturgical activism. ;-)

  20. Andrew says:

    Perhaps I tend to get a little jumpy because I start thinking of our present situation and I worry about apologists who defend current customs. I like silence, dim lights, wispers, stained glass, organ, chant, uncomfortable angular pews, secluded corners, ancient inscriptions, sad priests: they prefer chatter, endless clarifications, microhpones, bright lights, comfy backwards leaning padded pews, silly cheap artwork, homemade inscriptions, smiley priests, handholding, ——– hit me please and tell me to stop. Why am I so different? Why do I feel like a stranger when I’m with them?

  21. asperges says:

    I have often thought that a serious study should be made of all the good intentions of the new rite and reforms which have had the reverse effect: this rite is the Rite of Paradox. Here are some examples (this is the nearest I can get to a table):


    More silence in Mass // More prayerful ambiance = Forced and unnatural: opposite effect
    3 yr cycle for readings // Better exposure to H Writ = Less familiarity than ever: obscure texts
    Comm in the Hand // Shared priesthood?? = Fewer vocations, lack of respect/ belief
    Lay participation // As above? Greater lay action = Dumbing down of priest’s role
    Extr Min of HC // Necessity? Lay particip. = Misinterpretaion; dumb down of priesthood
    Vernacular Mass // Deeper understanding of Mass = Lesser understanding than ever
    Reform of the rite // Demystification and clarity = Muddle and near destr of Roman rite
    Facing People // P and People together in Mass = Detracted seriously from mystery
    Transfer of Holydays // Better response by busy people = People’s indifference to liturg cycle
    Reform of fast and abst // More focused approach? = Ignored by most people
    General ease of discipline // Less severe = Everything questioned or ignored

    The above is a gross simplification, of course but you get the idea. There are hundreds more examples one could give. The intention was good; the results disastrous. The Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. At last we have reached the stage where these things can be examined again and correctedm one hopes, under this Pope.

  22. One can pray silently and privately either during a period of silence in the liturgy, or during a musical period when the choir is singing.

    Provided the music is actually conducive to prayer, which most of the time (at least in my diocese) it is not.

    When I said “silence is the sound of true active participation” the particular thing I had in mind was the Canon of the Mass in the old rite, and especially in the moments leading up to the consecration. That is no empty silence; it is an expectant hush descending on Calvary, when the Savior is about to breathe His last. There, we are silent, not because we are dumb and impassive, but because we are encountering Mystery.

  23. JulieC says:

    Andrew and Anita,

    The contrasts between the typical OF and the EF are pretty stark, I agree, and, like you, I much prefer all the traditional ways, and even if there is a little quibble or two about details, we would probably have very little disagreement on the most important points.

    By the way, here is one example of a Latin liturgy which I think incorporates the best ideals of the Liturgical Movement and the teaching of the pre-conciliar Popes and of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

    This is at the famous traditionalist church in Paris at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet. This is the most beautiful Latin Mass I have ever seen. It illustrates everything we all love about the old liturgy: reverence, ceremony, tradition and yet there is a joy and vibrancy here also because of the deep involvement of the people in the liturgy.

    And, there are appropriate moments of silence also, esp. during the Canon, as Anita just mentioned, at which there should indeed be “an expectant hush” as she says so well.

    Many things to emulate in this video. We can all learn something from the way the French traditionalists celebrate the TLM, in my humble opinion. They have a great enthusiasm and fervor and love to sing. I really believe that if the EF Latin Mass were celebrated in America the way they do it at St. Nicholas du Chardonnet, it would be a very appealing option to many Catholics.

Comments are closed.