Silence… silence… please, God, more silence! Fr. Z rants.

I just sent in a column for The Wanderer.  Here is the first part of what I offered this week.

In his General Audience of 10 August, Pope Benedict spoke about monastic silence, beauty and prayer.  He said,

Silence is the environmental condition that most favors contemplation, listening to God and meditation. The very fact of experiencing silence and allowing ourselves to be “filled,” so to speak, with silence, disposes us to prayer. The great prophet, Elijah, on Mount Horeb – that is, Sinai – experienced strong winds, then an earthquake, and finally flashes of fire, but he did not recognize the voice of God in them; instead, he recognized it in a light breeze (cfr. 1 Rev 19:11-13). God speaks in silence, but we need to know how to listen.

Great for monks and cloistered sisters, right?  If silence is good for them, if silence and beauty is are necessary for their prayer, isolated as they are from the busy, noisy, often ugly outside world, how much more necessary is it that our local parish churches, especially in urban settings, be places of beauty and of silence, helpful for refreshing the souls of those who live an active life of many cares?

Some people can go on retreats in a remote place, such as a monastery, from time to time.  But every time we go to a parish church, to be refreshed and fed, wreathed in mystery of the Presence of God, God truly present in the Eucharist reserved in our tabernacles, we should find the beauty that reflects truth and silence which stills the mind and heart and permits active listening.

In his Post-Synodal Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis 40, Pope Benedict wrote about the “art of celebrating” Holy Mass, ars celebrandi.  He spoke of the furnishings of a church and the need for silence during our liturgical worship.

Equally important for a correct ars celebrandi is an attentiveness to the various kinds of language that the liturgy employs: words and music, gestures and silence, movement, the liturgical colours of the vestments. By its very nature the liturgy operates on different levels of communication which enable it to engage the whole human person. The simplicity of its gestures and the sobriety of its orderly sequence of signs communicate and inspire more than any contrived and inappropriate additions.

Our liturgical English for Holy Mass will be dramatically improving quite soon (at the time of this writing, 3 months and 13 days).  Other issues remain to be addressed.

Too often we see our churches filled with things unworthy of the place, or overly busy with potted plants and various tchotchkes which have accrued to clutter the eyescape and therefore mindscape.  Our spaces are filled with aural litter, in the form of oblivious yakking and ditties amplified to ear-bleed levels.  One of the things people might rightly complain about is the constant relentless unceasing sustained continuous unshakable obdurate nonstop noise during Mass.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in Letter 22 the senior-management devil writes in disgust to his apprentice Wormwood about the effects of a holy, calm, and happy Christian household:

The whole house and garden is one vast obscenity. It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven; “the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence”.  Music and silence — how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell — though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express — no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile — Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress. Meanwhile you, disgusting little  ——  [Here the MS. breaks off and is resumed in a different hand.]  In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede.  I am accordingly dictating the rest to my secretary. …

Screwtape explains that, to distract us humans from what is truly important, they our enemies should create so much noise in our lives that we cannot hear the voice of God.

The Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is particularly susceptible to this, it seems. Even during simple Masses it seems there is someone constantly talking.

In recent years we have heard and read in liturgical circles more and more pleas for liturgical silence.

The older, traditional, Extraordinary Form can help us review how we celebrate the Ordinary Form in this regard.

Most younger priests and bishops are keenly aware of what our Holy Father Pope Benedict has been writing about and teaching by example.  If we as Catholics can keep our heads above the coming waves over the next decade or so, we will see a tidal change in our liturgical worship and active participation, even if we have become what the Pope has called a “creative minority”, even if our numbers and locations are reduced in number.  “Creative minorities” exert disproportionate influence.  If we Catholics are clear about who we are, what we believe, and who our true King is, we can have a great and beneficial impact in the public square in the future.

The key to our future, is the revitalization of our liturgical worship.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. pseudomodo says:

    This is an interesting concept…

    Is the Church attaching the virtue of silence to parts of the liturgy only or is is extended to the parish environs itself? Do I bring silence into the church as my own discipline or is silence expected of me when I am there by virtue of the real presence?

    The reality is that in many parishes, silence is a characteristic of the liturgy alone and NOT an aspect of the house of the Lord. This is proven by the fact that the three ring circus that is experienced after mass would not be tolerated before mass.

    So…. what should happen in a church where the liturgy is not being celebrated at the moment? I would expect that the mind of the Church desires respectfull silence as the rule at all times and that the sound of celebration is the exception!

    I believe this is the expectation of the Holy See.

  2. Tradster says:

    I recently had to stop going to the local NO parish where I had previously been going for confession because they abhor silence. About 30 minutes before the confessions begin (which, in turn, begin 30 minutes before Saturday vigil Mass) one of the women fires up the faux-Gregorian Chant CD. Not as inspirational music but as background noise. I twice complained to the pastor that it interferes with making a good examination of conscience before, and focusing on the penance prayers and reflections after, but without success. So I had to find another parish for confessions.

  3. Augustin57 says:

    I have been long desiring a push towards a peaceful silence in church, especially before, during, and after Mass. We are in the substantive presence of Jesus Christ. We should be reverent, not acting like it’s old home week or like we’re at a picnic!

    The irreverence that has crept into Mass at most parishes is shameful. It’s no wonder most don’t really believe in the Real Presence.

  4. The July 28 ussue of The Wanderer included a report on a recent Louisville forum on the sacred liturgy’s role in renewal of the Church. The principal celebrant of the forum Mass was Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the current vice president (and likely future president) of the USCCB. The article quoted the following remarks of Ab. Kurtz pertinent to this post:

    The archbishop predicted that over the next decade, Catholics will more and more experience silence in the Mass, noting that the demand for silence is coming from the people. . . . .

    He also urged the laity to join in and support Pope Benedict’s call for a “reform of the reform,” and said the fruit of the liturgical renewal can be judged by what people say after the conclusion of Mass. “When people leave Mass,” he said, “they should not say, ‘I like that priest,’ but ‘I have seen the Lord’.”

    Ab. Kurtz of Louisville was previously Bishop of Knoxville. Some alleged that he favored and rewarded priests who (in WDTPRS lingo) say the black and do the red. He certainly was guilty of supporting warmly the Latin Mass community that originally owed its existence to his generous indult back in pre-SP days. It seems encouraging to me for someone so highly placed in the U.S. bishops conference to explicitly endorse our Holy Father’s call for a reform of the reform (though I don’t mean to imply that other USCCB officials may be less enthusiastic about proper liturgy).

  5. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Last weekend, my homily begin by noting that Elijah heard God only in the small, whispering sound. i said a few words about what is needed to hear a whisper–I paused…everyone looked at me; the church was silent; I said, “yes, that is what we need to hear God; lots of that.”

    Then I sat down for several minutes.

    I’ve done this before, as a way to emphasize the point. The added time also meant I could slow down a bit during Mass, allowing more silence elsewhere. It’s one of those times my homily affected me, too.

    That is one of the challenges, by the way. Many may not realize the vigor with which some/many will insist that Mass must end by a certain time. And yet, in a busy parish, any number of things happen on a given Saturday evening or Sunday morning that add time to Mass. Announcements before or at the end Mass (so that parish business doesn’t intrude too much into Mass itself); a 50th anniversary calls for a blessing for the couple; a second collection for St. Vincent de Paul (each month), etc. These are good things, but they add time. It isn’t entirely fair to expect a priest to reduce his homily to 3-4 minutes, as not all have the gift of summarizing quite that well; and in any case, many things that need to be said, will take longer than that.

    So if you wonder why Father seems to rush through Mass, it may be for these reasons; or else he has another Mass starting shortly after this one; or something else. Or maybe the rising crescendo of crying, coughing and rustling is having its subtle effect.

  6. Philangelus says:

    For the first time, I see the value in the fact that our Mass has no music. I thought it was a shame, but now that I’m thinking about it, Communion is silent. There’s the sound of motion, but no songs or speech to get in between me and God. Thank you.

  7. marlab says:

    Read somewhere once when, during an interview, Dan Rather asked Mother Theresa what she said when she prayed to God. She replied “Nothing. I just listen.” Dan R. somewhat derisively replied, “Really? What does God say to you?” “Nothing,” said Mother Theresa, “He just listens.”
    And I thought that’s the kind of relationship I want with God. Can’t have it without silence.
    I love the 7am Sunday mass at my parish because there is no music. It is quiet, reverent and worshipful and worship inspiring. And we are so blessed to have 24 hours Eucharistic Adoration (although some time slots are difficult to fill). Great place to go to experience silence, which is a gift.

  8. Clinton says:

    I recall my first time being present at Tenebrae. As the last candle on the hearse is
    extinguished and the church is dark, the shocking din breaks out. It makes sense that just
    as the death of Christ is symbolized in that rite by the sudden darkness, it would also be
    marked by the outbreak of unnatural and chaotic noise. It is the sound of hell exultant.

  9. Luke Whittaker says:

    It is for this reason that I have come to prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. We are too often unwilling to rest silently in God’s presence because it might be painful or obscure to us. But it remains the one thing necessary whether we choose it or not. May Christ draw us after him in prayer, even against our own will–a notion that St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about in his Sermon 21 on the Song of Songs: “When you feel weighed down by apathy, lukewarmness and fatigue, do not yield to cowardice or cease to study spiritual truths, but look for the hand of the one who can help you. . . for a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the active mind. . .Then you will run and shout out: ‘I run the way of your commandments since you have enlarged my heart’. . . The troubles that hide God from us like clouds will then pass, the soft breath of the caressing breeze will melt the ointments and the perfumes will rise to fill the air with their sweet odor. . . The lethargy that now numbs us will vanish with the return of fervor. . .”

  10. Elizabeth R says:

    Yes, silence can enable us to focus on God. But I have seen it do the opposite. A former vicar at my parish liked long periods of silence during the 6:30 AM daily Mass – the one many of us go to because it allows us to get to work on time. His daily Mass often ran to 45 minutes, between the long homily and the long periods of silence. An elderly lady once called out to one of the altar servers “Charlie, wake Father up!” In his case silence seemed like a weapon, which I tried, with limited success, not to resent. I will confess that I was predisposed to be annoyed by this Priest, since he was not inclined to say the black or do the red, and several times compared Catholics unfavorably to Baptists in his homilies. Still, surely I should have valued the time, instead of fighting the desire to check my watch?

    Any thoughts on why silence had this opposite effect on me? Or how best to deal with such a situation should it occur in the future?

  11. JohnE says:

    A former priest at our parish would sit and pause in silence after Communion (after the sacred vessels were purified, after the 2nd Communion song finished, after the trailing notes finished). It was probably only about a minute, but such a wonderful minute for us who thirst for a little silence and resting in Christ.

  12. pm125 says:

    This is a two part comment about the silence:
    1st) What I love is the great pause of our Pastor that comes in two places during our prayers at Mass: during the Intentions at the part where we remember our intentions after we pray for whomever is remembered by the Mass (but sometimes the lectors rush) and, especially, during Consecration when we remember Leaders, Saints and who has gone before us. These pauses ward off whiplash of the mind and heart in a big way for me.
    2nd) A general rule should be for the greeters or ushers to shut the doors to the sanctuary so people can downshift from the trip to church before entering, I think.

  13. Bob says:

    I have a few reasons for attending the TLM rather than the OF whenever possible but that is the subject of other threads. What is important is that I choose to attend the 0730 TLM over the other EF Masses because there is no music and there are no congregational responses other than very quiet, under the breath, “Domine, non sum dignus…” by some of us. I had repeatedly asked for just a few minutes of quiet after communion at our local OF church and was repeatedly ignored, I guess the choir director rules!

  14. Mike says:

    Please… Out of charity to God and neighbor, may we please refrain from carrying on conversations in the church after Mass so that those who wish to make a thanksgiving and pray may do so.

  15. Legisperitus says:

    Silence will fall.

  16. JMGDD says:

    I attend the EF almost exclusively, for many reasons, including the general silence of the atmosphere. The parish has many families with babies/toddlers, which is a wonderful thing, but I must confess that crying babies get on my last nerve. I once asked a priest whom I met on retreat how to make the best of what to me is an irritation, and he replied that toddlers had to be allowed to “learn” the Mass as well. With no offense indented to the good Padre or well-intentioned parents, I don’t see how a fidgeting, crying toddler is truly learning much of anything until the so-called age of reason. I don’t mean to derail the thread, but perhaps some parents (of which I am not one) in the readership can advise.

  17. Paul says:

    I’m a man with no children and I admit that screaming, fidgeting, children also make my nerves rattle. However, I remind myself that each of those little howlers represent a human not abort and a soul that my Lord said, “do not forbid to come to me”. On a more pragmatic level, I suspect they absorb more than we know. We can’t deny them the graces until they turn 12, parachute them into the Mass, and then expect them to be devout Catholics.

  18. Don’t know about screaming fidgeting children… once they’re a certain age the parents can reasonably be blamed, and that’s a bad thing all around, for blamer and blamee–but I found the solution to the crying babies problem. Use to hate em. Had kids. Now the cries of a baby in church is usually the most beatiful music I hear there.

  19. Luke Whittaker says:

    JMGDD: I often attend Mass with screaming children and I would like to share the following personal thoughts. I have the additional problem of chronic back pain and on most Sundays would rather move all of the pews out of the Church only to reinstall them afterward than be forced to sit, stand, and kneel. But in the midst of my body crying, and other babies around me, I try to remind myself that silence and reverence are something that come from within me–a self discipline, if you will. The days of praying the Rosary on my knees and then proceeding to finish the holy hour without moving are behind me. And so I remind myself that I didn’t do those things because they were easy. I did them because they were necessary: I owed that space within myself to God in obedience because he is my Father (Heb 10:7). I wish you the best of luck in finding that inner peace during the Mass.

  20. JMGDD says:

    @ Paul, Luke Whittaker: I appreciate your comments. Much food for thought.

  21. benedetta says:

    I don’t see the Holy Father’s pointing out of the need for silence and its effects as related specifically to the Mass, or either form of the Mass, for that matter. I have certainly attended numerous NO Masses that offered silence and I have attended NO Masses in which the people seemed to have forgotten the need for silence to permit others to pray in the sanctuary before, during and after the Mass. As to the EF Masses I have attended, I did not particularly notice more or less silence during the Mass itself however before and after in the sanctuary people seemed generally to observe silence out of respect for others who wished to remain to pray. To me, when I read these words of the Holy Father rather it contrasts the way in which the Holy Spirit works with the general noise of the world. We are always being invited it seems to call attention to selves, sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it is an imposition and a threat. But the Holy Spirit works with great gentleness, peace, and does not impose, and if one does not desire to be visited, in free will that is always totally respected but loyal to humanity to be support if called upon, to work for the good, for encouragement and love, not for other purposes. I used to think that discernment was a very complicated matter. But for me now, telling the difference between what means ultimate good and what desires real material harm is so very obvious and a quite simple matter indeed. It does not take the genius of a computer programmer, let’s say, to sort it out.

  22. Luke Whittaker says:

    JMGDD: I appreciate your honesty. I will remember your intentions during Mass tomorrow morning. Please say a prayer for me.

    Benedetta: I don’t disagree with you except that for those who haven’t figured out that prayer is the “life blood of the soul” discernment is not so very obvious.

  23. JuliB says:

    When it comes to crying babies, I take the approach that this means we must pray all the more intensely that we may be heard by God.

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