A golden subject: Reclaiming silence in our churches. A Scotish bishop’s good insights.

The Bishop of Aberdeen, Scotland, has issued in interesting pastoral letter about the need to reclaim, indeed, “create” silence and, through silence, prayer.  The bishop, Most Rev. Hugh Gilbert, OSB, was once a monk and abbot of Pluscarden Abbey. He really gets silence.

He does not shy from the “third rail”: babies.

He makes a few great points along the way. Here are a few:

… There can be no real relationship with God, there can be no real meeting with God, without silence. Silence prepares for that meeting and silence follows it. … ‘Two people talking stop forty people praying.’ … ‘If deep silence has a hold on what is inside us, then into us too the all-powerful Word will slip quietly from the Father’s throne.’ …

Here, however, is a point that could use more thought:

Now often there is talking up to the very beginning of Mass, and it starts again immediately afterwards.

“Hmmm”, thought I (silently, of course) as I read this.

Not only does the noise/talking precede Mass and follow Mass but in many cases noise/talking continues through the whole of the Mass as well. Certainly talking does, in the Novus Ordo. It’s talk talk talk talk talk talk talk straight through. No?

I think the Bishop is right about this undoubtedly golden subject.

I suggest that, to help recover and create silence, we have far more celebrations of the Extraordinary Form.

I suggest that we diligently petition Rome to provide an Ordinary Form option for a silent Canon.

Even if the option might be for just a silent Roman Canon/1st Eucharistic Prayer, that would be helpful.  We have options here, there, and everywhere for so many things in the Ordinary Form.  Why not that also?

The rest is – as you know – silence.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, New Evangelization, The Drill and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    The three people directly behind me at mass yesterday seemed to think that “sacred silence” means “no blabbing during the Consecration – blabbing permitted at all other times.”

  2. Gail F says:

    Interesting. Around my neck of the woods, I have never heard anyone talking during mass unless it was kids (mine included at times!) talking while their parents tried to get them to be quiet. Before and after mass — yes. But during? No. However… in our diocese, we are directed to maintain periods of silence after the readings. So after the people read, everyone just sits. It doesn’t matter where I have been, that’s what happens. It’s not prayerful, it’s not anything. Just sitting waiting for “the next thing.” I find it very annoying. I like prayerful silence, but just telling people to be silent does not, apparently, result in them being prayerful or reflective.

  3. AdamRules247 says:

    Bishop Hugh is an amazing guy. For example this: despite only being Bishop a few months and having a huge shortage of priests look at what he is personally running for the youth of the Diocese. http://www.beingcatholic.org/the-catechism-of-the-catholic-church-.html

    He’s a clever enough man to see that the youth are the future and they must be catechised properly whilst having a living and real relationship with the Lord.

  4. AdamRules247 says:

    PS, Fr. Z, Scottish has two Ts :)

  5. Frank H says:

    Gail F –
    I’m curious as to how you would know that the folks “Just sitting waiting…”, are not, indeed, praying?

  6. albinus1 says:

    He does not shy from the “third rail”: babies.

    The only mention of babies I saw in the letter (other than references to the Christ Child) was, “We all understand about babies>” Am I missing something?

    (Perhaps I should add that, while I am childless and often find myself feeling annoyed by other people’s children, a Church that preaches (rightly) against birth control and abortion really can’t and shouldn’t complain about the noise that small children make. But of course, that isn’t the issue that Bishop Gilbert is talking about.)

    I wonder whether ushers could be charged by the pastor of their parish with gently encouraging people to take their conversations out of the church and into the vestibule, both before and after Mass. Of course, the pastor would have to have their back, and the bishop would have to have the pastor’s back.

  7. Father Z: “I suggest that we diligently petition Rome to provide an Ordinary Form option for a silent Canon. “

    As Cardinal Ratzinger suggested in The Spirit of the Liturgy? (Or possibly even that it’s already an option, albeit one at variance with liturgists and their incessant finagling with norms contrary to the traditional “spirit of the liturgy”.) Where, after discussing the fact that contrived periods of silence have not been successful in promoting prayerful participation at Mass, he continues (page 214 of the 2000 Ignatius edition):

    “In, 1978, to the annoyance of many liturgists, I said that in no sense does the whole Canon have to be said out loud. After much consideration. I should like to repeat and underline the point here in the hope that, twenty years later, the thesis will be better understood. . . . It really is not true that reciting the whole Eucharistic Prayer out loud and without interruptions is a prerequisite for the participation of everyone in this central act of the Mass. . . . Anyone who has experienced a church united in the silent prayer of the Canon will know what a really filled silence it is. It is at once a loud and penetrating cry to God and a Spirit-filled act of prayer.”

    “Anyone who has experienced a church united in the silent prayer of the Canon … .” Anyone who regularly worships in the traditional Latin liturgy of the Church?

  8. Ralph says:

    If only the ladies from the choir who insist that we all must practice our singing minutes before the beginning of mass would read this letter! Two weeks ago we were quietly waiting for the start of mass to begin, trying to ignore the drone, when we were loudly haranged by a gray haired lady choir master for not signing with enthusiasm during her “practice session”. I replied to myself, “perhaps it’s because WE ARE PRAYING!!” But, I don’t have the heart to heckle the elderly so she remained uncorrected or detered.

  9. pjsandstrom says:

    I regret to bring the question up, but does not the so-called ‘silent canon’ bring an unwanted dose of ‘magical thinking’ to the celebration? Despite all of the shelves of books in the library on the history and development of the First Eucharistic Prayer the introductions of the ‘elevations’ during the Consecration (Narrative of the Institution) were exactly the result of this kind of thinking and argument.

  10. Choirmaster says:

    @Frank H & Gail F

    I’d like to take up your point about “just sitting and waiting” silence and maybe add my own analysis on the difference between that and actual, prayerful silence. Sadly, I do not think it is possible to have the “prayerful silence” in the Novus Ordo. Everything in the NO is linear, that is, one thing after another, and in strict succession. If there is silence it is because there is an imposed interruption in the liturgical action, and everyone adopts silence because they are unsure as to when the next thing is going to happen.

    When the Reading is over I’ve noticed what Gail F is talking about: just a kind of pause before the next thing happens. This is not a “golden” or “prayerful” silence, but an empty nothingness and a bland awaiting, like the silence at an airport gate before the plane arrives.

    In the EF, silence is the accompaniment to prayer and action, the backdrop or the canvas, if you will, for things deeper or higher than mere noise. Oftentimes in the EF this silence is not silence at all, but filled with the footsteps of people coming back from confession, of babies and small children chirping or scampering to the restrooms, the fluttering pages of hand missals, and the murmur, rustlings, and clinking of the liturgical action at the altar. The EF is non-linear, and every actor (priest, ministers, schola, and congregation) have their own track either running parallel to the others or converging at different points, either all at once or but a few together. The silence experienced by the congregation is not empty, but reflective and actively receptive of the concurrent Action. There are no “pauses” in the EF; the priest and servers circulate through the sanctuary, for instance, while the chants and other music is still going on, but not yet finished, so that there is not one lost beat between the final note of the chant touching-down on the silence like a flawless landing of an aircraft and the priest continuing the liturgy from that point. Also at the end of the readings the Gradual is begun while the ministers are still circulating back to their seats. No pauses, only silence.

    This kind of silence is forbidden in the Ordinary Form, and I detest the pauses where I am expected to somehow meditate on the meaning of the scripture reading I just heard–I can do that at home.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Fr. Z’s suggestion to allow a silent Canon in the Ordinary Form to recapture the filled and overflowing silence that has been lost.

  11. JohnE says:

    Our parish is deathly afraid of silence — 1st Communion hymn, 2nd Communion hymn with all verses, hum the last verse, verse with only piano or guitar. There seems to be some rule that the music must continue playing until the priest is seated.

  12. jacobi says:

    Good for the bishop.

    In my church, the 5-10 minutes prior to the start of the Mass is a social occasion with many, but not all, chattering away to each other – a hubbub of noise. The same happens on the way out as soon as people leave their seats. The idea that there is an all seeing, all hearing Christ in the tabernacle in front of them on the altar, just does not seem to penetrate.

    You wonder just what understanding of the Mass they have. And indeed what understanding of the Real Prescence in the tabernacle in front of them.

    So yes!. Lets have the example of the Traditional Latin Mass back as quickly as possible – and on a Sunday, not Tuesday or Thursday afternoon.

  13. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Boy I’m lucky. My parish is silent before and after Mass and we have lots of silence during, to reflect on things. Of course, in the doughnut hall the dam bursts.

  14. yatzer says:

    Perhaps someone could explain why we have to sing something during Communion in the OF? I really prefer thinking about receiving Communion, what it means, what it cost the Lord, etc.

  15. My experience this week before Mass was a little frustrating. The parish I go to is a diocesan one, but the FSSP have been given permission to use it as well, and it’s a great arrangement. We get 8 traditional Masses each week, one of them, at noon on Sundays, being a High Mass. The Novus Ordo Mass wraps up at 11:30, and we all move in pretty quickly to set up the altar rail and cloth, move a few things, etc.. We also usually pray five decades of the rosary and the Angelus right before Mass.
    Except this week there had been a baptism at the Novus Ordo Mass, and there was a rather large family hanging around in the front few pews taking pictures and talking after their Mass. In the end we didn’t get to finish our rosary before the Angelus, and for some of the time the prayers practically had to be yelled over the noise they were making.

    I’m all for reverent silence before, during, and after Mass.

  16. Tradster says:

    Two local NO parishes (perhaps others, too) seem to be waging a war against silence. About an hour before Mass (which on Saturday afternoons means shortly before confessions begin) they turn on the canned music until Mass begins, keeping it a bit too loud to ignore. I have twice politely complained to the pastor of one of the two that the music is distracting when you are trying to do an examination of conscience before confession and the penance prayers afterwards, but to no avail.

  17. AnAmericanMother says:

    I thought canned music was strictly forbidden.
    Canned music is, as a practical matter, the death of all naturally created music. Our music director notes that Thomas Edison predicted that his phonograph would kill the performance tradition – and he was right.
    That may not be the reason the Church banned canned music – but it’s another good one!
    I don’t have trouble praying if there is mild organ improv going on during Communion — after the motet is completed. But then again it’s extremely well-played, soft, appropriate improv, usually either on the propers from the Liber or something we just sang.
    I realize not every organist is capable of this, but ours is and I find it rather conducive to prayerful meditation.

  18. If “parish re-alignments” do not consider parishes which offer a full calendar of EF Masses year around as part of their “diversity initiatives” then we can look forward to more TLM parishes being shuttered as they get squeezed out in the reshuffle.

  19. albinus1 says:

    Except this week there had been a baptism at the Novus Ordo Mass, and there was a rather large family hanging around in the front few pews taking pictures and talking after their Mass.

    This is a perfect example of a situation where ushers should feel free to invite the family — politely but firmly — to move to the vestibule, so that the next Mass can be set up, and the rosary can be recited. But, of course, the pastor has to have the ushers’ backs, and perhaps the bishop has to have the pastor’s back.

  20. Banjo pickin girl says:

    I also love it that our parish doesn’t make you sing at Communion. At the vigil Mass the cantor chants. At other Masses the choir may chant or sing. Or a quartet or something chants. Or organ music. Never us singing, fumbling with hymn books. That is probably because we are kneeling then anyway. And silence afterward. Great.

  21. Trad Tom says:

    At my typical “Spirit of Vatican II” parish in NE Ohio, the church turns into the loudest, most irreverent, protestantized gathering the moment that the last note of the”Sending Forth” song (rarely a hymn) is played/sung. We have coffee, donuts, and “fellowship” in the church hall immediately after Mass, but the cacaphony begins in the church at a level equal to or greater than that in the hall. No one could ever dream of praying a Thanksgiving after Mass or a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel or a rosary. I have complained — to no avail.

  22. Norah says:

    I sent the bishop’s letter to my parish priest .

  23. JKnott says:

    This is a beautifyl pastoral letter. Silence comes from an interior life of prayer. Most of the non -talkers before a NO Mass are reading church bulletins rather than giving attention to Jesus in the Tabernacle.

    OF = The Inn: Clamoring with activity and noise. No room for the Holy Family.
    EF = The Cave: Silently welcoming the birth of Jesus, and the reverent adoration of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and eventually the kings. Many, but quiet.

  24. Girgadis says:

    I heartily applaud this letter, but it would probably not have the desired effect in my parish among the Novus Ordo crowd. The only thing likely to make an impact is something akin to Christ turning over the tables in the Temple, which is not likely to happen any time soon. As for the ushers, they are major contributors to the disruption, chatting with their friends as they release each pew for Holy Communion and worse yet, talking to parishioners who have just received the Eucharist as if they are at the ball park chomping on a hot dog.

    Why are we so afraid of offending one another yet all too willing to allow such disrespect toward our Eucharistic Lord to continue in the name of misguided charity?

    Thankfully, these issues do not arise at the TLM at my parish.

  25. APX says:

    @Irenaeus G. Saintonge

    Your story sounds very familiar. It reminded me of something similar that happened at my parish (also diocesan, but the FSSP are there too) a few weeks ago or so. It was a NO Baptism as well and the huge family was talking rambunctiously up at the front while everyone was taking pictures. I think I almost was successful in praying over top of their chattering.

    I remember a number of weeks ago too our priest going on a charitable church acoustics informational reminder and how even the quietest sounds “like the two ladies whispering among each other in the back of the church carries quite well into the sanctuary and the priest can hear everything they’re e saying.” It’s all about being subtle…

  26. Centristian says:

    Ohhhh. Silence. Is that what’s meant to occur when Mass is over? You mean to tell me that Mass isn’t supposed to conclude with, “Mary Ann! Mary Ann! Mary Ann, just follow us; we’re parked in the side lot. We drove Jim’s car and we’re going to the same place for breakfast we went last week. Just follow us. Just follow us! Okay? Okay? The side lot! Yeah. Look for Jim’s car Okay, we’ll see you there.”

    Who knew?

  27. Charivari Rob says:

    Not only does the noise/talking precede Mass and follow Mass but in many cases noise/talking continues through the whole of the Mass as well. Certainly talking does, in the Novus Ordo. It’s talk talk talk talk talk talk talk straight through. No?

    Ummm… No.

    Now, if you were to say that in many parishes, there is the idea that there must be music (the 4-hymn sandwich) and a simple, quiet, primarily spoken Mass is anathema – I’d agree with you.

    But to say talking continues straight through the Mass, particularly in the Novus Ordo? No – not in my experience. Both silence and stillness have room to exist in the Mass, and do exist almost everywhere. I won’t deny that there’s an odd place or two that simply can’t seem to abide silence or stillness, but those are pretty rare – most of the places I’ve been to (even where there’s liturgical orientation that would set many of your readers’ nerves on edge) have some concept of the value of silence and stillness. Whether or not it’s enough silence or stillness is another question, of course.

  28. Hooksdoc says:

    Also from Scotland:
    ‘Vacate, et videte quoniam ego sum Deus’: ‘Be still (=silent, in my dictionary) and so see that I am God’ (Psalm 45). And for those at NO masses, remember Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’:it is the moments of distraction caused by his neighbour, Mr Parish, that result in the best parts of Niggle’s work of art, the tree he is painting.

  29. Frank H says: Gail F – I’m curious as to how you would know that the folks “Just sitting waiting…”, are not, indeed, praying?

    Part of the problem with these artificial silences is that you don’t know how long they’re supposed to last. It’s hard to pray in such circumstances.

    albinus1 says: I wonder whether ushers could be charged by the pastor of their parish with gently encouraging people to take their conversations out of the church and into the vestibule, both before and after Mass.

    The ushers would have to take themselves out of the church. In my parish, they are some of the biggest offenders.

    It’s true, the silent canon in the EF is a very full silence. It is not the silence of an empty church. It is an encounter with the supernatural, where many things take place even though no report of them ever reaches our senses. I think of the silence during the canon as an expectant hush falling over Calvary in the moments before the Savior yields up His spirit.

  30. Supertradmum says:

    Fantastic letter. As to silence, I have not been in a Catholic church for three months which has silence, and yes, the Canon as it stands, is part of the problem. Here, people talk constantly during Mass and say their prayers out loud, which is very difficult for one not used to that custom. Also, people express prayers out loud immediately after the Consecration. There is no silence after Communion, unless the priest sits down for a few minutes, which most do not.

    It used to be in the “old days”, that the Mass and church, were the two places one could go for silence. No longer in many places. And, as my dear parents are still living in their 80s, I must say they are a good example for the others of their generation who not only talk before and after Mass in the Midwest, but even during. Sadly, in my own home diocese of Davenport, some priests still have these “interactive homilies” which are horrible question and answer times, very chatty, which also breaks any attempt at silence.

  31. Seraphic Spouse says:

    @Centristan. Hilarious, true, brilliant! I felt like I was there!

  32. BV says:

    Ugh… this really gets me. As I was sitting there before mass, as I was listening to this group of old women way in the back of church babbling on, and this one usher (many ushers at my parish are the greatest offenders) just talking away… and then the music director instructing, “sopranos!!!! blah blah blah”…. and thank you to all those who helped out on Thursday’s mass!! “, “and then the subsequent warming up of the choir and correction/instruction from the music director…. etc etc etc

    I was sitting there, difficulty praying, thinking to myself, “I could have joined my friends who went to Mater Ecclesiae this morning, I could have…. ”

    Does remind me, however, of one letter of JRR Tolkien to his son, which went thusly:
    ” …I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”

    Well, I’d rather be at “a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.”, but still, he makes his point ;)

  33. Blaise says:

    I thought Centristian’s quotation was the latest abomination of a recessional hymn or whatever they are called these days when I first read it.
    Maybe what we need is a full blast organ voluntary for about three to four minutes after to Mass to drive the talkers elsewhere and then silence for those who have stayed to pray.
    Can we have a bishop like this one in London please. I loved his sermon at the installation of the new Abbot of Pluscarden also on the site.
    This is not just a NO vs EF question; I have been to Mass in the NO where there was great and prayerful silence after communion. Admittedly not very often. The problem as ever is how the NO has been corrupted and improperly celebrated for 40 years. I bet they had prayerful silence at the NO masses in Pluscarden!
    The fact is that a silence after each reading is clearly the wrong place for this. Maybe some silence after the homily; if the parish gets used to it and no what to expect then this can work. Silence after communion works better. There is also nothing that I know of to prohibit silence at the Preparation of the Gifts up until the Orate Fratres, while their is action.

  34. Ellen says:

    Oh does this resonate with me. The choir warms up for a goodish time before Mass, while the usual suspects chat, chat, chat. All the while, I am trying very hard to pray, and to not be uncharitable, but oh how I would love a period of uninterrupted quiet before Mass.

    I had to move away from one family who chat ALL during Mass. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

  35. BV says:

    Re Blaise: “Maybe what we need is a full blast organ voluntary for about three to four minutes after to Mass to drive the talkers elsewhere and then silence for those who have stayed to pray.”

    While our music director tends to annoy me before mass, he always plays (often quite loudly on our real pipe organ – kind of rare for a newer church) a really nice postlude after the mass. Yet, once he is done, there are still people there, chatting and carrying on loudly! And the people for the next mass are entering, talking away.

  36. Blaise says: Maybe what we need is a full blast organ voluntary for about three to four minutes after to Mass to drive the talkers elsewhere and then silence for those who have stayed to pray.

    That just makes the yakkers yak even louder.

  37. JMGriffing says:

    The best way I’ve seen post-Liturgy noise handled is to have the prayers after Communion read aloud, usually by a cassocked reader or subdeacon so that it has an added sense of “officialness”. The added fact that the Eastern prayers after Communion have a few parts that are prayed by the priest adds to it. This also has the benefit of being a thanksgiving for the Gift just received. As one of my parish priests used to say “Only one of the apostles left immediately after the meal.”

  38. rhhenry says:

    Our parish organist/pianist is very talented, as are nearly all the musicians at parishes throughout the nation. So please understand the context in which I offer the following observation:
    You are very talented when you play, at high volume, an additional verse of the “Communion hymn.” It is impressive when you “noodle” for another 5-6 minutes after Communion while the priest purifies the sacred vessels; your virtuosity is noted (please note the lack of sarcasm; after a decade-plus of music lessons, I still can’t do what our music ministers do).
    However, sacred silence is (by this poster, at least) greatly appreciated. Sometimes some (soft) music helps me pray, but often silence is best.
    Could you please play more softly while we receive the Holy Eucharist? Could you please play not at all for the final 3-4 minutes before the closing prayer?
    I apologize for sounding snarky and sounding like I’m whining. But lately I’ve felt as though the music at Mass has hindered by prayer rather than helped it . . .

  39. rhhenry says:

    Rats. Three proofreads and I still missed the by / my typo in my final line. That’s embarrassing. Mea culpa, etc. :-)

  40. Stephen D says:

    One local parish, not my own unfortunately, has a sign requesting silence at the entrance and a notice that stewards will speak to those chatting noisily enough to disturb others – result almost total silence. At my own parish there is constant chatting before and after Mass and among the greatest noisemakers as are the EM’s and other parish activists as they greet each other. I sometimes feel like screaming “SILENCE”.

  41. Pingback: Christmas and Silence « Catholic Sensibility

Comments are closed.