NEW! Card. Sarah on silence, liturgy, and “turning toward the Lord” again. Amazing.

card sarah silence book frenchHis Eminence Robert Card. Sarah was interviewed by a French newspaper at the time of the release of his latest book on the power of silence.  The book is, as I write, available in French.   The National Catholic Register has made a translation of the interview available in English.

Shall we have a look at excerpts which deal with liturgical worship? My emphases and comments:

Cardinal Robert Sarah on “The Strength of Silence” and the Dictatorship of Noise


Q: What role to you assign to silence in our Latin liturgy? Where do you see it, and how do you reconcile silence and participation? [The usual sobriety of worship in Latin usually includes much more silence than the Novus Ordo generally affords.  Silence is more natural in the older, traditional form.]

Cdl. Sarah: Before God’s majesty, we lose our words. Who would dare to speak up before the Almighty? Saint John Paul II saw in silence the essence of any attitude of prayer, because this silence, laden with the adored presence, manifests “the humble acceptance of the creature’s limits vis-à-vis the infinite transcendence of a God who unceasingly reveals Himself as a God of love.” To refuse this silence filled with confident awe and adoration is to refuse God the freedom to capture us by His love and His presence. [There is an apophatic dimension to our worship that is fostered with silence.] Sacred silence is therefore the place where we can encounter God, because we come to Him with the proper attitude of a human being who trembles and stands at a distance while hoping confidently. [This is almost exactly what I have been talking about for years. Our worship must create for us an encounter with MYSTERY which is tremendum et fascinans, frightening and alluring.] We priests must relearn the filial fear of God and the sacral character of our relations with Him. We must relearn to tremble with astonishment before the Holiness of God and the unprecedented grace of our priesthood. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

Silence teaches us a major rule of the spiritual life: familiarity does not foster intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion. It is by way of adoration that humanity walks toward love. Sacred silence opens the way to mystical silence, full of loving intimacy. Under the yoke of secular reason, we have forgotten that the sacred and worship are the only entrances to the spiritual life. Therefore I do not hesitate to declare that sacred silence is a cardinal law of all liturgical celebration.

[I must step out of this for a moment.  How many times have I written in these electronic pages that revitalization of our sacred liturgical worship of God is the sine qua non for any initiative we undertake in the Church?  Everything comes from worship and flows back to worship.  Anything that isn’t rooted in worship and directed back to it, no matter how clever, fancy or well-planned and financed, is going to fail if it is not rooted in worship.  Also, take careful note of that bit about “familiarity does not foster intimacy”.  Now turn your mind to consider Holy Mass “facing the people” and Mass ad orientem.]

Indeed, it allows us to enter into participation in the mystery being celebrated. Vatican Council II stresses that silence is a privileged means of promoting the participation of the people of God in the liturgy. The Council Fathers intended to show what true liturgical participation is: entrance into the divine mystery. Under the pretext of making access to God easy, some wanted everything in the liturgy to be immediately intelligible, rational, horizontal and human. But in acting that way, we run the risk of reducing the sacred mystery to good feelings. Under the pretext of pedagogy, some priests indulge in endless commentaries that are flat-footed and mundane. [The way I put that is: Mass is not a didactic moment.] Are these pastors afraid that silence in the presence of the Most High might disconcert the faithful? [YES.  They themselves cannot handle silence!  And they are, furthermore, now conditioned to see themselves as the ones who entertain.] Do they think that the Holy Spirit is incapable of opening hearts to the divine Mysteries by pouring out on them the light of spiritual grace?

Saint John Paul II warns us: a human being enters into participation in the divine presence “above all by letting himself be educated in an adoring silence, because at the summit of the knowledge and experience of God there is His absolute transcendence.”

Sacred silence is the good of the faithful, and the clerics must not deprive them of it!

Silence is the cloth from which our liturgies ought to be cut out. Nothing in them should interrupt the silent atmosphere that is their natural climate.

Q: Isn’t there a kind of paradox in stating the need for silence in the liturgy while acknowledging that the Eastern liturgies have no moments of silence (no. 259), while they are particularly beautiful, sacred and prayerful? 

Cdl. Sarah: Your comment is wise and shows that it is not enough to prescribe “moments of silence” in order for the liturgy to be permeated with sacred silence.

Silence is an attitude of the soul. It is not a pause between two rituals; it is itself fully a ritual.

Certainly, the Eastern rites do not foresee times of silence during the Divine Liturgy. Nevertheless, they are intensely acquainted with the apophatic[WINNER!] dimension of prayer before a God who is “ineffable, incomprehensible, imperceptible”. The Divine Liturgy is plunged, as it were, into the Mystery. It is celebrated behind the iconostas, which for Eastern Christians is the veil that protects the mystery. [NB] Among us Latins, silence is a sonic iconostas. Silence is a form of mystagogy; it enables us to enter into the mystery without deflowering it. In the liturgy, the language of the mysteries is silent. Silence does not conceal; it reveals in depth.

Saint John Paul II teaches us that “mystery continually veils itself, covers itself with silence, in order to avoid constructing an idol in place of God.” I want to declare today that the risk of Christians becoming idolaters is great. Prisoners of the noise of endless human talk, we are not far from constructing a cult according to our own dimensions, a god in our own image. As Cardinal Godfried Danneels remarked, “the chief fault of the Western liturgy, as it is celebrated in practice, is being too talkative.” Father Faustin Nyombayré, a Rwandan priest, says that in Africa “superficiality does not spare the liturgy or supposedly religious sessions, from which people return out of breath and perspiring, rather than rested and full of what has been celebrated in order to live and to witness better.” Celebrations sometimes become noisy and exhausting. The liturgy is sick. The most striking symbol of this sickness is the omnipresence of the microphone. It has become so indispensable that people wonder how anyone could have celebrated before it was invented!  [Joseph Ratzinger used the image of Catholics like the Jews who worshipped the golden calf.  The problem is that the Jews KNEW their golden calf wasn’t a “god”. They KNEW it was less than the Most High. They made it because they didn’t want the challenge of what the TRUE God asked. That is what happens when we stray from our true liturgical worship or distort it into something easy, comfortable, familiar. Liturgy should also involve the extremely difficult, the – yes -apophatic, something frightening which remains nevertheless alluring.]

The noise from outside and our own interior noises make us strangers to ourselves. In the midst of noise, a human being cannot help falling into banality: we are superficial in what we say, we utter empty talk, in which we talk and talk again… until we find something to say, a sort of irresponsible “muddle” made up of jokes and words that kill. We are superficial also in what we do: we live in a banal state that is supposedly logical and moral, without finding anything abnormal about it.

Often we leave our noisy, superficial liturgies without having encountered in them God and the interior peace that He wants to offer us.

Q: After your conference in London last July, you are returning to the topic of the orientation of the liturgy and wish to see it applied in our churches. Why is this so important to you, and how would you see this change implemented? 


Cdl. Sarah: Silence poses the problem of the essence of the liturgy. Now the liturgy is mystical. As long as we approach the liturgy with a noisy heart, it will have a superficial, human appearance. Liturgical silence is a radical and essential disposition; it is a conversion of heart. Now, to be converted, etymologically, is to turn back, to turn toward God. There is no true silence in the liturgy if we are not—with all our heart—turned toward the Lord. We must be converted, turn back to the Lord, in order to look at Him, contemplate His face, and fall at His feet to adore Him. We have an example: Mary Magdalene was able to recognize Jesus on Easter morning because she turned back toward Him: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” “Haec cum dixisset, conversa est retrorsum et videt Jesus stantem. – Saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there” (Jn 20:13-14).

[NB!] How can we enter into this interior disposition except by turning physically, all together, priest and faithful, toward the Lord who comes, toward the East symbolized by the apse where the cross is enthroned?

The outward orientation leads us to the interior orientation that it symbolizes. Since apostolic times, Christians have been familiar with this way of praying. It is not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the people or facing them, but toward the East, ad Dominum, toward the Lord.

This way of doing things promotes silence. Indeed, there is less of a temptation for the celebrant to monopolize the conversation. Facing the Lord, he is less tempted to become a professor who gives a lecture during the whole Mass, reducing the altar to a podium centered no longer on the cross but on the microphone! The priest must remember that he is only an instrument in Christ’s hands, that he must be quiet in order to make room for the Word, and that our human words are ridiculous compared to the one Eternal Word.

I am convinced that priests do not use the same tone of voice when they celebrate facing East. We are so much less tempted to take ourselves for actors, as Pope Francis says!   [Wow.  Yes.  The same goes for saying or singing Holy Mass in English or in Latin, whether in the Novus Ordo or the TLM!  I know that I adjust.  I catch myself.]

Of course, this way of doing things, while legitimate and desirable, must not be imposed as a revolution. I know that in many places preparatory catechesis has enabled the faithful to accept and appreciate the orientation. I wish that this question would not become the occasion for an ideological clash of factions! We are talking about our relationship with God.   [Alas, Your Eminence, it is a clash of factions.  Would that it were not.  But there are people in power out there who truly fear Mass ad orientem.  They will stop at nothing to prevent it from returning.]

As I had the opportunity to say recently, during a private interview with the Holy Father, here I am just making the heartfelt suggestions of a pastor who is concerned about the good of the faithful. I do not intend to set one practice against another. If it is physically not possible to celebrate ad orientem, it is absolutely necessary to put a cross on the altar in plain view, as a point of reference for everyone. Christ on the cross is the Christian East.


Friends, there is a lot more from this amazing man.  Please read the rest there.

Card. Sarah is a deeply prayerful man, which you can tell both from reading his works and if you have a chance to meet him.

I’ll take his arguments for ad orientem worship compared to the flailing around and bullying of the opponents of “turning toward the Lord”.

God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith  by Robert Card. Sarah – UK HERE

Sarah God Or Nothing 200

Buy it.  Get one for your parish priests.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Fr. Z KUDOS, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, The future and our choices, Turn Towards The Lord and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Sawyer says:

    This very week the bishop and priests in the Diocese of Colorado Springs are having a week-long leadership conference. The two primary topics are Amoris laetitia and ad orientem worship. It would be splendid if the bishop were to encourage priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem during Advent.

  2. tlawson says:

    You nailed it, Father.

    This man “nails it,” too, in everything he says — consistent, all the way down the line, with everything: prayer, asceticism, Mystery, contemplation, Reality, metaphysics, and more! Everything. So, so rare these days — and yet so easy, if one simply learns and adheres to The Faith! May he have many, many, many, many spiritual sons across the globe in many, many countries, who take “the WHOLE armor of God” (and not just good feelings, like the vast majority of western bishops and priests), and “rebuild His Church, which is falling into ruin” (tomorrow is St Francis’ Feast Day, and these words were the ones spoken by Our Lord to him, by which he was launched to become “the greatest Saint of all time,” and (of course) became hyper, hyper, hyper focused on all things related to The Mass and The Blessed Sacrament.

    Men, studying for the priesthood, THIS is “how you do it,” THIS is what your flock needs. Go through your formation faithfully, but realize that, in the West at least, you will NOT be “formed” to be like this — Our Lord and Our Lady have to do it.

    Women, called to Consecrated Life (especially as teachers), THIS is the kind of man you seek for teaching and catechetical material.

  3. Charles E Flynn says:

    From Cardinal Robert Sarah on “The Strength of Silence” and the Dictatorship of Noise:

    Let us not fool ourselves. This is the truly urgent thing: to rediscover the sense of God. Now the Father allows Himself to be approached only in silence. What the Church needs most today is not an administrative reform, another pastoral program, a structural change. The program already exists: it is the one we have always had, drawn from the Gospel and from living Tradition. It is centered on Christ Himself, whom we must know, love and imitate in order to live in Him and through Him, to transform our world which is being degraded because human beings live as though God did not exist. As a priest, as a pastor, as a Prefect, as a Cardinal, my priority is to say that God alone can satisfy the human heart. 

  4. Lepidus says:

    Now granted my experience with the EF is low Mass during the week, it seems that silence in this form is much more integrate. There is always something going on, just not necessarily verbally. On the other hand, with the OF, it seems whenever somebody gets the idea to integrate “silence” its a matter of just sitting there. Maybe after the second reading, the priest sits there (and counts to 100) before getting up for the gospel or after communion, the priest sits down (and counts to 200). In that case, it doesn’t seem to be so much of the holy silence that Cardinal Sarah is advocating, but some people hoping they can get their last prayer done before the priest stands up, and the rest wondering if he fell asleep.

  5. 1. Cardinal Sarah says: “Silence teaches us a major rule of the spiritual life: familiarity does not foster intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion.” This rule is certainly true of our relations with our fellow men (which is why I loathe “ice-breaking” exercises, especially at Mass). If we are made in God’s image and likeness, how much more true must this be of our relations with God.

    2. We need to ask ourselves: How much has the Mass, as currently celebrated in our parishes, to do with immemorial tradition? Would our forebears recognize it as the Mass? Does it inspire missionaries and fortify martyrs? Does it remotely resemble the Masses of Aquinas, wrapped in awe; or those of the Recusants in Elizabethan England, where it was death to be a priest; or of Father Willie Doyle on makeshift altars in the muddy trenches of the First World War; or of the Cristeros in their secret refuges from the Masonic Mexican regime; or of the first and only Mass celebrated by Bl. Karl Leisner, secretly ordained in Dachau on Gaudete Sunday, 1944, dying of tuberculosis yet on fire for souls? Can one picture Father Augustine Tolton, the escaped slave who became America’s first black priest, offering the Spirit of Vatican II Mass, his soul blazing like a beacon from the crumbling lighthouse of his overworked body, his trembling hands raised amid the mellow strains of “On Eagle’s Wings”? Or, put another way: if any of these great priests of the past stepped into our own day and offered Mass at our parishes, the way they were accustomed to offer it in their own times, would they be run out on a rail?

    3. I have to disagree with one thing the Cardinal says, namely, that ad orientem worship ought not be imposed as a revolution. In the first place, the return to immemorial tradition cannot be a revolution: rather, it was the rejection of ad orientem that was revolutionary, and that revolution urgently needs to be reversed. Secondly, the swift, overnight imposition of a great good is simply not to be compared with the swift, overnight imposition of great harm. That people have become attached to what is harmful is not a reason not to deal with it swiftly. A sudden and precipitous return to what is right and proper and just is not an evil, any more than the sudden and precipitous imposition of a cure for a deadly wound or disease is an evil. In fact, the image of triage is very apt in our day. Time is not on our side. We are in a dire crisis, and have run out of time to take our time.

  6. JKnott says:

    ” In the liturgy, the language of the mysteries is silent. Silence does not conceal; it reveals in depth.”
    Profoundly true. It is real prayer

  7. Poor Yorek says:

    I have to confess to a near apoplexy when I read “As Cardinal Godfried Danneels remarked …”

    [If Danneels gets it, why don’t others on his end of the spectrum?]

  8. Poor Yorek says:

    Oh, and I thought this, “among us Latins, silence is a sonic iconostas,” was golden.

  9. Charles E Flynn says:

    I think the reference to Cardinal Godfried Danneels’ remark is a good example of “Test everything. Keep what is good.”

  10. frjim4321 says:

    Probably one of the most reverent masses I attended was at St. Francis of Assisi downtown on Buttles. Father Friztner was the presider and he was exceedingly reverent. He actually inspired me to be a better presider. The mass was in the reformed post-Concilial style. Hence, it is not necessary to adopt an antiquated style in order to have reverent liturgy.

  11. un-ionized says:

    Fr. Jim, I know that to be true also. Our diocese has one TLM parish by order of the bishop but we have a wealth of really good parishes with a nice Mass. You can visit a different parish every week for a while just attending them all. My former parish is famous around here and my new parish is also famous around here! There are a bunch I haven’t even been to yet.

  12. HealingRose says:

    I think I need a role of duct tape that is printed with
    “Silent Mass:
    tremendum et fascinans”

    I am so tired of the chatty hens picking and talking before, during, and after Mass (NO). I’d love to give them all a piece of duct tape to keep them quiet. Maybe if I start carrying a big roll of duct tape with the above words, people might get the message. I am always amazed at the ‘strength of silence’ at a TLM.

    Oddly enough, this Saturday (10/8) there will be a “Polka Mass” at my church. It’s a tradition to have it every year. Maybe it’s time for a new tradition.

    I’ve been at a member of this same parish since I was born, but now I have 3 kids of my own. As a child, my favorite Mass was on Good Friday. I absolutely loved being in the darkness as the candles were placed beside the large cross which was leaning on the steps near the altar. I loved kneeling in silence, looking at the cross. I was only a child, yet that was the time I always looked forward to and never wanted to leave.

  13. Sieber says:

    We are so fortunate to have a weekly EF Missa Cantata. I thought that the role of the organ was to accompany voice. The organist, however, keeps noodling after Communion & other “quiet parts.”
    I quite innocently asked the fellow in charge from Una Voce & was informed “it’s a matter of taste.”
    Is there a source of information regarding this one way or the other?

  14. DonL says:

    We have a very talented vocalist who chooses to display the most difficult parameters of her skilled voice range during the reception of the Eucharist, making it near impossible to concentrate on much but her overpowering competitive contributions. How I wish the pastor would demand soft organ music “only” during distribution of the Eucharist. (Then there’s that pianist with his Broadway-filled hyper-arpeggios accompanying the disruption)

  15. Henry Edwards says:

    “Hence, it is not necessary to adopt an antiquated style in order to have reverent liturgy.”

    Maybe not, if by “antiquated style” you mean ad orientem. But it certainly increases the probability of reverence. For a reverent versus populum Mass is an exception rather than the norm, whereas a reverent ad orientem Mass is the norm rather than an exception.

    Equally critical for right worship is a celebrant who sees himself as a priest offering sacrifice, rather than a mere “presider” leading worship.

  16. Dan says:

    “Oddly enough, this Saturday (10/8) there will be a “Polka Mass” at my church. It’s a tradition to have it every year. Maybe it’s time for a new tradition.”

    Funny how Polka Masses can be heard and accepted in diocese throughout the country and yet say the words “Ad Orientem” and priests cower in fear. “How can we turn toward the Lord people will not know what is going on and they will revolt”, “how can we have sacred music, it will interfere with the children’s choir.”

    I love the first question,” how do you reconcile silence and participation?” Without silence we are not called to participate in the Mass at all, we simply regurgitate responses, but who these days can even identify the different parts of the Mass? Silence in Mass requires something from us, thought, prayer and participation.

    The fix to us here seems so obvious but the resistance is so strong and yet we can still have Polka Masses all year long.
    1. Turn toward the Lord (Ad Orientem)
    2.Eliminate receiving the Eucharist in the hand, make on the tongue the norm.
    3. Reinstall Altar rails, it is time we are allowed to kneel before the Lord.
    4. Eliminate all use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion
    5. Return sacred music. Eliminate praise and worship, dance in the pews, this is a concert not the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass kind of music.

    Those five things send a clear sign, God is Present. The reverse of them, is essentially teaching heresy, the example we give with communion in the hand while standing, dancing in the pews, not allowing people to kneel before the Lord, not even all turning together toward the Lord is a catechesis against the True Presence, because only if God were not there would we ever dare to act in such a flippant manor toward him.

    Pray for Cardinal Sarah and all those who are working to restore respect and sacredness to our Liturgy.

  17. Pingback: TUESDAY EXTRA | Big Pulpit

  18. gloriainexcelsis says:

    As a priest recently remarked to me – Cardinal Sarah would look wonderful in white. May I add that red shoes would be nice, too?

    [I suspect that Card. Sarah would resonate with the point of the red shoes, after what he experienced.]

  19. Sandy says:

    How I love and respect this holy man of God! Please Lord, raise up more just like him! It’s hard to explain spiritual things to another, but I wish I could tell some priests that it is spiritually painful to sit through their Masses. I talk to the Lord about it, and suppose I’ll just have to wait for Heaven to have the kind of worship that I long for. (Obviously attending the EF is not an option for us.) What makes the contrast real is that what I grew up with and what we have now are like night and day. I love silence, at the right times. We can’t even get to church early to pray b/c people now just talk out loud before Mass. No wonder I love my morning prayer time at home; that’s the only place to find quiet.

  20. Andrew says:

    The other day I experienced a spiritually refreshing moment when the power went out during Mass. What a delight it was. The loudspeaker went off. The guitars were shut down. The brightness of the electric spotlights gave way to the flicker of candles accenting the shadows in the distance. I almost felt transported to a different place.

    But it was way too brief: the devil didn’t want me to experience such a consolation for long: a snap and a loud hum of the air conditioner and the blinding brightness poured all over the sanctuary heralded the return of the “power supply”. The black wire curving around the presider’s cheek with a small microphone at the tip picked up his voice once again and blasted it through the loudspeaker as before. There was no escape. I had to “participate”.

  21. PTK_70 says:

    Went to Mass (post-conciliar Roman Rite) this past Saturday evening some 1400 miles from my home parish and I’m sorry to say the ceremony was tawdry and vapid. (Perhaps it’s precisely because of this tawdry and vapid handling of the Missal of Bl Paul VI that well-meaning and well-informed “traddies” continue to use the unpleasant term “Novus Ordo”…..)

    I think Henry Edwards makes a good point when he writes that “a reverent ad orientem Mass is the norm rather than an exception.” Even if an ‘ad orientem’ posture not the norm right now for the ordinary form Roman Rite Mass, at least it should be more widely available. And this is especially important north of the Mason-Dixon line, where people are generally more pert and presuming than they are genteel and deferential.

    What’s to keep a pastor from making a trial of celebrating Mass in an ‘ad orientem’ posture? Maybe do it for a month at daily Mass on Friday or Saturday. That’ll get people talking. This has to start somewhere.

  22. Marc M says:

    This connected in my head somewhere to my discomfort with the two projection screens we recently installed, throwing away the pew missals. I found that I couldn’t quite defend my dislike of the change, but this gives me something to think about. In addition to being generally annoying (can’t, as a musician, follow the written music any more; often the projected lyrics are wrong or don’t keep pace; discouraging people from following along with the readings; made it less obvious that the music director regularly replaces the proper Psalm with whichever one she thinks is pretty that week), but more than that, it took away from the visual silence.

  23. jaykay says:

    Love the reference above to “adopt(ing) an antiquated style”. It’s peculiarly ironic, in that the introduction of versus populum liturgy was itself a conscious adoption of an “antiquated style”, and even more ironic in that the noble simplicity, purity of early days, yadda, yadda, that they thought they were re-instituting: never actually existed in the first place!

    But try telling your average Presider that…

  24. Nan says:

    I went to last chance Mass on Sunday and while the music is several centuries newer than my preference and I loathe guitars at Mass, the priest is lovely and I enjoy Mass with the children.

  25. AnnTherese says:

    Yes, sacred silence would be a relief during Mass. I would rather have 5 min of contemplative silence than a homily. [Gee, thanks.]

  26. nine man morris says:

    Obviously, this is amazing, as is everything else he says. My question, Father Z, is how likely is it that this man could be the next pope? I mean is this politically feasible even, from what you know of the state of the Vatican? Etc. We can pray ….

  27. cwillia1 says:

    In the end we must silence ourselves before God. This silence is not fostered by pauses in the liturgy. God acts in the Divine Liturgy and we are swept up in that action whether we stand or kneel in silence or whether we sing the people’s responses. My limited experience with the EF suggests to me that, while the people are silent at low mass, they silence themselves as God acts. I do not sense this in the OF as celebrated in most places, whether or not there are pauses.

  28. Pingback: The Grand Silence – Noise in Church | Choristers' Challenge

Comments are closed.