Silence in the Mass

From Fr Martin Boland – Dean of Brentwood Cathedral


“The Lord is in his holy temple;

Let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Habakkuk 2:20


Jesus is truly present to us in the celebration of Mass. He speaks to us through his living word, the Sacred Scriptures. He feeds us with His own divine life, His body and His blood, in the Eucharist. Jesus stands in our midst. We recognise Him, in a profound manner, in the silences of the Mass. They open our body, mind and soul to God and allow Him to make his home in us. We experience communion with Him.


We become most aware of His real presence in those times of silence that punctuate the sacred action of the Mass. They are not accidental. They are deliberate and exist in order that our love of God might mature. When we are silent we do not hear less, we hear more. We become attuned to the stirrings of our souls and the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking personally to us as individuals and as a community.


But for this to happen we need to still our anxieties, to be more attentive and less distracted, to quiet all the white noise outside and within us in order to listen for God’s presence. We need to turn off our mobile phones, remove our wireless earpods, end our useless chatter, be less physically and mentally unsettled. When these things happen then we begin to develop the habits of a listening silence and a humble stillness. We become more present to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Silence does not happen automatically. It is created by the work of each member of the worshipping assembly. As we come to Mass, we need to commit ourselves to cultivating the reverent silences of the Mass and to protecting them. Let us pray with the Psalmist before each Mass begins: “Truly I have set my soul/In silence and peace” (Psalm 131)


Respecting the silences of the Mass is also a measure of the respect we have for our brothers and sisters around us who seek to deepen their relationship with Jesus. When we vandalise these silences with our own noise and chatter, we show a lack of respect for the community who have come to be nourished by the silent language of God’s love.


The Roman Missal is very clear about the importance of silence in the liturgy:


“Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in the different parts of the celebration. For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 45)


Through this wise instruction, the Church helps us to understand that the meaning of each silence has a different quality depending on when it occurs during the Mass. Thus, the silences of the Mass help us to participate more fully in the mysteries we are celebrating by teaching us the ways of recollection, meditation, and praise of Almighty God.


The importance of silence in the celebration of Holy Mass


There are six main moments during Holy Mass when we are invited to be silent. Each of these silences has its own character with the purpose of releasing different responses from our hearts:


  1. The Penitential Act. At the beginning of Mass as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, we are asked to call to mind our sins, all those acts, attitudes and omissions that have been corrosive of our love of God and our neighbour.


A time of silence follows. This gives us an opportunity for serious recollection, to mentally reflect on our lives and bring to mind those less serious sins in our lives. Only then can we entrust them to God who is rich in mercy and forgiveness.


  1. The Collect. Soon after the Penitential Act, we have the Opening Prayer or the Collect. The Priest introduces it by saying, “Let us pray.” In silence, we are invited to become aware of God’s presence and to call to mind our own personal intentions. Pope Francis says of this silence:


“Here lies the importance of listening to our soul in order to open it up for the Lord. Perhaps we come from days of challenges, joy, pain, and we wish to say this to the Lord, invoke his help, ask that he be close to us; we have family and friends who are sick or going through a hard time; we wish to trust the fate of the Church and the world to God.”


Following this time of silent prayer, the priest “collects” the private intentions made in our hearts and brings them before God in a single public prayer that is rich in theological and symbolic meaning: The priest calls on the name of God, praises what He has done for the world, and then pleas for His intervention. The priest does this with his arms wide open, imitating the embrace of Christ on the Cross.


  1. The Liturgy of the Word. The Word of God draws us into silence; silence makes us attentive to God’s word. Only when we are silent and attentive, can our hearts hear God’s word and we can be recreated by its power. The Roman Missal describes the importance of silence during the Liturgy of the Word:


“The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favour meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided. In the course of it, brief periods of silence are also appropriate, accommodated to the assembled congregation; by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 56)


  1. The Prayers of the Faithful. Having listened to the Word of God with attentive hearts, the assembly are moved by the Holy Spirit to pray for the needs of the Church, for the salvation of the world, for civil authorities, for those oppressed by any burden, and for the parish community, particularly those who are sick or who have died.


The priest or deacon introduces the subject of the prayer to the assembly which is followed by a time of silence, during which they lift this intention to God in prayer. This is a moment of intercessory prayer, where we ask God to grant our needs. After this silence, with one voice, the assembly acclaims: “Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.”


  1. Preparing to receive Holy Communion. Following the words of consecration, where Christ’s words transform our gifts of bread and wine into His Body and Blood, the priest says “The Mystery of Faith”. The priest then falls silent and it is the assembly who lend their voices by making one of the memorial acclamations, for example, “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.”


But why does the priest fall silent at this point?


At this moment, the priest is ritually struck dumb in awe and wonder by the Divine Presence before him. Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity is now truly, really and substantially present to us in the forms of bread and wine. Christ is in our midst inviting us to share in His divine life. A true Holy Communion.

Before this Mystery, all our human words and concepts, however sophisticated they may appear, cease to be meaningful. This profound communion with God lies beyond words and finds expression in silence. We humble ourselves by falling to our knees in silent adoration before the Real Presence of the crucified and risen Christ.


Immediately before the reception of Holy Communion, the Roman Missal indicates another silence where the “Priest prepares himself by a prayer, said quietly, so that he may fruitfully receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The faithful do the same, praying silently.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 84) In this silence, we prepare ourselves to say “Amen” before the mystery we are about to receive.


  1. Giving silent praise after receiving Holy Communion. On receiving Holy Communion we become living tabernacles. Christ is truly present and alive within us. St Teresa of Avila suggests that: “When you have received Holy Communion, close your bodily eyes so that you may open the eyes of your soul. Then look upon Jesus in the centre of your heart.” This time of silent praise of Our Lord after Holy Communion should be observed and respected by priests, deacons and all the assembly. In this way, together, we give praise to God.


We praise Him for his goodness to us and for giving Himself to us in Holy Communion in order that we may become what we eat and drink. With the same profound sentiments found in the hymn Adoro Te Devote (I devoutly adore you) written by St Thomas Aquinas, we pray:


O Thou, memorial of our Lord’s own dying.

O living bread, to mortals life supplying!

Make Thou my soul henceforth on Thee to live;

Ever a taste of heavenly sweetness give.


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