Liturgy Matters — The gift of silence

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Judy-Bullock-2013-fSilence is a rare commodity in the world in which we live. We have become so accustomed to being bombarded by sounds of one kind or another that we may even feel unsettled in moments of complete silence, filling the void by switching on car radios, televisions or other electronic devices.

Nonetheless there are times we recognize the need, even crave, moments of silence.

Silence is needed to absorb information, make decisions, solve problems, wonder, imagine, appreciate, consider, reflect, listen and set apart or prepare for something important. Our spiritual well-being — our relationship with God — depends a great deal on how well we cherish silences. It is not coincidence that retreats usually include a great deal of silence.

Within the Mass there are many designated periods of silence. When we celebrate the liturgy, though, we have a tendency to fill it with sounds, progressing from one verbal or musical element to the next. We may even question the pace if there is a brief pause. “Has someone forgotten the next thing?”

What are the designated periods of silence in the Mass and why are they set aside for quiet?

The first designated period of silence actually precedes the beginning of Mass. This time of quiet helps us to make a transition from our busy world to one focused on our relationship with God and our community of faith. Within the Mass, before the Confiteor or penitential litany, there is a brief silence to acknowledge our sinfulness and God’s mercy, in preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist. In the opening prayer, after the invitation of “Let us pray,” there is a silent period so that all may be aware of God’s presence and call to mind our intentions for this Mass.

For the liturgy of the word, the directives in the missal remind us that this part of the Mass should be celebrated in such a way as to favor meditation.

Any kind of haste that hinders this is to be avoided. In addition to an unhurried pace, periods of silence are recommended: before the liturgy of the word begins in anticipation of God’s word; at the conclusion of the first and second readings and after the homily, to allow time to reflect on what we have just heard. In this way, the instruction says, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared.

During the Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful, the deacon or reader of the intentions, pauses after each intention is named to give everyone an opportunity to internalize the intention, to remember it so that we can act on it and keep it in prayer during the week ahead.

One of the most poignant periods of silence in the Mass is the one during the Communion rite. The missal says, “When the distribution of holy Communion is over, the priest and faithful pray quietly for some time.”

This is the time we have for individual, private prayer and to commune with God. Perhaps since we have given our lists of wants and needs previously in the Mass, this period of silence after distribution of holy Communion may be the one best suited to listening to what God has to say to us.

Silences are a vital part of our life of faith. Honoring them is up to us.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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