By Dr. Judy Bullock
Silence is a scarce commodity in the world in which we live. As if we are not bombarded enough from outside sources, many of us turn on the radio or CD player as soon as we get in our cars. In our homes the TV frequently fills the air morning to night.
Although there are many reasons the church may be described as countercultural, none marks this more dramatically than the value placed on silence. Even in the liturgy, described most appropriately as communal prayer, there are numerous times designated for silence.
What is the purpose of these periods of silence?
Each period of silence in the liturgy has a designated purpose. Even before the Mass begins, directives in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal point out that a period of silence is praiseworthy so that we may prepare ourselves, ready our minds and hearts, for the celebration of the liturgy.
In the Introductory Rite of Mass the priest invites the people to recall their sins in the Act of Penitence. In this brief period of silence, we acknowledge our sinfulness and in a spirit of repentance prepare to celebrate the sacred mysteries. Then we recite together the Confiteor, “I confess to almighty God …” or we engage in one of the other forms of the Act of Penitence.
The period of silence during the opening prayer or Collect has a much different purpose. After the priest says, “Let us pray,” the brief silence allows the priest and the people to “become aware of being in God’s presence and to call to mind their intentions,” according to the directives. Then the priest gathers our intentions in the Collect.
During the Liturgy of the Word the directives say that the “kind of haste that hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided.” There is a time of silence before the readings begin in order to prepare us to hear the word of God and again, after the proclamation of each reading. There is also a period of silence after the homily. In these periods of silence, through the action of the Holy Spirit “the Word of God may be grasped and a response through prayer prepared,” the directive says. These are times for reflection on what we have just heard and to make application in our own lives.
During the Prayer of the Faithful when the deacon or some other person announces the intentions, a silent pause after each intention is suggested before giving the invitation, “we pray to the Lord.” This offers the people an opportunity to think about each intention and make application in their own way.
Perhaps the most important period of silence in the Mass is the one that begins after the last person has received holy Communion. The church clearly differentiates the period of communal engagement during the distribution of holy Communion with the period of individual, private, silent prayer that comes after the distribution.
During the distribution we are instructed to join our voices in song to express joy and unity in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, to “highlight the communitarian nature of the rite.” After everyone has received, we are given the opportunity to pray silently for some time, either kneeling or sitting. So many times our prayer is filled with requests. This more extensive period of silence provides time for us to listen to what God is saying to each one of us.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.