by Leon Suprenant
Our men in training for the diaconate study various church documents on the Mass, including the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (GIRM).
One thing some of them find surprising is the frequent mention of “silence” during the liturgy — whether it’s before the penitential act, after the readings or homily, or after receiving Our Lord in holy Communion.
Even before Mass begins, the church teaches that “it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church . . . so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner” (GIRM, 45).
This emphasis on silence during Mass is also found in the documents of Vatican II (1962-65), which taught that “at the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence.”
Perhaps ironically, the clarion call for silence during the liturgy has largely fallen on deaf ears. St. John Paul II noted toward the end of his pontificate that “one aspect that we must foster in our communities with greater commitment is the experience of silence.”
We all know, deep down, that silence is pivotal — not only for liturgical prayer, but for all prayer — as a privileged place where we encounter God.
In that regard, we might recall the prophet Elijah, who discovered God not in thunderous earthquakes and winds, but mysteriously in “a light silent sound” (1 Kgs 19:12). As Pope Benedict has stressed, such silence is eminently fruitful.
When someone has a truly important message for us, we instinctively turn down or even turn off our devices to focus on the messenger and his or her message. Most of the time, however, we are lost in our noise and are only partially paying attention, if at all.
If we are honest, that is also how it is with our interior lives. The late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar put it this way: “Although we pretend to long for [silence], we avoid it and start up a noise within ourselves.” We are often way too antsy to sit still and be silent with God.
In Lent, we are called to the desert to engage within ourselves the battle for interior silence. For some of us, an apt penance just might be cutting down on the noise we allow into our lives through media and other diversions.
Even our Lenten liturgies have a greater emphasis on silence, from the omission of the Gloria to the instruction that we use musical instruments only to support singing, perhaps in part to make us listen more intently for the “light silent sound.”
So, this Lent, are we bringing the noise of our culture with us to Mass, or are we going to bring the silence of life with God back out into the culture? That is the challenge. That is the battle.
Deacons conclude the Mass with the exhortation, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” May we glorify God through our greater commitment to fostering interior silence, so that God may truly fill us with his presence and his peace.