Archbishop’s column: the gift of silence in the liturgy

Archbishop John Dew On Wednesday April 25 just after the Anzac Day Mass in Christchurch where I was attending the Bishops Conference, the bishops did a fairly quick, sobering tour…

Archbishop John Dew

Archbishop's column: the gift of silence in the liturgy Archdiocese of Wellington

The bishops in Christchurch April 2012

On Wednesday April 25 just after the Anzac Day Mass in Christchurch where I was attending the Bishops Conference, the bishops did a fairly quick, sobering tour of some of the earthquake affected  areas of the city of Christchurch. We started off in the van chatting and laughing about various things, but as we saw more and more of the city we became silent and overawed by the devastation, and the effect  the earthquakes have had on people lives. Words were nearly useless in the face of what we were seeing. Silence amplified the magnitude of what we were watching.

Rarely in the world do we encounter a silent moment.  Media blares and, more than that, we are a people who talk a lot.  In some ways, our culture seems uncomfortable with silence.

I was reminded of power of silence.  A silent moment, in a loud, chaotic, confusing world, amplifies reality.  In silence, without distraction, we see what is real—what is truly before us. We are given the time to better comprehend the true meaning of things.

This is the reason the Church calls for silence, and a great deal of silence, during the liturgy of the Mass.  Silence amplifies the reality of what we experience.

Silence is a proper response to a reality which words cannot express—in the case of the Mass, to the reality of God’s presence.

We are invited to silence several times during the Mass.  We are first of all called to be silent before Mass begins.  We need that space of time to recollect ourselves in order to enter into prayer.

We are then called to silence as we recall and repent of our sins.  We are called to silent reflection after each Scriptural reading, and after the homily.  We are all called to silence after we have received Communion.  And we are invited, at the conclusion of Mass, to kneel down for a silent prayer of Thanksgiving before we head out into the demands of busy lives.

These periods of silence are intended to bring reality into focus. At Mass we express to God our contrition, we hear his word, and we receive his physical presence sacramentally.  These realities go beyond our comprehension. To hear and understand the Word of God is an expression of his great love for us.  To receive the body of Christ is the deepest kind of communion with God. The silence in the liturgy punctuates a rich and profound time of prayer with opportunities to reflect on the reality of our experience.  The silence of the liturgy is a gift which helps us to understand the greatest gifts we can receive.

In 2000, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, offered an insight into the silence of the liturgy.

‘We respond, by singing and praying to the God who addresses us, but the greater mystery, surpassing all words, summons us to silence. It must, of course, be a silence with content, not just the absence of speech and action. We should expect the liturgy to give us a positive stillness that will restore us.’

Pope Benedict described the liturgical silence as a ‘silence with content … a positive stillness’. He meant that our silence in prayer is not to be an emptying meditation alone. Instead, silence in prayer is an occasion to more deeply understand the Mass itself.Silence isn’t easy for any of us. The Church gives us silence in the liturgy to train our hearts and minds in silent prayer. But attentive, active, “positive silence” takes work. Often, we may find it difficult to focus. The Church encourages us to ask the Lord to help us to experience his presence. As we cultivate silence, we will begin, more frequently, to hear the voice of the Lord.

Silence points us to reality.   It is a rare gift, but to understand it may take us each a lifetime.  Let us give thanks for the silence of the liturgy.  Let us ask the Lord to help us use it to see more clearly the reality of his magnificent and loving presence.

Image: Bishop of Christchurch (right) Barry Jones showing Archbishop John Dew, Bishops Colin Campbell, Denis Browne, Mgr Peter Jeffrey and Bishop Patrick Dunn the damage to the Dallington Catholic presbytery.