Silence in the Liturgy

It is important to recall that silence is a necessary condition for deep, contemplative prayer, and an important component of the liturgy.

In an essay published in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano on January 30, 2016, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, discusses the meaning of silence in the Roman liturgy. The following English translation was prepared from the original, unabridged French text.

Many Catholics rightly complain about the absence of silence in some forms of the celebration of our Roman liturgy. It seemed to us important, therefore, in this short essay, to recall the meaning of silence as a Christian ascetical value, and therefore as a necessary condition for deep, contemplative prayer, without forgetting the fact that times of silence are officially prescribed during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, so as to highlight the importance of silence for a high-quality liturgical renewal.

1. Silence as a Christian ascetical value

In the negative sense, silence is the absence of noise. It can be exterior or interior. Exterior silence involves the absence of sounds both in words and in actions (noises of doors, vehicles, jackhammers, and airplanes, the noisy mechanism of cameras, often accompanied by dazzling flashes, and also of that horrible forest of cell phones that are brandished at arm’s length during our Eucharistic liturgies). Virtuous or mystical silence obviously must be distinguished from reproachful silence, from the refusal to speak to someone, from the silence of omission through cowardice, egotism, or hard-heartedness.

Of course, exterior silence is an ascetical exercise of self-mastery in the use of speech. First of all it may be helpful to recall what asceticism is; this word is not praised to the skies by our consumer society—far from it!—and, we must admit, it frightens our contemporaries, including very often the Christians who are influenced by the spirit of the world. Well, then, what is asceticism? Asceticism is an indispensable means that helps us to remove from our life anything that weighs it down, in other words, anything that hampers our spiritual or interior life and therefore is an obstacle to prayer. Yes, it is indeed in prayer that God communicates his Life to us, in other words, manifests his presence in our soul by irrigating it with the streams of his Trinitarian Love: the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. And prayer is essentially silence. Chattering, the tendency to externalize all the treasures of the soul by expressing them, is supremely harmful to the spiritual life. Carried away toward the exterior by his need to say everything, the chatterer cannot help being far from God, superficial and incapable of any profound activity.

The wisdom books of the Old Testament (Prov 10:8, 11, 13, 14, 18-21, 31, 32; 15:1-7; Sir 19:7-12; 20:1-2, 5-8 or 23:7-15; 28:13-26) are chock-full of exhortations aimed at avoiding sins of the tongue (in particular, slander and calumny). The prophetic books, for their part, mention silence as the expression of reverential fear of God; it is then a preparation for the theophany of God, in other words, the revelation of His presence in our world (Lam 3:26; Zeph 1:7; Hab 2:20; Is 41:1; Zech 2:13). The New Testament is not outdone in this respect. Indeed, there is the Letter of James, which clearly remains the classic passage about controlling the tongue (Jas 3:1-10). However, we know that Jesus himself warned us against wicked words, which are the expression of a depraved heart (Mt 15:19) and even against idle words, for which an accounting will be demanded of us (Mt 12:36). In contrast, we can only be impressed by the silence of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the Roman governor Pilate and King Herod: Jesus autem tacebat (Mt 26:63). Herod asked him to work a miracle for him personally, and his courtiers would have been amused by it. But Jesus Christ, who was in chains—he, the God of majesty—did not consent to become the buffoon of King Herod, nor to do for that proud man whose curiosity was unhealthy what he granted so generously to the humble and the uneducated.

In reality, true, good silence always belongs to someone who is willing to let others have his place, and especially the Completely-Other, God. In contrast, external noise characterizes the individual who wants to occupy an over-important place, to strut or to show off, or else who wants to fill his interior emptiness, as is the case in many stores and public facilities, and also particularly in the waiting rooms of some dentists, hairdressers…, where they impose incessant background music on you.

As for interior silence, it can achieved by the absence of memories, plans, interior speech, worries…. Still more important, thanks to an act of the will, it can result from the absence of disordered affections or excessive desires. The Fathers of the Church assign an eminent place to silence in the ascetical life. Think of Saint Ambrose (In psalm. 37, 12-15), Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great (Moralia II, 48; XXII, 16; XXX, 16), not to mention Chapter VI of the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia on “taciturnity,” or Chapter 62 on grand silence at night, where he adopts the teaching of Cassian. Starting with those spiritual masters, all the medieval founders of religious orders, followed by the mystics of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, insisted not only on the ascetical but also on the mystical importance of silence.

2. Silence as a condition for contemplative prayer

The Gospels say that the Savior himself prayed in silence, particularly at night (Lk 6:12), or while withdrawing to deserted places (Lk 5:16; Mk 1:35). Silence is typical of the meditation by the Word of God; we find it again particularly in Mary’s attitude toward the mystery of her Son (Lk 2:19, 51). The most silent person in the Gospels is of course Saint Joseph; not a single word of his does the New Testament record for us. Saint Basil considers silence not only as an ascetical necessity of monastic life, but also as a condition for encountering God (Letter 2, 2-6: PG 32, 224-232). Silence precedes and prepares for the privileged moment when we have access to God, who then can speak to us face to face as we would do with a friend (cf. Ex 33:11; Num 12:8; Deut 34:10).

Recall, in this regard, that we arrive at the knowledge of God by way of causality, analogy, eminence, but also negation: once we affirm the divine attributes, which are known by natural reason (this is the kataphatic way), we must deny the mode of limited realization thereof that we know here below (this is the apophatic way). Silence is an essential part of the apophatic way of gaining access to God, which was so highly prized by the Fathers of the Church, especially the Greeks; this makes them demand silence of arguments when faced with the mystery of God (Clement of Alexandria, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa).

It is nonetheless true that silence is above all the positive attitude of someone who prepares to welcome God by listening. Yes, God acts in the silence. Hence this very important remark by the great Saint John of the Cross: “The Father said only one word, namely his Son, and in an eternal silence he always says it: the soul too must hear it in silence.”[1] The Book of Wisdom had already noted in this regard the manner in which God intervened to deliver the chosen people from captivity in Egypt: that unforgettable act took place during the night: “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wis 18:14). Later, this verse would be understood by Christian liturgical tradition as a prefiguration of the silent Incarnation of the Eternal Word in the crib in Bethlehem. As for Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, she would insist on silence as a condition for contemplating God the Holy Trinity.

And so we have to make silence: this is of course an activity, and not a form of idleness. If our “interior cell phone” is always busy because we are “having a conversation” with other creatures, how can the Creator reach us, how can he “call us”? We must therefore purify our mind of its curiosities, the will of its plans, in order to open ourselves totally to the graces of light and strength that God wants to give us profusely: “Father, not my will, but yours be done.” Ignatian “indifference” is therefore a form of silence too.

3. The silence prescribed by the liturgical norms

Prayer is a conversation, a dialogue with the Triune God: although at some moments we address God, at others we make silence so as to listen to him. It is not surprising therefore that we must consider silence as an important component of the liturgy. Of course the Eastern rites (which are not within the competence of my Congregation) plan no times of silence during the Divine Liturgy. Indeed, when the priest himself does not chant, in other words, when he prays in silence (or “secretly,” which comes from the Latin word: secreto), particularly during the anaphora, i.e., the Eucharistic Prayer, except for the words of consecration, which are chanted aloud, we can note that the deacon, the choirs, or else the faithful chant without interruption. Nevertheless, they are intensely aware of the apophatic dimension of their prayer, which is expressed by all sorts of adjectives and adverbs describing the Supreme Master of the Universe and Savior of our souls. For example, the “preface” of the Byzantine rite says this: “You are God—ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible….” Moreover, in its essentials, the Divine Liturgy is something of a plunge into the “Mystery,” which means, concretely, that it is celebrated behind the iconostas, and the priest, who stands at the altar of Sacrifice, often prays in silence.

In the West, in contrast, in all its rites (Roman, Roman-Lyonese, Carthusian, Dominican, Ambrosian, etc.) the silent prayer of the priest was not ceaselessly accompanied by the chanting of the choir or of the congregation. The Latin Mass therefore has always included times of complete silence. Until the reform of Blessed Pope Paul VI, this was the case especially during the Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer, which was pronounced by the celebrant in silence (secreto), except in the rare cases of sacramental concelebration. It is true that in some places they had tried to fill up the emptiness of this silence lasting several minutes (five to eight at most) which, in reality, was only apparent, by the sound of the organ, or by polyphonic singing, but it must be admitted that this practice was not in keeping with the spirit of these rites.

Vatican Council II prescribed keeping a time of silence during the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Thus the Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, §30, decreed that “to promote active participation…at the proper time a reverent silence should be observed.” The General Introduction to the Roman Missal (GIRM) of Blessed Pope Paul VI, revised in 2002 by Saint John Paul II, specified the many places in the Mass where it is necessary to observe such silence. We find first of all this general reminder, which explains SC 30 (cited above):

Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times (Sacrosanctum Concilium, art. 30; Instruction Musicam sacram, n. 17).[2] 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. Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner. (GIRM, no. 45 [formerly 23])

How sad it is—it’s almost a sacrilege—to hear sometimes priests and bishops chattering uninterruptedly in the sacristy, and even during the entrance procession, instead of recollecting themselves and contemplating in silence the mystery of the death of Christ on the Cross that they are getting ready to celebrate, which ought to inspire them with nothing but fear and trembling!

The first moment in particular in which silence is prescribed is the penitential preparation: “The Priest calls upon the whole community to take part in the Penitential Act, which, after a brief pause for silence, it does by means of a formula of general confession” (GIRM, n. 51 [29]). Then, for the collect: “…the Priest calls upon the people to pray and everybody, together with the Priest, observes a brief silence so that they may become aware of being in God’s presence and may call to mind their intentions” (GIRM, n. 54 [32]; cf. n. 127 [88]). Then, “the Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favor 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” (GIRM, n. 56). Paragraph n. 128 [89] is entirely in keeping with this recommendation for the First Reading, and n. 130 [91] for the Second Reading. This advice applies also to the homily, which must be received and assimilated in an atmosphere of prayer (cf. GIRM, n. 66 [42] and 136 [97]). Finally it becomes a genuine prescription addressed to the faithful for the Eucharistic Prayer, when “the people, for their part, should associate themselves with the priest in faith and in silence…” (GIRM, n. 147 [108]).

We find again the possibility of remaining in silence after Holy Communion (cf. GIRM, n. 164 [121]), or to prepare to listen to the “Postcommunion” prayer (GIRM, n. 165 [122]). In Mass celebrated in the absence of a congregation, a moment of silence is even recommended to the celebrant: “After the purification of the chalice, the Priest should observe a brief pause for silence…” (GIRM, n. 271 [230]).

Silence is therefore not at all absent from the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, at least if we follow its guidelines and celebrate in the spirit of its recommendations. Unfortunately, too often “it was forgotten that the Council also included silence under actuosa participatio, for silence facilitates a really deep, personal participation, allowing us to listen inwardly to the Lord’s word. Many liturgies now lack all trace of this silence.”[3] Moreover, apart from the homily, all other speeches or introductions of persons should be forbidden during the celebration of Holy Mass. Indeed, we have to avoid turning the church, which is the house of God intended for adoration, into a theater in which people come to applaud the actors who are rated according to their ability to communicate, to use an expression that you often hear in the media. Nowadays, you sometimes get the impression that

Catholic worship…has gone from adoration of God to the exhibition of the priest, the ministers, and the faithful. Piety has been abolished, including the word itself, and has been liquidated by liturgists as devotionalism, but they have made the people put up with liturgical experiments and rejected spontaneous forms of devotion and piety. They have even succeeded in imposing applause on funerals in place of mourning and weeping. Did Christ not mourn and weep at the death of Lazarus? “Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy…it is a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared….”[4] 

4. The importance of silence for the quality of the liturgy

Finally, we must strive to understand the motivations of this liturgical discipline concerning silence and to become imbued with it. Two particularly well-qualified authors may help us in this area, and therefore succeed in convincing us of the need for silence in the liturgy. In the first place, Msgr. Guido Marini, Master of Pontifical Ceremonies, expresses the general principle in these terms:

A well celebrated liturgy, in its different parts, plans a happy alteration of silence and speech, in which silence animates speech, allows the voice to resonate with an extraordinary depth, and keeps each verbal expression in the right atmosphere of recollection…. The required silence must not…be considered as a pause between one moment in the celebration and the next. Rather, it should be considered as a true moment of the ritual, complementing the words, the vocal prayer, the song, and the gestures.[5]

Indeed, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had already noted in his famous book, The Spirit of the Liturgy:

[S]ilence is part of the liturgy…. [T]he 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. Such stillness will not be just a pause, in which a thousand thoughts and desires assault us, but a time of recollection, giving us an inward peace, allowing us to draw breath and rediscover the one things necessary….[6]

This is therefore a silence in which we simply look at God and allow God to look at us and to envelop us in the mystery of his majesty and love.

Cardinal Ratzinger also mentioned several particular moments of silence, for example this one:

In some places, the Preparation of the Gifts is intended as a time for silence. This makes good sense and is fruitful, if we see the Preparation, not as just a pragmatic external action, but as an essentially interior process…. We ourselves are, or should be, the real gift…through our sharing in Jesus Christ’s act of self-offering to the Father….[7]

In this regard we must deplore the long, noisy offertory processions, involving endless dancing, in some African countries. They give the impression that one is attending a folk dance performance, which distorts the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and removes us from the Eucharistic mystery; it should be celebrated instead in recollection, because we too are plunged into his death and his self-offering to the Father. So it is appropriate to insist on the silence of the lay people during the Eucharistic Prayer, as Msgr. Guido Marini explains:

This silence is not synonymous with idleness or a lack of participation. Its purpose is to make all the faithful enter into the act of love by which Jesus offers himself to the Father on the cross for the salvation of the world. This truly sacred silence is the liturgical moment during which it is necessary to say yes, with all our strength, to Christ’s action, so that it might become our action too in everyday life.[8]

Finally, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, for their part, “the silent prayers of the priest invite him to make his task truly personal, so that he may give his whole self to the Lord…. These priestly prayers…do exist—they have to exist, now as before.”[9] Finally, for everyone, “the silence after [the reception of] Communion…is the moment for an interior conversation with the Lord who has given himself to us, for that essential ‘communicating,’ that entry into the process of communication, without which the external reception of the Sacrament becomes mere ritual and therefore unfruitful.”[10]


Translated by Michael J. Miller

[1] Saint John of the Cross, Maximes, 147, edited by Fr. Lucien-Marie de Saint-Joseph, O.C.D. (Bruges: DDB, 1949), 1314.

[2] Recall incidentally this passage from Musicam sacram: “17. Sacrum quoque silentium suo tempore servetur; per illud enim fideles non modo non sunt habendi tamquam extranei vel muti spectatores actionis liturgicae, sed arctius in mysterium inseruntur, quod celebratur, per dispositiones internas, quae e verbo Dei audito, e cantibus et precibus prolatis, atque ex spirituali coniunctione cum sacerdote, suas partes proferente, dimanant.”  “At the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence. Through it the faithful are not only not considered as extraneous or dumb spectators at the liturgical service, but are associated more intimately in the mystery that is being celebrated, thanks to that interior disposition which derives from the word of God that they have heard, from the songs and prayers that have been uttered, and from spiritual union with the priest in the parts that he says or sings himself.” From Austin P. Flannery, ed., Documents of Vatican II (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 80-97 at 85.

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 127.

[4] Nicola Bux, Benedict XVI’s Reform: The Liturgy Between Innovation and Tradition, translated by Joseph Trabbic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 120 [English translation slightly emended]. The author cites Cdl. Ratzinger.

[5] Monsignor Guido Marini, La Liturgie: Gloire de Dieu, sanctification de l’homme (Perpignan: Artège, 2013), 71-72.

[6] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 209.

[7] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 210-211.

[8] Monsignor Guido Marini, La Liturgie: Gloire de Dieu, sanctification de l’homme (Perpignan: Artège, 2013), 71-72.

[9] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 213. See also 213-214.

[10] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 210.

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About Cardinal Robert Sarah 4 Articles
Cardinal Robert Sarah is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He is the author, with Nicolas Diat, of God or Nothing, The Power of Silence and the forthcoming The Day Is Now Far Spent.

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