JUNE 21, 2004






Is silence too old-fashioned
for today’s liturgy?

By Julie McCarty

Last fall, my husband and I stayed in Dubuque, Iowa, while on a driving trip. Like so many other vacationing Catholics, we thumbed through the yellow pages to locate a church to visit for Sunday Mass.

When we showed up at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Father Lyle Wilgenbusch, the pastor, was explaining the new way the parish would incorporate a silent period of prayer just prior to Mass. He emphasized the importance, however, of maintaining a welcoming attitude towards others.

This got me thinking. What is the role of silence when we pray together as a group? Is silence too old-fashioned for today’s Catholics? Are we being “unwelcoming” to others when we sit in silence? Why do some priests allow for little spaces of silence here and there, while others plow through the words as if the Mass were a race?

In a culture that is obsessed with productivity, consumption, and entertainment, it can seem like silence is a “nothing.” We are so surrounded by flashing images and constant noise that many of us become restless and fearful when confronted by a moment of quiet.

Yet, spiritual masters throughout all ages have revered the use of silence as a way to enter into deeper communion with God. How can I hear God’s voice if I am always prattling on and on about what I want? How will I feel the prick of my conscience if I’m not in a reflective mode? Without quiet time, how can I perceive the Spirit, gently nudging me to do loving acts of kindness, justice, or mercy?

The most recent “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” reminds us that there are various places during the Mass during which all are to observe silence.

For example, there is to be a period of silence after the readings and the homily. The goal of this silence is to give everyone a chance to meditate on what they have heard so that they can “make God’s word their own.” Another place that prayerful silence may be observed is after all have received Communion.

It appears to me that some parishes practice silence to an extreme, which sometimes does indeed come across as unfriendly, particularly to visitors. But I think the more common problem in some places is the elimination of silence. In these communities, the Mass is so incredibly loud, upbeat, and fast-paced that I wonder if someone thinks the entire congregation has the attention span of a two-year-old child.

I come away asking myself if this is why some Catholics are signing up for Buddhist meditation workshops.

St. Joseph the Worker Parish impressed me because they are developing practical ways to balance prayerfulness and loving, interpersonal connectedness. As their liturgist, Richard Beaves, told me, silence and hospitality are two liturgical values that can “work in concert.” The “hubbub” of people arriving and liturgical ministers putting things in place is only natural, he noted, but having a moment in which to collect ourselves for Mass is also important.

Parishioners of St. Joseph’s are encouraged to welcome each other with a smile or handshake when arriving and when entering the pew. However, when the Mass is about to begin, and all the liturgical ministers are in their places, a simple announcement is made, inviting everyone to enter into silence in order to prepare themselves for celebration. After one or two minutes—that’s minutes, not seconds—the opening song begins.

During the Mass, readers and music ministers do their part to promote appropriate spaces of silence. However, Father Wilgenbusch notes that it is primarily “the presider’s task to monitor the time.” Although priests may feel a subtle pressure to rush the Mass, he recommends that they ensure sufficient time for quality prayer.

I think lay people should also do our part to balance friendliness and prayerfulness at Mass. We need to extend a welcoming hand to those who suffer, those who are often marginalized, and the stranger in our midst.

But we also need to respect one another’s need for a quiet place in which to pray. Receptivity to God through silent prayer and openness to one’s neighbor through welcoming words are not opposites, but rather harmonious partners in building the kingdom of God.

(Julie McCarty, M.A.T., is a freelance writer from Eagan, Minnesota, whose syndicated column on prayer appears in diocesan newspapers around the country. Contact her at



Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
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