“Thus let the voice gradually cease to perform its function as the soul progresses towards Christ.” ~Saint Augustine

With his latest book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, Cardinal Robert Sarah has given Catholics an outstanding reflection on the necessary and underappreciated ingredient for building a relationship with God. The Guinean prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been described by Bishop Robert Barron as “one of the most spiritually alert churchmen of our time” for his deep insights into the contemplative life and liturgy.

Drawing on numerous saints, doctors of the Church and mystics from various times in the Church’s long history, Cardinal Sarah eloquently expounds upon the need for the world, and especially Catholics, to rediscover the “power of silence.” Ours is a world that pushes away silence. But we need to fight back and reclaim it. Why? Says Cardinal Sarah, “This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder and kneeling before God.” (p.56) Without silence, we cannot expect to find God.

Cardinal Sarah’s reflections on silence and the sacred liturgy hit home when I came across an article in our local Catholic Herald on Saint Pius X Parish in Wauwatosa. The pastor offered this observation:

“Sometimes visitors will say, ‘Why is there so much talking before Mass? Why aren’t people more respectful?’” Noting that most people only see other parish-community members at Mass, Fr. Portland reflected that “We come to Mass to build up the Body of the Christ. The Body of Christ is the Eucharist, but it’s also the community. So, our attitude is that we are building up the Body of Christ before, during, and after Mass. This is the culture of the parish and this is who we are.”

But what is the best way to “build up the Body of Christ” before Mass? Before going any further, it would be helpful to consult the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. On the question of talking before Mass, it is crystal clear.

Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration is to be observed at the designated times. Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in 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 action in a devout and fitting manner. 

It’s hard to see how”building up the Body of Christ” can happen if this “praiseworthy practice” of observing silence before Mass is being completely ignored.

In his book, Cardinal Sarah takes issue with the notion that talking before the sacred liturgy is a commendable practice. He makes the excellent point that prayerful silence is actually more helpful to fostering intimacy than chatter.

Silence teaches us the great rule of the spiritual life: familiarity does not promote intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion. Humanity advances toward love through adoration. Sacred silence, laden with the adored presence, opens the way to mystical silence, full of loving intimacy. Under the yoke of secular reason . . . we have forgotten that worship and the sacred are the only entrances to the spiritual life. (p122)

He goes on to say that, “sacred silence is a good belonging to the faithful, and clerics must not deprive them of it.” (p.124)

Elsewhere in The Power of Silence, Cardinal Sarah laments that liturgical “celebrations have become tiring because they unfold in noisy chattering. The liturgy is sick.” (p.130) He doesn’t place silence at odds with the (widely misunderstood) concept of “active participation.” Instead, silence and active participation go hand-in-hand. “The quality of our silence is the measure of the quality of our active participation.” (p.131)

Father Portland’s assertion, that chatter before Mass is simply a part of “the culture of the parish,” is worth addressing and Cardinal Sarah himself does so. The opinion that particular cultures should be represented at liturgy is a widely held one, but speaking to the bishops of Africa in particular, Cardinal Sarah urges caution that “the celebration of the Mass does not become a celebration of one’s culture. The death of God for love of us is beyond any culture. It submerges all culture.” (p.140)

At several points in his book, Cardinal Sarah harshly critiques bishops and priests who fail to lead by example when it comes to ensuring an atmosphere of silence and prayer at their parishes.

It is sad, and almost a sacrilege, to hear occasionally priests and bishops chattering incessantly 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, which they are preparing to celebrate and which ought to inspire in them nothing but fear and trembling. (p.137)

We need breaks from ubiquitous noise, not more of it. One of the commonly recurring themes I’ve heard from people who have recently discovered the traditional Latin Mass is how much they appreciate and look forward to the atmosphere of reverence and silence that permeates the church “before, during and after the Mass.” For laymen emerging from a frenetic workweek, the silence experienced on Sunday is essential to their spiritual lives. To repeat Cardinal Sarah’s point, “sacred silence is a good belonging to the faithful, and clerics must not deprive them of it.” (Of course, there are also novus ordo parishes that do an excellent job of preserving prayerful silence “before, during and after the Mass.”)

A vibrant community is a wonderful and essential thing. It’s the sign of a healthy parish. The faithful should get to know one another and form lasting friendships. But if a parish does not have social events and activities planned outside of the Mass (picnics, dinners, associations, etc.) it’s the responsibility of the pastor and those running the church to provide them, instead of squeezing it in before Mass.

There’s a time and a place for talking, but it’s not in the fifteen minutes before Mass. Then, it’s time to prepare, silently, for the encounter with God.