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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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That the Mass is the central feature of the Catholic religion hardly needs to be said. During the Reformation (and always) the Mass has been the test. The word of the Reformers—“It is the Mass that matters”—was true. The long persecution of Catholics in England took the practical form of laws chiefly against saying Mass; for centuries the occupant of the English throne was obliged to manifest his Protestantism, not by a general denial of the whole system of Catholic dogma, but by a formal repudiation of the doctrine of Transubstantiation and of the Mass.
— Fr. Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

Silence in the Liturgy
published 18 June 2017 by Fr. David Friel

ECENT MONTHS have refocused our attention on the role of silence in the liturgy. This is a very good thing, inasmuch as silence is easily overlooked. Although an essential component of the liturgy, silence is unpretentious and self-effacing, drawing our attention to God rather than to itself.

Much of the reason that silence has taken center stage in liturgical discussions of late has to do with the April 2017 publication of The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, a new book by Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Adding still greater visibility to the topic is the May 2017 afterword published by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, which praises Cardinal Sarah’s book for its spirituality and profundity.

It is in this context that I would like to share a few thoughts on silence from three sources: then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Msgr. Guido Marini, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM).

N HIS landmark book on divine worship, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger addresses silence in his section on “The Body and the Liturgy.” By this placement, he emphasizes the naturality of silence and its peculiar value in the fundamentally incarnational worldview of a Christian. Therein, Ratzinger writes:

We are realizing more and more clearly that silence is part 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. . . . Silence cannot be simply “made,” organized as if it were one activity among many. 1

Later, as pope, Benedict XVI delivered a thoughtful address to a group of Brazilian bishops participating in an ad limina visit, in which he observes: “The main, fundamental attitude of the Christian faithful who take part in the liturgical celebration is not action but listening, opening themselves, receiving.” 2 Of course, this listening—this “fundamental attitude of the Christian faithful”—demands the cultivation and practical habit of silence.

AST WEEK, I featured a book I recently read by Msgr. Guido Marini, the Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations. The papal master of ceremonies offers several meaningful thoughts on silence throughout this work.

First, Marini speaks about silence as it is called for by the GIRM and by Sacrosanctum Concilium:

The silence requested . . . is not to be considered along the lines of a mere pause between one moment of celebration and another that follows. Rather, it is to be considered a true and proper ritual moment, complementary to the proclamation of the Word, to vocal prayer, to song, to gesture, and so on. 3

This is an important insight, as it reminds us that liturgical silence is not merely a seam. It is a ritual moment in and of itself, which, to use the word of Ratzinger, carries “content.”

Msgr. Marini also gives a beautiful reflection on the spirituality of the silence that surrounds attentiveness to the canon at Mass:

Liturgical silence is truly sacred because it is the spiritual place to realize the adherence of our whole life to the life of the Lord; it is the space of the prolonged “amen” of the heart surrendering to the love of God and embracing that love as a new criterion of our own existence. Is this not perhaps the stupendous significance of the “amen” that concludes the doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, in which we vocalize what for such a long time we have been repeating in the silence of our hearts rapt in prayer? 4

For Msgr. Marini, silence is essential for all who would participate fruitfully in divine worship. “Moments of silence,” he observes, “are as much an integral part of the ars celebrandi (art of celebrating) of the ministers as is participatio actuosa (active participation) on the part of the faithful.” 5

HEN THE GIRM speaks directly about silence (paragraph 45), it notes that the moments of silence envisioned within the liturgy are not all identical. They serve, rather, a variety of purposes, such that the “nature” of the silence changes according to the context. Four specific purposes are mentioned:

1. In the sacristy before Mass, for example, the spirit of silence is ordered toward the devout disposition of all who will participate in the liturgy.

2. In the Penitential Act and in the period after Oremus, the silence serves to help worshippers recollect themselves.

3. Following each reading and after the homily, the period of silence is designed to facilitate the meditation of the faithful upon the Word of God.

4. In the post-Communion, a period of silence encourages the communicants to prayer and praise.

Thus, not all moments of silence are created equal. Within the liturgy, they serve different purposes and warrant different lengths. But they cannot be ignored without damage to the corporate act of worship.

C.S. Lewis describes noise as the music of hell. Silence, then, ought to find a happy home in the sacred liturgy.


1   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 209.

2   Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Bishops of the North II Region of the Episcopal Conference of Brazil, 15 April 2010.

3   Guido Marini, Liturgical Reflections of a Papal Master of Ceremonies, trans. Nicholas I. Gregoris (Pine Beach, NJ: Newman House Press, 2011), 31.

4   Marini, 32.

5   Marini, 87.