OME MIGHT WONDER if silence in the liturgy isn’t opposed to the “active participation” of the people. In reality, the fundamental precondition for active participation is interior silence, since, as Fr. Edward McNamara explains, a spirit of recollection “does not impede, and indeed favors, full and active participation in those parts of the celebration where the community is united in acclamation and song, for each person is more fully aware of what he or she is doing.” Indeed, praying in silence is a particularly noble form of human activity, more active than merely speaking or singing, which can easily be done in a distracted frame of mind; and so, developing the dispositions of heart and mind necessary to be able to derive spiritual refreshment from silence is a school of virtue in which every Christian should be enrolled as a lifelong pupil. Fr. McNamara thus counsels: “To help achieve this [interior silence], we should foment by all available means the spirit of attentive and active silence in our celebrations and refrain from importing the world’s clamor and clatter into their midst.”
Silence together with appropriate sacred music convey to our minds the awareness of a transforming mystery by which we can come to grips with sin and death and pass beyond them into love and life, a mystery that is both frightful and alluring. The Mass is nothing less than the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary in our midst: this is the reason why the Crucifix is central in Catholic worship. For this reason Pope Benedict has counseled priests everywhere to celebrate ad crucem, towards an altar cross, if they do not yet judge it expedient to worship ad orientem, towards the East, symbol of the same Christ. The death of God is put before us: this is reason enough for silent awe, and that makes either the altar cross or the eastward stance a kind of “visual silence,” a concentration of our faculties on that which is essential and central. I am reminded here of a characteristically forceful statement by Ratzinger: “If the Church were to accommodate herself to the world in any way that would entail a turning away from the Cross, this would not lead to a renewal of the Church, but only to her death.”
The papal Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, has written a magnificent summary of Pope Benedict’s views on silence in the liturgy and in the life of the Church. Marini writes:
It is of fundamental importance. Silence is necessary for the life of man, because man lives in both words and silences. Silence is all the more necessary to the life of the believer who finds there a unique moment of their experience of the mystery of God. The life of the Church and the Church’s liturgy cannot be exempt from this need. Here the silence speaks of listening carefully to the Lord, to His presence and His word, and, together these express the attitude of adoration. Adoration, a necessary dimension of the liturgical action, expresses the human inability to speak words, being “speechless” before the greatness of God’s mystery and beauty of His love. The celebration of the liturgy is made up of texts, singing, music, gestures and also of silence and silences. If these were lacking or were not sufficiently emphasized, the liturgy would not be complete and would be deprived of an irreplaceable dimension of its nature.
Msgr. Marini helps us to see the wonderfully reciprocal functions of music and silence at Mass. Authentic sacred music is born out of silence and returns gently into silence. It arises not as an imposition on people or as a provocation of them but as an awed response to God’s beauty—an attempt at interpreting, among us, the heavenly music far above us. Similarly, a truly prayerful silence is one that is, of its very nature, receptive to appropriate sound, whether spoken or sung. In other words, if one’s community does not have a regular experience of profound and meaningful silence, the souls of the faithful cannot be expected to respond sympathetically to the “musical tradition of the universal Church” that the Second Vatican Council called “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art,” and that the same Council instructed us to “preserve and foster with great care” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112; 114). You cannot plant seeds in ground that has not been thoroughly cultivated and expect an abundant harvest; you might as well be throwing seeds out for the birds (cf. Mt 13:4). The interior cultivation of a habit of adoring silence is therefore the precondition for the fruitfulness of sacred music. Truly sacred music acts as a frame around the silence and so defines it as sacred silence. Conversely, prayerful silence at Mass acts as an internal direction or weight for the music and so keeps it anchored in the eternal stillness, the “Word without a word.”
Both music and silence, therefore, are profoundly united in their dependence on each other, and even more, in their inherent trajectory beyond themselves into the heart of the mystery of God.