If you ever feel that your parish Mass isn’t reverent enough, a good way to assess what’s wrong is to see if you’re observing the prescribed silences. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal, #45, says there should be silence:
- during the Penitential Act
- after the invitations, “Let us pray”
- after the readings
- after the homily
- after Communion if a song of praise is not sung
- and before the celebration
Some communities focus only on the last point, discouraging conversations before Mass, yet ignore the other required silences. However when communities consistently work on practicing the silences (accompanied by stillness) within the various parts of the Mass, they begin to notice a deeper reverence, intentionality, spirituality, and a more communal sense of ritual prayer among the assembly. Observing the silences within Mass will do more to make the liturgy feel more reverent than trying to get people to be quiet before Mass.
Helping the assembly practice silence and stillness at these six places requires a bit of coordination among the liturgical ministers and a little preparation for the assembly. Presiders, deacons, music ministers, lectors, altar servers, and ushers all need to be aware that there will be moments of silence—and stillness—at the six places listed above. That means they, too, must observe these moments of silence and stillness because they will model for the rest of the assembly how to enter into these silences with calm instead of projecting anxiety that someone forgot to do something. You might also let the assembly know that there will be moments of silence and stillness throughout the Mass and to not be worried.
The silences need not be very long, but they do need to be intentional. In addition, the length of each of these silences will vary within the Mass. For example, in Lent, the silence before the Penitential Act might be longer than the other moments where silence is prescribed. Or perhaps after a powerful Scripture passage or challenging homily, there would be a longer silence. Maybe the opening Collect’s “Let us pray” is followed by a longer silence during Advent. If there was substantial silence after Communion, then the silence after “Let us pray” for the post-Communion prayer might be shorter.
The length of silence will also depend on your assembly’s comfort-level with ritual, communal silence. A good presider or liturgical minister who is steeped in the practice of ritual silence will be able to “sense” when an assembly has finally eased into communal, silent prayer and how long to allow that stillness to linger. They also will be able to gauge the moment when the assembly is ready to move out of that silence and respond to the Spirit’s voice heard in that silence.
Once you have the silences within the liturgy well grounded, encourage some silence prior to the liturgy. But don’t be oppressive about it. This silence before Mass is meant to foster thanksgiving in each person and to direct their heart and mind to the work of prayer at hand. If encouraging silence before Mass only fosters a culture where people are policed or reprimanded, either by the leaders, fellow parishioners, or poorly worded signs or invitations, then it defeats the silence’s purpose. If you want to prepare yourself and others to give thanks to God at Mass, it’s much better to offer a kind word and friendly conversation than to express annoyance with one of God’s own.
Here are some simple and more inviting ways to begin to help people enter into silence before Mass:
- If your church has a gathering space where people can greet one another before Mass, be sure it is clean and inviting and clutter and unnecessary items are removed to allow for people to gather and linger.
- Keep rehearsals and set up within the worship space to a minimum at least several minutes before Mass if possible.
- One minute before Mass begins, have the presider or another liturgical minister welcome the assembly, provide any announcements for hospitality (such as location of restrooms or song number signs, turning off cell phones, etc.), then invite the assembly to observe 30 seconds of silence in preparation for Mass. This invitation might be worded this way: “To prepare ourselves to pray together and give thanks to God, let us spend a moment in silence and stillness. In this silence, I invite you to remember the many blessings you have received this week and to bring to mind the needs of your loved ones and our world. Let us pray in silence for we are in the holy presence of God.” Then observe at least 20 seconds of silence, longer if your assembly is comfortable with that. Don’t play any instrumental music, don’t have people moving about. After that, silently invite the assembly to stand by raising your arms in invitation and begin the opening song and procession.