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The Superiority of Silence

Proponents of the restoration of liturgical sanity speak much about sacred music, and no wonder, given the power of music to transport us heavenward into the mysteries of God — or to stifle our prayer with paltry imitations of secular tunes. But we are no less committed to silence, music’s necessary counterpart and prayer’s inseparable companion. As Saint Faustina Kowalska says in her autobiography: “In order to hear the voice of God, one has to have silence in one’s soul and to keep silence. … Silence is so powerful a language that it reaches the throne of the living God. Silence is His language, though secret, yet living and powerful” [i].

Her statement prompts us to consider the silence we ought to have during Holy Mass. The relative proportions of speech, song, and silence are determined by the rubrics of the traditional Latin Mass, but a wide latitude still remains in the determination of the ratio of silence and music. In the Mass of Paul VI, this latitude becomes nearly all-encompassing, as there are few fixed standards by which the proportions are dictated. In spite of this amorphousness, many Catholics still have a fairly good sense of when there is too little silence for recollection.

To the action of the liturgy we bring ourselves, our voices, our words and songs — but there comes a time when we must yield to a mystery greater than anything we can think, feel, speak, or sing. In the process of making bread, we actively mix together a number of ingredients, but then we have to let the dough sit for a while and patiently await the work of the yeast. It is not enough to know in a merely conceptual way that all of our efforts are inadequate and that the living God is encountered in the still, small voice. Everyone agrees with that in theory, it seems, but too often in practice, liturgy is conducted as if silence were an optional, incidental affair, something to be pursued in private by individuals who feel so inclined but not a distinguishing feature of Catholic worship.

In the liturgies of the Christian East, wave upon wave of singing mounts to heaven, and silence is rare. The liturgies of the Christian West, in contrast, developed in ways that brought in substantial spans of silence interspersed between chanted or recited texts. Without denigrating the value of Eastern practice, Roman Catholics should regard their own approach as no less dignum et iustum [ii]. The mystical abandonment of resting in God alone — of moving from our activity, however beautiful it may be, into His action, invisible and inaudible — is an inseparable element of liturgical action, and one we neglect at the peril of curtailing the natural momentum and trajectory of that action. Spans of silence in the setting of public worship point to a realm entirely beyond what we ourselves are doing or contributing and prompt an experiential knowledge of it.

Within the Western context, if there is no moment in the liturgy when we are not doing, but simply being, when we are not acting, but resting in God’s presence — above all, after the reception of Holy Communion — then we risk importing a subtle Pelagianism into our worship, as if it is primarily something we initiate, sustain, and complete. A community living out its dependence on divine grace will be one in which the liturgy is enveloped in silence before Mass and after Mass [iii], and one in which silence during Mass is not a bane to be driven away by any and all means. Here I have to express my chagrin about music directors who feel they must fill up every single moment of time during the liturgy with chant, polyphony, or organ music, lest — God forbid! — there be a few moments of quiet, when each worshiper is left to himself, in prayerful recollection. Acting thus is to overdo a good thing, like a person who eats chocolate all the time because it’s so delicious and has forgotten about the role of water or, for that matter, fasting.

Silence seems to come naturally with the classical Roman Rite or “Extraordinary Form,” because it contains more (and more elaborate) gestures and much for the priest to do on his own, which leaves pools of quiet here and there in which the faithful find precious opportunities to intensify their own prayers as the liturgy progresses. Above all, the silence that falls during the Roman Canon cordons off the holiest portion of the liturgy, erecting a virtual iconostasis, powerfully signaling that something awesome, ineffable, divine, and miraculous is taking place, and calling all to utmost attention in response to it. No amount of speech or music could ever do the same with remotely comparable success [iv].

The Mass of Paul VI is also supposed to leave room for silence, as its governing document, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, spells out:

Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its purpose, however, depends on the time it occurs in each part of the celebration. Thus within the Act of Penitence and again after the invitation to pray, all recollect themselves; but at the conclusion of a reading or the homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise and pray to God in their hearts. Even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence 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. [v]

Having cited this passage, Fr. Edward McNamara says:

To this we would add that silence should also be observed after Mass until one is outside the Church building, both for respect toward the Blessed Sacrament, and toward those members of the faithful who wish to prolong their thanksgiving after Mass. [vi]

Would that this simple support of Eucharistic piety, churchly decorum, and respect for others could be patiently explained and encouraged far and wide by the clergy [vii]! Across the United States, congregations burst into chatter the moment the priest exits the church. For all the problems there may have been in the 1950s, this sort of behavior was not conceivable.

Similarly, for the priest to take some minutes to recollect himself before Mass, especially by praying the traditional vesting prayers (which used to be required and which are now being rediscovered by a new generation), seems only sensible in view of the great mystery about to be re-enacted and the importance of a reverent and recollected frame of mind if he is to obtain as many and as great graces from the celebration as he can, and lead the people into the same green pastures.

The “New Evangelization” will not succeed, it cannot get off the ground, unless we recover a strong sense of the sacred and refocus on the sublime mystery of the Holy Eucharist present on every altar of sacrifice and in every tabernacle, where God deigns to dwell with men. Otherwise, we will spend our days making and hearing empty talk, missing the silence in which the mystery of God impresses itself on our souls. In 2003, Pope John Paul II reminded the Church:

One aspect that we must foster in our communities with greater commitment is the experience of silence. We need silence “if we are to accept in our hearts the full resonance of the voice of the Holy Spirit and to unite our personal prayer more closely to the Word of God and the public voice of the Church” (Institutio Generalis Liturgiae Horarum). In a society that lives at an increasingly frenetic pace, often deafened by noise and confused by the ephemeral, it is vital to rediscover the value of silence. The spread, also outside Christian worship, of practices of meditation that give priority to recollection is not accidental. Why not start with pedagogical daring a specific education in silence within the coordinates of personal Christian experience? Let us keep before our eyes the example of Jesus, who “rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mk 1:35). The Liturgy, with its different moments and symbols, cannot ignore silence. [viii]

These words remind me of the poignant lines in T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday:

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.

Three things are packed into that last verse: no time to rejoice — for those who walk among noise — and deny the voice. An essential condition for man to be sane and rational and joyful is that he must, at times, let go of his everyday concerns, the whirling wheels of his calculating and planning, the burdens and cares of this life, and enter into the presence of the eternal and infinite God whom he cannot grasp, cannot dictate to, cannot manipulate, but only adore and love.

It is a paradox: we will not find time for rejoicing unless we sacrifice time to “do nothing,” to make a burnt offering of our life and our time before the Lord, in a silence without props, without scripts or safe paths or social support. Only by making a choice for inactivity, as it were, will we habituate ourselves to stop walking among noise and stop denying the voice. Perhaps this is why the prophet Isaiah says: Cultus iustitiae silentium — the worship of justice is silence (Is. 32:17 in the Vulgate), as if to say, we owe everything to God, in whom we live and move and have our being, and it is justice to worship Him in the silence of our hearts, in recollection.

Gabriel Marcel, a perceptive philosopher of the interior life, had this to say about the relationship between recollection and mystery:

Not only am I in a position to impose silence upon the strident voices which usually fill my consciousness, but also, this silence has a positive quality. Within the silence, I can regain possession of myself. It is in itself a principle of recovery. I should be tempted to say that recollection and mystery are correlatives. [ix]

Is this not another way of saying: “He who loses his life for my sake will find it”? We lose possession of what is more exterior to us and gain possession of the innermost reality — God closer to me than I am to myself, yet higher than the highest in me. If the conditions for recollection are never present in our lives, if we do not fight to create and guard such conditions, we will lose our awareness of divine mystery, which ought to refresh us like springtime rains, and wander aimlessly in a wilderness of superficiality.

Now, if a modern-day liturgist were reading along, he would be ready to explode by this time: “The way you describe silence in the liturgy … it’s opposed to the people’s active participation! That’s what matters above all.”

That may have been Vatican II’s perspective, but it was not St. Pius X’s, nor that of the Catholic tradition he transmitted. Yet even if, for the sake of argument, we went ahead and assumed our liturgist’s viewpoint, it would not undermine the case made in this article, for one simple reason: the fundamental precondition for active participation is interior silence.

As Fr. McNamara explains, a spirit of recollection:

… does not impede, and indeed favors, full and active participation … for each person is more fully aware of what he or she is doing. Our modern world is starved of silence and Holy Mass should be a privileged moment to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life and, through worship and participation in Christ’s eternal sacrifice, become capable of giving an eternal value to these same daily and transitory activities. To help achieve this, 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. [x]

Remaining in silence before God is, in fact, 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. 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.

The authoritative expression of this point is made by John Paul II in a 1998 Ad Limina address to the bishops of the northwestern United States:

Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song, and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be countercultural. [xi]

Silence and appropriate sacred music convey to our minds the awareness of a transformative mystery, a mystery that is both frightful and alluring, by which we can come to grips with sin and death and pass beyond them into love and life. The Mass is nothing less than the making present in our midst of the supreme sacrifice of Calvary; this is the reason why Catholic worship pivots on the Crucifix. The life-giving death of God is put before us; this is reason enough for silent awe. As Joseph Ratzinger said back in 1968: “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” [xii].

The Counter-Reformation liturgical aesthetic underlined the essence of the Mass as the sacrifice of the Cross by aligning the chasuble’s cross-like pattern, the altar of immolation, the tabernacle shrine, and the crucifix in a visually escalating series that reinforced the centrality of the consecration and elevation — as also do the ad orientem stance and the silence in which the Canon is enveloped. All of these elements worked marvelously together to concentrate the worshiper’s senses, thoughts, and desires on that which is essential and central. They work no less marvelously today, and will do so for all time.

* * *

Monsignor Guido Marini, who somehow manages to carry on as papal master of ceremonies under Pope Francis, in his sunnier years as the M.C. for Benedict XVI compellingly summarized that pope’s views on silence:

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. [xiii]

For Ratzinger, music and silence are interdependent correlatives. 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.

For this reason, if a particular 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,” which the Second Vatican Council called “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art,” and which the same council instructed us to “preserve and foster with great care” [xiv]. 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. 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.


Author’s note: The title of this article refers to the superiority of silence over talk, verbiage, and musical noodling — not to its superiority over chanted prayer. I always defend the normativity and preferability of the sung Mass, without denigrating the great value of the Low Mass: see here. Even in a sung Mass, however, there can and should be moments of silence in which deep recollection is possible, so that the singing and ceremonial will bear the most fruit in souls.

An earlier version of this article was published in Sacred Music 141.1 (2014): 47–52. It has been rewritten for OnePeterFive in order to bring out more clearly the superiority of the traditional Latin Mass in regard to silence, as well as the need to overcome bad customs in the TLM world, some of them carryovers from the 1950s.


[i] Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2003), §118; §888.

[ii] See my article “Let Latins Be Latins, and Greeks Greeks: On Remaining Faithful to Distinctive Identities.

[iii] With these words, I refer to the general atmosphere before and after Mass; I do not mean to exclude the playing of a tasteful organ prelude or a thundering organ postlude, as such music is fitting for the time right before and right after the Mass. It would take a separate article to consider the pros and cons — mostly cons, in my opinion — of public recitation of the rosary before Mass. I say this as one who loves the rosary and prays it daily at home.

[iv] I defend the silent Canon in a number of places; see, e.g., here and here.

[v] General Instruction §45. It has been recognized by many that silences in the new rite, because they are “staged” and usually at the discretion of the celebrant, come across as artificial and awkward; usually nothing else is going on, so they seem empty or static moments rather than filled with ritual action or restful contemplation. It is easier to get impatient in these clerically controlled silences and to wonder when the next “module” will get started.

[vi] From

[vii] See this article for further discussion.

[viii] Apostolic Letter Spiritus et Sponsa (4 December 2003), §13.

[ix] Being and Having: An Existentialist Diary, trans. Katherine Farrer (New York: Harper, 1961), 113.

[x] Accessed at, August 5, 2013.

[xi] Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Alaska (9 October 1998), §3 and §4. That last point deserves to be underlined twenty years later as we witness the sheer madness of the Amazon Synod’s false notion of inculturation.

[xii] From his work Das neue Volk Gottes, quoted in Co-workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 167.

[xiii] Liturgical Reflections of a Papal Master of Ceremonies, trans. Nicholas L. Gregoris (Pine Beach, NJ: Newman House Press, 2011).

[xiv] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (4 December 1963), §112, §114.

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