The current issue of Commonweal has a very interesting essay by Roger F. Repohl, director of music at Our Lady of Victory Church in the Bronx, about the importance of silence in the liturgy. The rubrics of the Roman Missal list three specific places for silence: at the act of penance, before the orations, and after Communion. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal recommends silences after the readings and homily and during the Prayer of the Faithful. Repohl mentions these and has other suggestions, including that, at the outset of the liturgy, “the priest could orient the assembly by bidding all to quiet their minds and place themselves in the presence of God.” His article is not online, so here is a short excerpt:
Keeping silence is work indeed. It goes against our obsessive need to communicate, socialize, produce, achieve. It is a confrontation with our emptiness, self-deceptions, even self-image – those things we try so hard to hide under blankets of activity and sound. Silence involves a reorientation of the self, a realignment, from doing to receiving. From silence emerges the most natural expression before the divine mystery: awe and speechlessness.
The benefits of silence are numerous. Silence allows the word of God to take root in the heart and to transform it. It makes space for hearing things that would not otherwise be audible. It lets us relax our grip – and allows life to grip us instead. Keeping silent is a most productive way to waste time. As Quakers have been known to say: “Don’t just do something; sit there.”
The old Roman rite, like other ancient liturgies, made no explicit provision for silence. The congregation participated interiorly throughout, witnessing the sacred action performed by the priest and ministers as one would watch a play. The kind of silence called for in the reformed Roman rite is different. Its silences are considered public acts. They demand as much conscious, active participation as the songs and the acclamations do.
The U.S. Catholic bishops’ 2003 Introduction to the Order of Mass states that the purpose of liturgical silence is “to allow the voice of the Holy Spirit to be heard in the hearts of the people of God and to enable them to unite personal prayer more closely with the word of God and the public voice of the church.” Yet achieving a focused, purposive liturgical silence is a significant challenge because it is both alien to modern life and in some ways hindered by the structure of the revised rite itself.
(Regarding the last comment, Repohl notes that the revised rite “has been designed to facilitate community and an atmosphere of fellowship and shared prayer,” which can sometimes detract from stillness.)