A few years ago I was faced with a pull from two sides: I regularly heard from one group of parishioners that they found the noise of chatter before Mass distracting and even damaging to their spiritual growth. Then if I talked about silence, I heard from (or was gossiped about by) other parishioners as making the church “unfriendly.” I know there’s no pleasing everybody, and there’s some truth in both perspectives (except the gossip, which is toxic and sinful). And a few years ago we came up with a plan to give both groups at least something of what they wanted.
Here’s what I asked: Can we agree together that quiet catching up with one another in conversation is acceptable as people gather? (After all, especially for seniors, church may be their only chance to meet face-to-face during the week.) But can we also agree together that, at a certain time before Mass begins – say, five minutes – the church goes quiet so people can prepare in silence to meet Christ in the Gospel and Eucharist? That’s what we’ve been trying, but it’s time for a reminder.
Five minutes before the scheduled time for beginning the Mass, the reader makes an announcement asking for silence to prepare for Mass. At that time, I’d ask that all conversation stop. That means, all. (Ministers who have necessary preparations to make should respect this by moving conversation into the lobby or sacristy, and keeping it as unobtrusive as possible.)
I know that many people find silence “empty” and uncomfortable. Let me say a word about that. First, there’s no denying some part of the discomfort. We meet our deeper selves – our consciences, our fears, our hopes, the Word of God within us – only when we’re silent, and most normal human beings flee from that encounter rather than encourage it. But there’s an unnecessary degree of discomfort because we don’t know anything that can make silence useful for our spiritual growth. So here are a few things to do with that five minutes before Mass:
- Read – or reread – the Scriptures for the Mass that’s about to begin. Listen for the voice of God in what you read; mull over any word or phrase that strikes you.
- Think back over the week just passed: Ask God to uncover for you where you succeeded in being His voice, His hands, toward others over the past week.
- Consider the needs of the church communion – locally and worldwide – and choose some special intention to pray for at the Mass about to begin.
- Think about the suffering of people in the news – in the neighborhood and around the world – and choose to offer your prayer at Mass for some particular way and place in which God’s will needs to be done.
- Ask God to uncover for you some place where you’re blind to His will, or stuck in your own desires, so that you can pray and work on changing that.
- Pay attention to your breathing, as a way of gently putting aside the tensions and worries of the past and future, so that you can be fully attentive to what is about to happen when God comes in His Word and Sacrament.
- Pray that someone unknown to you in the congregation will be helped through a great struggle or moment of crisis by your prayer.
These are too many things to do; choose one, and experiment with how it changes your experience at Mass. In every case, recognize that your seriousness about your spiritual life is bound to have a good effect on the other people you worship with. Just as conversation can distract and keep people from praying, silent attention opens the gates to God’s grace. Make the observing of the five minutes of silence before Mass part of your spiritual discipline – and perhaps add some silence each day during Lent when it starts in just a few weeks. Until next week, peace.