As the collection plates wound their way through the swollen pews of families gathered for First Holy Communion, I asked myself, “Why is everyone around me talking?” Had they missed the cue from Father? What was the increasing buzz about: the homily, where they were going for dinner, the footy score? Were they uncomfortable with the silence or just ignorant of the liturgical norms?
Whatever the reason, it became apparent that if there was a pause for silence, they were happy to steal it. And I wanted it back.
Mass offers a rare moment in the week where I can be still and know my God (Psalm 46:10), even for just a moment in between corralling our little children. We put our phones on silent, sit together as a family, and join in the communal prayers. For just less than an hour, I’m not distracted by messages, notifications, or photos of what my friends are eating at restaurants. I’m not trying to paint a picture of an idealistic holy family, far from it. Naturally I am distracted by our small children, thoughts of work, chores to do, and my own meandering thoughts. That day, my consciousness had already been diverted by the disappointment in the low number of high school students attending our Connect Mass, a Parish and School initiative aiming to encourage active participation in faith beyond the school. Besides the music ministry team (made up of my students), only a small handful of teenagers were wedged in between the chatty families.
Then something special happened. Shortly after we returned to our seats after Communion, one of my students in the choir sang Ave Maria and it was as though a blanket of silence had fallen upon us. An intensely prayerful stillness reverberated through the church. The cynic in me may have second-guessed their pause in talking as simply respecting the talent of the young singer, except that the silence remained well after the song. The music had quietened our souls long enough for God to break through.
Then the LORD said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)
The period of silence that follows the distribution and reception of Holy Communion (as noted in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal #88) is a time for giving thanks to God and asking for the strength to be Christ in our world of family, work, and community in the days ahead (Liturgy Brisbane). How many of our Catholic families know and appreciate this? The gifts of piety and reverence require both an understanding of what is taking place and a relationship with God. How easy it is to expect seasonal Catholics to have such knowledge and look sideways in disapproval or at worst, scold the unchurched congregation or students into silence. Instead of pointing the finger, perhaps we should be asking ourselves how to make the beauty of silence more available, accessible and valued in our busy lives.
As the success and popularity of the mindfulness and meditation movement spreads across Australian schools, can liturgists return to these contemplative Christian practices for inspiration? I experienced one parish where the lights were turned off after Communion to signal a few minutes of contemplation before concluding the Mass and entering back into the world of hustle and bustle. Fr. Dominic Grassi and Joe Paprocki remind us that at the end of Mass we are sent forth to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”; to break the silence and proclaim the good news of Jesus in our words and actions.
Can we endure the wind, earthquake and fire to hear the gentle whisper of God in our lives?
Copyright 2019 Nathan Ahearne