Meditating on moments of silent prayer

Father John A. Kiley

There are times at Mass when the rubrics call for brief periods of silent prayer. The examination of conscience at the beginning of Mass is an obvious occasion briefly to pause and quietly to reflect on any fall from grace. The celebrant’s invitation —“Let us pray”— before offering the community’s intentions to the Father is a similar occasion for silently raising one’s mind and heart to God. Again, after the homily, a pause is encouraged for the community’s better appreciation of God’s particular Scriptural message. The faithful are likewise bid to spend private prayer time with Lord after the reception of the Eucharist.
Some commentators also envision the time during the Presentation and Preparation of Gifts during Mass as an ideal time for the lay congregation to enjoy reflective instrumental music and some personal prayer while the clergy are busy preparing the soon-to-be sacred elements for the holy sacrifice. And of course, there is no reason why a parish community cannot remain after Mass privately to enjoy the Divine Presence in each heart. Just as there is no reason why a worshipper cannot arrive early for Mass to prepare for and anticipate the Divine Presence. The “active participation” demanded by the Second Vatican Council need not only be understood in terms of words and gestures. Interior heartfelt orientation toward the Word proclaimed and the Holy Sacrifice renewed is certainly the most personal and most fruitful form of liturgical involvement. Getting in touch is certainly to be preferred to going through the motions.
Now, of course, during some of this time when personal prayer might be recommended, the congregation is rightly encouraged to sing hymns. The entrance hymn, the presentation/preparation hymn, the Communion hymn and the recessional hymn must not be understood to compete with opportunities for personal prayer. Congregational hymns and private prayers have both served the Catholic community well for centuries. Prudent pastors and sensible liturgical teams must find a worthy balance. In the reading from First Thessalonians at Mass this coming Sunday, St. Paul hints at the assorted activities and emotions that might permeate any worthy liturgical celebration: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good.”
Nonetheless, the official Roman Missal expresses clear references to time for personal prayer. “Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in the different parts of the celebration. For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him. Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to 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 celebration in a devout and fitting manner (paragraph 45).” Silence is again encouraged in paragraphs 51, 54, 56, 66 and 88.
Paragraph 56 is particularly explicit: “The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favor meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided. In the course of it, brief periods of silence are also appropriate, accommodated to the assembled congregation; by means of these, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared. It may be appropriate to observe such periods of silence, for example, before the Liturgy of the Word itself begins, after the First and Second Reading, and lastly at the conclusion of the Homily.”
In his 1970 book, “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, is not keen on periods of silence during the service of the Word. Mass is time for praying not studying. He especially favored preparatory prayers before Mass and thanksgiving prayers after Mass. Fifty years later celebrants, both clergy and laity, are still trying to implement the sane, sage and surely saving directions of Vatican Council II.