Rorate Caeli

FIUV Position Paper: Silence in the Extraordinary Form

Today I can present the ninth paper in the series of Position Papers produced by FIUV, the Una Voce International Federation, on the subject of silence.

As the paper notes, the silence of much of the traditional liturgy is something which never fails to make an impression on newcomers, and I am sure it is one of the most appreciated features of the Traditional Mass for those familiar with it. Words come to an end; something more important, more profound, takes over.

It is not difficult to find material from the recent Magisterium, and from the works of the present Holy Father, in favour of silence, and a number of them are cited in the paper. It would almost seem that, no sooner had silence been drastically down-played in the 1970 Missal, than its loss was regretted. As so often with these papers, it is the traditional liturgy which fulfills what is demanded in many of these documents. I was particularly struck by the words of Pope Paul VI, writing in 1975 (Evangelii nuntiandi 42):

We are well aware that modern man is sated by talk; he is obviously often tired of listening and, what is worse, impervious to words. We are also aware that many psychologists and sociologists express the view that modern man has passed beyond the civilization of the word, which is now ineffective and useless, and that today he lives in the civilization of the image. These facts should certainly impel us to employ, for the purpose of transmitting the Gospel message, the modern means which this civilization has produced.

What 'modern means' might that be? Perhaps the ancient Mass.

Silent prostration at the beginning of the Liturgy of Good Friday: the FSSP in Reading, England

This paper is available as a pdf here; the full set can be downloaded from here.

Comments can be sent to positio AT

The flow of papers is going to slow over the Summer. I hope that the next paper, on Western culture, will be published in mid August.


Silence and Inaudibility in the Extraordinary Form

   A marked characteristic of the Extraordinary Form is the use of silence, particularly the silent Canon, which contrasts with the practice of the Ordinary Form. It is a natural parallel to celebration ad orientem,[1] which, like it, developed and spread in the early centuries of the Church.[2] The use of silence in the Extraordinary Form is complex, however, and indeed silence is not excluded from the Ordinary Form. Without attempting an exhaustive account of the subject, this paper will limit itself to certain generalisations about the place of silence in the Extraordinary Form.

2   Silent prayer was one of three aspects of the ancient Latin liturgical tradition criticised by the Jansenist Synod of Pistoia of 1786, a criticism itself condemned by Pope Pius VI.[3] It is grouped with ritual complexity and the use of a non-vernacular language, but silence might seem the most profound challenge to the Enlightenment principles which motivated Pistoia. For it would not seem to make the liturgy more immediately comprehensible to the Faithful if it were simplified and translated into the vernacular, if the prayers were still said inaudibly. Although the Faithful, even with a limited liturgical formation, will be familiar with the content of Ordinary prayers said silently,[4] it is clearly necessary to go beyond a functionalist and didactic model, and consider the symbolic significance of silence, in order to understand its role.


        It is worth noting briefly the case of prayers said, not silently, but nevertheless inaudibly. This happens in a Sung Mass, when the singing of the Introit and Kyrie obscures the Preparatory Prayers and those immediately following them, even if they would otherwise be audible. Similarly, the singing of the other Proper and Ordinary chants obscure the priest’s reading of the same texts.

4      The traditional practice creates a very intimate relationship between liturgical music and the liturgy. Pope St Pius X in his Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, Tra le Sollicitudini, explained that singing should not unnecessarily exceed the space created for it by the liturgy.[5] Such spaces would be reduced considerably if the celebrant did not read the texts which the choir is singing, and eliminated altogether if singing were not allowed to obscure other prayers. When singing does exceed this space, Pius X warned,
the liturgy in ecclesiastical functions is made to appear secondary to and in a manner at the service of the music.[6]

5     The principle of inaudible prayer by the celebrant while singing is going on is maintained in the 1970 Missal, with the Offertory, which may indeed be said silently even if there is no singing.

Silent prayers of the priest

6      In another category are those prayers which are in a certain sense personal to the sacred minister saying them, notably when he implores the purification and graces to perform a rite worthily. Examples would include the ‘Munda cor meum’ before the Gospel, the ‘Lavabo’ before the Canon, and the prayers said at the priest’s Communion. Pope Benedict XVI comments:
The silent prayers of the priest invite him to make his task truly personal, so that he may give his whole self to the Lord. They highlight the way in which all of us, each one personally yet together with everyone else, have to approach the Lord. The number of these priestly prayers has been greatly reduced in the liturgical reform, but, thank God, they do exist…[7]

7      The silence of these prayers is a dramatic indication of the intimacy of the priestly task: they are addressed to God alone. As Pope Benedict indicates, this is important to stress both for the priest himself, and for the Faithful who are to associate themselves with him and follow his example of humility before God.

The Silent Canon

8      In a category of its own is the Canon of the Mass. While the Sanctus is sung, at a Sung Mass, during the Canon,[8] the words of Consecration themselves take place during a privileged period of silence, during which nothing may be sung and the organ may not be played. This silence is heightened by the ringing of the bell to signal, first, the approaching Consecration, and then the double Consecrations themselves. Later, if singing is not taking place, the celebrant can be heard to say, in a more elevated voice, ‘Nobis quoque peccatoribus’, the opening words of a prayer for the clergy,[9] which serve to emphasise the priest’s unworthiness, following the moment of his closest identification with Christ. The otherwise complete silence of the Canon gives it a particular sacred atmosphere, and raises it, in importance, above what goes before or comes after it. It recalls the words of the prophet Habbakuk, used in a hymn of the Liturgy of St James with a well-known English translation: ‘the Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silent before him.’[10] Again, the book of Wisdom:
For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction.[11]

.      This part of the Mass naturally reminds us of the High Priest passing into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the mediation of Moses, hidden by the cloud on Mount Sinai, and the silence of Calvary, broken only by the Last Words. The sense of the priest passing out of the ordinary world, into another realm in which to meet God, is strongly underlined in an iconographic way. Such parallels have been noted by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, a tradition summarised by St Robert Bellarmine.[12]

1     As noted above on the priestly prayers, silence indicates that the prayer is addressed to the Father, and not to the congregation, but this time this is not because of the personal nature of the petition, but because of its uniquely sacred nature. The importance of the prayers of the Canon lie in what they bring about on the altar: they are, above all, performative, not informative or didactic. As Blessed John Henry, Cardinal Newman, expressed it:
Words are necessary, but as means, not as ends; they are not mere addresses to the throne of grace, they are instruments of what is far higher, of consecration, of sacrifice.[13]

1    Before his election, Pope Benedict XVI more than once suggested that the Canon be said silently in the Ordinary Form.[14] He comments:
Anyone who has experienced a church united in the silent praying of the Canon will know what a really filled silence is. It is at once a loud and penetrating cry to God and a Spirit-filled act of prayer. Here everyone does pray the Canon together, albeit in a bond with the special task of the priestly ministry. Here everyone is united, laid hold of by Christ, and led by the Holy Spirit into that common prayer to the Father which is the true sacrifice—the love that reconciles and unites God and the world.[15]

The value of silence

1     Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote, in Spiritus et Sponsa (2003), of the importance of silence, in relation to the re-evangelisation of the West.
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.” 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.[16]
As has been discussed in Positio 2,[17] and contrary to the Enlightenment assumptions of Pistoia, the liturgy communicates not only at the verbal level but non-verbally: as Bl. Pope John Paul II expressed, with symbols, of which silence is a powerful example. Silence communicates the sacrality and importance of key moments in the liturgy with great force, even to the people of our own day.[18]

1    Pope Benedict XVI has argued that ‘for silence to be fruitful, …it must not be just a pause in the action of the liturgy.[19] What is needed, as he puts it in the passage quoted in paragraph 10, is a ‘filled silence’: a silence during which there is something specific and appropriate to meditate upon. There is a certain parallel here with the singing which takes place, in accordance with the teaching of St Pius X, not in a pause in the liturgy, but while it continues. The silence of the priestly prayers and the Canon, in the Extraordinary Form, provides this ‘filled silence’ in a way which is both natural and symbolically charged.

[1] See Positio 6: Liturgical Orientation
[2] Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger) ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) p215: ‘It is no accident that in Jerusalem, from a very early time, parts of the Canon were prayed in silence and that in the West the silent Canon—overlaid in part with meditative singing—became the norm.’ Evidence is lacking on whether the Canon was said silently before the 8th Century; a tendency towards saying it in a low voice is implied by the attempt by the Emperor Justinian to outlaw this practice in the year 565 (Novella 137 in the collection edited by Schoell & Kroll in Mommsen’s Corpus Juris Civilis vol. 3 p 699). It seems likely that the Oratio Super Oblata, the ‘Secret Prayer’, has been said silently since its introduction into the Mass in the 5th Century, though this cannot be established definitively. Jungmann notes that the contrast between the words ‘Nobis quoque peccatoribus’, said aloud, and the rest of the Canon, said silently, was noted and discussed in 9th Century, citing Amalarius of Metz (d. c.850) (Joseph Jungmann: The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its origins and development (English edition: New York: Benzinger, 1955) Vol II, p257, footnote 47).
[3] Pope Pius VI, Bull Auctorem Fidei (1794) 33: ‘The proposition of the synod by which it shows itself eager to remove the cause through which, in part, there has been induced a forgetfulness of the principles relating to the order of the liturgy, “by recalling it (the liturgy) to a greater simplicity of rites, by expressing it in the vernacular language, by uttering it in a loud voice”; as if the present order of the liturgy, received and approved by the Church, had emanated in some part from the forgetfulness of the principles by which it should be regulated,— rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, favourable to the charges of heretics against it.’
[4] For many years the Sacred Congregation of Rites forbade translations of the Ordinary of the Mass; this legislation was reiterated as late as 1858. Nevertheless, the meaning of the Canon, and even paraphrases of it, were part of devotional aids to the Mass, which began to appear with the advent of printing, and developed particularly from the 17th Century onwards. See Alcuin Reid ‘The Organic Development of the Liturgy’ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005) footnote 191 on p63. See also ‘The Lay Folks Mass Book, or, the Manner of Hearing Mass: with Rubrics and Devotions for the People, in Four Texts, and Office in English according to the Use of York, from Manuscripts of the Xth to the XVth Century’ by Thomas Frederick Simmons (Early English Text Society, 1879) (available online layfolksmassbook00simmuoft , and print-on-demand from Nabu Public Domain Reprints).
[5] Pope St Pius X, Motu Proprio Tra le Sollicitudini (1903) 22-23: ‘It is not lawful to keep the priest at the altar waiting on account of the chant or the music for a length of time not allowed by the liturgy. According to the ecclesiastical prescriptions the Sanctus of the Mass should be over before the elevation, and therefore the priest must here have regard for the singers. The Gloria and the Credo ought, according to the Gregorian tradition, to be relatively short. In general it must be considered a very grave abuse when the liturgy in ecclesiastical functions is made to appear secondary to and in a manner at the service of the music, for the music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid.’
[6] See the fuller quotation in Note 3 above. The role of sacred music in the Extraordinary Form will be the subject, we hope, of a future Position Paper.
[7] Pope Benedict XVI op. cit. p213. Pope Benedict goes on to list places in the 1970 Missal in which these silent prayers are to be found: at the preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel, the Preparation of the Gifts, and before and after the Priest’s reception of Holy Communion.
[8] Sung to a chant setting, the Sanctus and Benedictus are generally short. Polyphonic settings tend to be longer, and for this reason the Benedictus is postponed until after the Consecration. (Between 1921 and 1958 choirs were directed to divide up the Sanctus and Benedictus in this way with Chant settings also.)
[9] See Jungmann op. cit. pp249-250. He also discusses a possible practical origin of these words being said aloud, and cites allegorical interpretations, and their importance in spreading the practice from Solemn to Low Mass, recorded in the writings of Amalarius, Bernold of Constance, and Durandus (op. cit. pp258-9 and footnote 54).
[10] Habakkuk 2:20: ‘But the Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silent before him.’ (‘Dominus autem in templo sancto suo: sileat a facie eius omnis terra.’) The Cherubic Hymn of the 4th Century Liturgy of St James was translated into English by Gerard Moultrie as ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence.’ Cf. Zephaniah 1:7: ‘Be silent before the face of the Lord God: for the day of the Lord is near, for the Lord hath prepared a victim, he hath sanctified his guests.’ (‘Silete a facie Domini Dei: quia iuxta est dies Domini, quia praeparavit Dominus hostiam sanctificavit vocatos suos.’)
[11] Wisdom 18.14: ‘Cum enim quietum silentium contineret omnia et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet, omnipotens sermo tuus de caelo a regalibus sedibus durus debellator in mediam exterminii terram prosilivit.’
[12] St Robert Bellarmine ‘Controversies’ Book VI, chapter 12. ‘We also have the example of the sacrifice of the Old Law. For in the solemn offering of the incense, it was commanded that only the priest should pass through the veil to sacrifice, praying for himself and for the people. They stood without, waiting, and not only did they not hear the priest, they could not even see him. …Again, when Christ hung upon the cross, as the exemplar of all sacrifices, he made his oblation in silence.’ Quoted in Thomas Crean OP ‘The Mass and the Saints’ (Oxford: Family Publications, 2008) p104; see also note 9 above.
[13] Bl. John Henry, Cardinal Newman (1848) ‘Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert’, Part II, Ch 20.
[14] Pope Benedict XVI op. cit. pp214-216, referring to and reiterating the suggestion he had made in 1978.
[15] Pope Benedict XVI op. cit. pp215-216
[16] Blessed Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Spiritus et Sponsa (2003) The first internal quotation is from the Institutio Generalis Liturgiae Horarum, 202.
[17] Positio 2: Liturgical Piety and Participation
[18] Cf. Paul VI Evangelii nuntiandi 42 ‘Modern man is sated by talk; he is obviously tired of listening, and what is worse, impervious to words.’ (‘Qui sunt hodie homines, eos novimus, orationibus iam saturatos, saepe saepius audiendi fastidientes atque - quod peius est - contra verba obdurescentes videri.’)
[19] Pope Benedict XVI op. cit. p209


  1. Blessed silence, your absence is by me most bitterly lamented in the noisy novus ordo!

  2. Gratias5:35 AM

    We have an Augustinian priest in our Diocesan Latin Mass that has a full voice and reads the Last Gospel out loud. I think it is a great improvement over our other priests. In addition all communicants now say the Dominum non sum dignus three times out loud. This is plenty participatio activa for us. Thanks to Summorum Pontificum we now have several priests offering the Extraordinary Mass.

    Holy Father, thank you for Summorum Pontificum!

  3. Such silence is apt for cultivating a more fruitful inner participation of the kind encouraged by Pope St Pius X and St Pio da Pietrelcina.

  4. veritasmariae4:50 PM

    The two things that initially drew me into the Traditional Mass when I first braved it a few years ago were kneeling to receive Holy Communion, and the silence. Strangely enough, for the first time in my life, I realized that Mass is a prayer... the most profound prayer that we can partake in on this side of eternity, to be sure. And that in order to participate in this type of prayer, it is absolutely essential to foster an interior life. If you are to get anything out of the Traditional Mass, you can't hide behind droning words in an awkward dialogue with the priest. You must put forth effort to truly lift your heart to the Lord and to be with Him on Calvary! Truly "actively participating" at the Traditional Mass is certainly not for the faint of heart.

  5. I've found a way to attend and offer the ordinary form of the Mass well, but it is a strain. The traditional Mass actually allows more freedom of approach precisely because it isn't trying to keep me busy. Depending on my disposition on any given morning, I can attentively follow along in my Missal, interiorly repeating with myself every word and action at the altar. Other times - perhaps the traffic was hectic, perhaps the week's work overwhelming - I can put my Missal down and just soak in the peaceful rhythms of the Mass.

    Neither of these approaches are possible with the new Mass, which (at its best, mind you) forces a flat, uniform form of participation upon me. On the one hand, it doesn't have the complexity or mystery to allow me the challenge of following along in my Missal, striving to interiorize the prayers and actions of the Mass. On the other hand, it doesn't allow me to just remain quiet and wash myself clean, sipping from the stream of grace. The new Mass feels to me like a kind of unpleasant march. It is an unpleasant march that can be put to good use when done at it's comparative best and when participants bring Catholic attitudes, but it remains (in my opinion) an unpleasant march.

    The liturgical reformer Bernard Botte named his autobiographical brag "From Silence to Participation." A more accurate title would have been: "From Silence to Noise."

  6. schmenz7:55 PM

    I sincerely wish he Institute of Christ the King would ponder these lovely thoughts on silence. Having attended numerous Institute masses (which are beautifully said) I do find that they have a weakness for constant, non-stop organ playing which is extremely grating. Their low Masses are especially irksome, in that the organ literally does not stop at all, except for the sermon and the few moments of the Consecration.

    Why they do this is beyond me, and I do wish they wouldn't.


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