Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Discovering the Lord in the Silence of the Liturgy

By Veronica A. Arntz

Reflections on Cardinal Robert Sarah’s Interview

Yet again, Cardinal Robert Sarah has blessed the faithful with another interview, available in English from Catholic World Report, about the beauty, sacrality, and perennial importance of the sacred liturgy. The faithful would do wise to listen carefully to what Sarah has said concerning the liturgy, for it cannot be emphasized enough that we must change our current liturgical praxis, putting properly celebrated liturgy back into the center of our Christian life, if we wish to see any other mission within the Church succeed.

As a Church, we talk about the New Evangelization, social justice endeavors, and attempts at peace—but these initiatives never seem to get very far. While all of these activities depend solely on God’s grace, it is safe to say that the sacred liturgy is necessary to receive God’s grace, which will assist us in bringing the Gospel to others. Thus, above all else, we should be attentive to Cardinal Sarah’s words—as they are an echo of our previous pontiff, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s own thought on the liturgy—so that we can reflect on our own experience of the liturgy and the way that we celebrate it today. Specifically, I would like to highlight three key points from Cardinal Sarah’s interview: the centrality of Christ, the importance of silence, and the role of the faithful in the liturgy.

Cardinal Sarah says, “It is time to rediscover the true order of priorities. It is time to put God back at the center of our concerns, at the center of our actions and of our life: The only place that He should occupy.” While he does not specifically mention liturgy here, we know that liturgy, as the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, is the definitive act placing God at the center of everything.

The liturgy is meant to draw us into deeper union with God through an intimate encounter with Him. In the liturgy, we are caught up into the heavenly realms and experience—for such a brief moment—the heavenly liturgy while we are still here on earth. We sing the song of the angels—“Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus”—when we participate in the sacred liturgy. This is why liturgy cannot be about man, and in a particular way, it cannot be about the specific priest celebrating the liturgy. Cardinal Sarah has repeatedly talked about celebrating liturgy ad orientem, to the East, for celebrating liturgy with such an orientation is about more than “the priest turning his back on the people.”

The deeper reality of ad orientem worship is that the faithful are praying along with the priest, who acts in persona Christi, and offering the Divine Victim along with Him (see Lumen Gentium, art. 11). Sometimes in our modern liturgical praxis, we focus too much on the personality of the priest or too much on the people in the community. Such an overemphasis removes God from the center of the liturgy, when all the focus should ultimately about Him, since liturgy is the way by which we glorify God—above all, it is not meant to be a glorification of ourselves.

For this reason, Cardinal Sarah continues: “Let us not fool ourselves … What the Church needs most today is not an administrative reform, another pastoral program, a structural change. The program already exists: it is the one we have always had, drawn from the Gospel and from living Tradition.” Cardinal Sarah is talking about the sacred liturgy as the “program” already within the Church. The Church does not need to focus on finding a “new” way of presenting the Gospel or catechizing the faithful. Rather, we must turn back to a full and proper celebration of the sacred liturgy, which has been handed down to us by Tradition. (NB: I am not advocating for the liturgy as a means of evangelization for the un-catechized).

The sacred liturgy, which properly belongs to the Bride of Christ, the Universal Church, has always been the central way for the faithful to encounter God. The people do not need a new program nor does the Church need to change its structure—rather, what the people need is liturgy that is focused entirely on God, not on man. This problem of focusing the liturgy on the people rather than on God has been a constant problem since the time of the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Sarah desires us to see that our Catholic liturgy, which is so rich in tradition and beauty if we would only pause long enough to see it, ought to be focused on God once again (as it always should have been), so that the people can come to know Him most deeply and more interiorly.
The second point in Cardinal Sarah’s interview that we shall investigate is his emphasis on silence, and this is his main point in the interview. Of silence, he says, “God is silence, and this divine silence dwells within a human being … I am not afraid to state that to be a child of God is to be a child of silence.” It is indeed a profound mystery when Cardinal Sarah says that God is silence. Perhaps we can understand this best in comparison to what he says about the devil. He says, “God is silence, and the devil is noisy. From the beginning, Satan has sought to mask his lies beneath a deceptive, resonant agitation.” The devil is continually attempting to distract us from God, trying to keep us from awaiting the Bridegroom, as in the Parable of the Ten Virgins (see Matthew 25:1-13).

While God patiently waits for us to return to him, the devil is constantly trying to drive us away from the Lord’s call. The devil fills our minds, especially our imaginations, with temptations, images, and noise so that we do not make room for God and forget about his constant presence within us. Cardinal Sarah writes that our “busy, ultra-technological age has made us even sicker.” The devil can very easily use technology for his own purposes, for he can use it as a constant distraction from God’s presence. If we are constantly checking our e-mail or social media websites because we have the ability on our phones, are we thinking about God? Do we think about God when we have those spare moments, or do we turn to our technology? All of us need to ask ourselves those questions honestly.

In a particular way, we can experience, enter into, and learn silence through participation in the sacred liturgy—provided that liturgy is not focused on man himself but on God. In the sacred liturgy, we encounter the majesty of God, and such an encounter demands silence, for we are nothing in comparison to the greatness of God. We have nothing to say that could add to his greatness. As Cardinal Sarah says:

To refuse this silence filled with confident awe and adoration is to refuse God the freedom to capture us by His love and His presence. Sacred silence is therefore the place where we can encounter God, because we come to Him with the proper attitude of a human being who trembles and stands at a distance while hoping confidently.

As such, we ought to give God the silence that is his due—in the silence of the liturgy, God is free to work in our hearts to bring about his will in us and his will for the universal Church. This truly is an awesome and mysterious encounter: How can a Divine Being, Omnipotent, All-Perfect, desire to work in our lives, we who are miserable, sinful, mortal creatures? The sacred liturgy, Cardinal Sarah goes on to say, is the proper place for us to encounter God in silence. How many of us experience a liturgy that is filled with silence and provides an atmosphere in which we can truly encounter God? Chances are that this is not the usual experience at most parishes.
Cardinal Sarah says the following, which is of great significance if we wish to understand liturgy properly celebrated: “Silence teaches us a major rule of the spiritual life: Familiarity does not foster intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion. It is by way of adoration that humanity walks toward love.” The liturgy, therefore, cannot become merely about familiarity, nor can it become about understanding every action and every word. The liturgy cannot become simple to the point of banality: In our modern age, we are almost afraid of encountering the mysterious power of God in silence. We are thus tempted to shape the liturgy so that it looks like everything else we do.

The music comes from familiar tunes (and sometimes uses the same instruments of popular music, such as the guitar or, outrageously, the drums), the words are just like our common speech, and the priest acts just like us. There is no “proper distance” between ourselves and the sacred liturgy—the liturgy becomes just like us, and in such a way, we can no longer be transformed by it. As Cardinal Sarah continues, “Under the pretext of pedagogy, some priests indulge in endless commentaries that are flat-footed and mundane. Are these pastors afraid that silence in the presence of the Most High might disconcert the faithful?” Indeed, we should be disconcerted by the silence—we should feel that there is something deeper, something more profound than ourselves in the liturgy.

In the silence of the liturgy, we are meant to be drawn out of ourselves to God—it is to be an intimate encounter, for we encounter the God who took on human flesh in the unfamiliarity of the sacred liturgy. Cardinal Sarah significantly says: “Often we leave our noisy, superficial liturgies without having encountered in them God and the interior peace that He wants to offer us.”
This leads us into the third and final point that I would like to emphasize from Cardinal Sarah’s interview: How are the faithful meant to approach and participate in the liturgy? Here, Cardinal Sarah returns to the concept of liturgy celebrated ad orientem, which includes more than just a physical orientation, but also an internal orientation. Drawing from what he just said about silence, “As long as we approach the liturgy with a noisy heart, it will have a superficial, human appearance. Liturgical silence is a radical and essential disposition; it is a conversion of heart. Now, to be converted, etymologically, is to turn back, to turn toward God.” 

Thus, of the faithful, the liturgy demands conversion, which means turning back to the Lord. Conversion through the liturgy means forgetting the distractions of this world—completely forgetting them, so that we no longer have a divided heart—and giving everything to the Lord. This will require a conversion within our own liturgical practices. Liturgies, as we have already explained, should not be marked by noise and distractions—these liturgies will only hinder our true conversion to God. As Cardinal Sarah profoundly says, “There is no true silence in the liturgy if we are not—with all our heart—turned toward the Lord.”

Thus, the conversion, in our modern day, must be twofold The faithful must have an interior orientation toward the Lord and the complete desire to give everything to im. At the same time, our liturgical celebrations need to enable the people to do that—the liturgies themselves cannot be full of oddities and distractions that are in contradiction to the rich liturgical heritage of the Church. It seems then, according to Cardinal Sarah, that this two-fold conversion is the way that we will place God back at the center of our lives and our liturgies.
Specifically, Sarah says that our external orientation influences our interior orientation. This is why physically turning ad orientem is essential for regaining an attitude of silence and wonder in the sacred liturgy. As Sarah explains, “Facing the Lord, he [the priest] is less tempted to become a professor who gives a lecture during the whole Mass, reducing the altar to a podium centered no longer on the cross but on the microphone!” How true this is—so often the priest, when he is facing the people, enters into a long dialogue with the people in the midst of the prayers of the Mass. Rather than adhering to the prayers that would enable an atmosphere of silence, he feels the need to fill that silence. When the priest is no longer facing the people, but rather praying with them, then it is possible for there to be silence and for the faithful to enter into that silence.
In many parishes, we are unfortunately very far from this liturgical reality of an attitude of silence and orientation toward the Lord, which is why it is so important for us to pay attention to what Cardinal Sarah is saying. The faithful should not be afraid of advocating for liturgy properly celebrated within their parishes, for such a liturgy is not only what is fitting for the Church, but it is also necessary if we wish to see a return to reverence for and focus on God. If we wish to quell the spirit of noise within our society, we, as a Church, ought to embrace fully the proper celebration of liturgy, one that truly orients man to the divine, turning him away from himself and his own thoughts. 

As Cardinal Sarah has reminded us yet again in this beautiful interview, the sacred liturgy, when celebrated with its orientation to God, is the appropriate place for encountering him in silence. Our society, which is continuously flirting with noise and distraction, is in desperate need of a liturgy that is totally other, a liturgy that is pregnant with silence and focused entirely on God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. We would do well to follow the words of Cardinal Sarah in our liturgical praxis.