Friday, August 24, 2012


The golden silence, the filled silence, of the Low Mass in the ancient Rite of the Latin Church is the silence that infuses the soul with thoughts of higher thing and also with the thought that we are one moment closer to that final meeting with Him who gave us life.  This silence is a precious thing.  It is nourishment to mind and soul, it directs us to meditate on the mysteries before us.  It is needed.  It is a holy thing.  Only half in jest did one famous Catholic state that the only thing more beautiful than a well-sung High Mass is the quiet silence of the Low Mass.
We hear the sotto voce murmuring of the Priest followed by the soft voices of the altar boys and we watch the precise and graceful movements with fascination and an inner exaltation.  We are participating, in a way far superior to the forced participation of the mundane rite which was bequeathed to the Church in 1970 by men who either hated silence or simply could not understand its effect as a balm to the troubled.  But this sublime participation is being eaten away even in the ancient Rite due to the influence of that updated 1970 liturgy, the influence of which has even crept into celebrations of the Old.  It is being eaten away by noise.
Perhaps understandable, nevertheless those who begin to say the traditional rite after nearly four decades of cacophony in the new forms seem to think it necessary to adorn the Low Mass with some kind of sound.  They have forgotten the value of meditation during Mass.  Not surprising when one knows the type of liturgical shows they have become accustomed to since the 1970s.  Perplexed by all this silence they begin to say the Mass prayers aloud.  They bring in their organist and instruct him to bang away at the keys almost nonstop, though allowing a brief welcome respite during the Elevation.  The Mass I attend here in Milwaukee is cursed with such a situation.  A traditional order of priests has been given custodianship of a local parish and has brought to it beautifully coreographed rubrics and dreadful, deafening nonstop organ music during Low Mass, from before Mass begins to the very end, when the last parishoner rushes out the door.  I would like to say that we suffer in silence but, alas, that is not the case.  But we suffer.  The latest brainwave of this Order is to have what might charitably be called a tenor singing a solo during the Last Gospel.  Yes, during the Last Gospel.  (It strikes me as odd that a religious order, especially one that dedicates itself to bringing back the beauty of the traditional Rites, can be so tone deaf.)  Pleas to the priest have been rebuffed.  Even the fact that the poor tenor has a voice like a strangled chicken has not moved the celebrant to rethink this strategy of having wall-to-wall sound of one kind or another.  The French priest who initiated this rather idiotic idea has since moved on to another parish in another country but his successor has not seen fit to restore a contemplative quiet to his Masses.  I am told it is a French thing to have the organ droning incessantly during Low Mass.  I do not believe it.  I have heard Low Masses in France. 
 A constant organ distracts the faithful, takes them out of the meditative frame of mind, indeed takes them out of the mystery of what is taking place before them.  A silent film can benefit from a thoughtfully composed music score; Low Mass does not need such accompaniment.  There are reasons why there are times when  we must hear nothing at Mass.  A recent position paper by the Una Voce organization explains:
"The silence of the prayers is a dramatic indication of the intimacy of the priestly task: they are addressed to God alone.  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."
All of this goes by the boards when an organ drones on (especially offensive when it is badly-played) or when a priest thinks he must entertain the crowds in some way, even by audible prayer.

A sung High Mass is in another category entirely.  Accompanied by a skilled choir under an artistic conductor a High Mass can be a foretaste of Heaven itself.  Yet it, too, has long stretches of of that beneficial silence.

The Canon of the Mass is decreed by the Church (particularly at Low Mass) to be in total silence.  At High Mass there is some brief overlap allowed between the singing and the begining of the Canon prayers.  In discussing the silence of the Canon during a sung High Mass the Una Voce paper says the following:

"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.'  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.' '

This excellent summary from Una Voce reminds us that the silence of these prayers "is a dramatic indication of the intimacy of the priestly task: they are addressed to God alone."  Indeed.  And those in the pew need a noiseless atmosphere to address their prayers to God alone, but will never be able to if there is to be a constant din in the church.  And if the Canon is there to remind us of the silence of Calvary, broken only by the Last Words, all the more reason to maintain a hushed and beautiful ambiance.  St Robert Bellarmine:

    "Again, when Christ hung upon the cross, as exemplar of all sacrifices, he made his oblation in silence."

Some well-intentioned priestly Orders who are dedicated to the ancient rite have forgotten it seems these kinds of symbolic thoughts.  They have yet to realize that "silence communicates the sacrality and importance of key moments in the liturgy with great force, even to the people of our own day."

These orders needs to understand that we are bombarded with bad music and noise all day, from our stores and places of business, in our television-infested homes, even in our streets as cretins blare their unspeakable and ugly "music" from their cars.  We look for solace in our churches and at our Masses.  And if it be a Low Mass we want only to contemplate, not be entertained.

Our priests need to rediscover the value of silence.


Anonymous said...

What you say about Low Mass is so, so true. We were taught to pray the Mass, following every detail in our St. Joseph Missal. No music, whispered prayers, and the gentle tinkle of sanctus bell. Such a potent and beautiful memory. Thank you.


Fr Yuhanna said...

You have raised an excellent point. Part of my work as a newly ordained priest is to allow the liturgy to shine in its splendour without being overwhelmed by music. In my view, mediocre musicians know the value of music, but good musicians know the value of silence. Without silence, music loses its power.

Aged parent said...

Reverand Father Yuhanna:

Thank you very much for the insightful comment. I am honored that you offered it here.

Aged parent said...


You are most welcome. Thank you for the lovely comment.

Sahrah said...

I have to say also that I prefer the silence of the Low Mass too. Even before the priest ascends to the Altar the silence whisks me away in prayer and I am not back in my pew until I am kneeling for the Sanctus. And afterward I feel deeply quiet and still inside. It feels as though I have just teleported back from another place. And I have.

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