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Sunday, December 11, 2011

A pastoral letter unlike any I have read before.

Today we read the Pastoral Letter of Bishop Hugh, O.S.B.
It was a delight!
I invite you to read it too!

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We live in a noisy world. Our towns and cities are full of noise. There is noise in the skies and on the roads. There is noise in our homes, and even in our churches. And most of all there is noise in our minds and hearts.

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote: ‘The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and I were asked for my advice, I should reply: “Create silence! Bring people to silence!” The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were trumpeted forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore, create silence!’

‘Create silence!’ There’s a challenge here. Surely speaking is a good and healthy thing? Yes indeed. Surely there are bad kinds of silence? Yes again. But still Kierkegaard is on to something.

There is a simple truth at stake. There can be no real relationship with God, there can be no real meeting with God, without silence. Silence prepares for that meeting and silence follows it. An early Christian wrote, ‘To someone who has experienced Christ himself, silence is more precious than anything else.’ For us God has the first word, and our silence opens our hearts to hear him. Only then will our own words really be words, echoes of God’s, and not just more litter on the rubbish dump of noise.

‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.’ So the carol goes. For all the noise, rush and rowdiness of contemporary Christmasses, we all know there is a link between Advent and silence, Christmas and silence. Our cribs are silent places. Who can imagine Mary as a noisy person? In the Gospels, St Joseph never says a word; he simply obeys the words brought him by angels. And when John the Baptist later comes out with words of fire, it is after years of silence in the desert. Add to this the silence of our long northern nights, and the silence that follows the snow. Isn’t all this asking us to still ourselves?

A passage from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom describes the night of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt as a night full of silence. It is used by the liturgy of the night of Jesus’ birth:
‘When a deep silence covered all things and night was in the middle of its course, your all-powerful Word, O Lord, leapt from heaven’s royal throne’ (Wis 18:14-15).
‘Holy night, silent night!’ So we sing. The outward silence of Christmas night invites us to make silence within us. Then the Word can leap into us as well, as a wise man wrote: ‘If deep silence has a hold on what is inside us, then into us too the all-powerful Word will slip quietly from the Father’s throne.’
This is the Word who proceeds from the silence of the Father. He became an infant, and ‘infant’ means literally ‘one who doesn’t speak.’ The child Jesus would have cried - for air and drink and food - but he didn’t speak. ‘Let him who has ears to hear, hear what this loving and mysterious silence of the eternal Word says to us.’ We need to listen to this quietness of Jesus, and allow it to make its home in our minds and hearts.

‘Create silence!’ How much we need this! The world needs places, oases, sanctuaries, of silence.
And here comes a difficult question: what has happened to silence in our churches? Many people ask this. When the late Canon Duncan Stone, as a young priest in the 1940s, visited a parish in the Highlands, he was struck to often find thirty or forty people kneeling there in silent prayer. Now often there is talking up to the very beginning of Mass, and it starts again immediately afterwards. But what is a church for, and why do we go there? We go to meet the Lord and the Lord comes to meet us. ‘The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him!’ said the prophet Habakkuk. Surely the silent sacramental presence of the Lord in the tabernacle should lead us to silence? We need to focus ourselves and put aside distractions before the Mass begins. We want to prepare to hear the word of the Lord in the readings and homily. Surely we need a quiet mind to connect to the great Eucharistic Prayer? And when we receive Holy Communion, surely we want to listen to what the Lord God has to say, ‘the voice that speaks of peace’? Being together in this way can make us one – the Body of Christ - quite as effectively as words.
A wise elderly priest of the diocese said recently, ‘Two people talking stop forty people praying.’
‘Create silence!’ I don’t want to be misunderstood. We all understand about babies. Nor are we meant to come and go from church as cold isolated individuals, uninterested in one another. We want our parishes to be warm and welcoming places. We want to meet and greet and speak with one another. There are arrangements to be made, items of news to be shared, messages to be passed. A good word is above the best gift, says the Bible. But it is a question of where and when. Better in the porch than at the back of the church. Better after the Mass in a hall or a room. There is a time and place for speaking and a time and place for silence. In the church itself, so far as possible, silence should prevail. It should be the norm before and after Mass, and at other times as well. When there is a real need to say something, let it be done as quietly as can be. At the very least, such silence is a courtesy towards those who want to pray. It signals our reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. It respects the longing of the Holy Spirit to prepare us to celebrate the sacred mysteries. And then the Mass, with its words and music and movement and its own moments of silence, will become more real. It will unite us at a deeper level, and those who visit our churches will sense the Holy One amongst us.

‘Create silence!’ It is an imperative. May the Word coming forth from silence find our silence waiting for him like a crib! ‘The devil’, said St Ambrose, ‘loves noise; Christ looks for silence.’

Yours sincerely in Him,

+ Hugh, O. S. B.
Bishop of Aberdeen

7 December 2011.


Jane said...

And just this very morning our little and very young French Abbe stood at the lectern and asked for ten minutes of silence before Mass began. There were still some whisperers but on the whole his request was respected. What a relief.

Deo Gratias

David said...

What bothers me most about the New Mass, I think, is its noisiness. I don't just mean the talking before and immediately after Mass. I mean the noisiness of the Mass itself. The lay lectors with their loud and hyper-inflected readings of Scripture, the choir leader with arms extended wide and mouth extended wider ("Open your Breaking Bread hymnal to page ... !" she incessantly shouts to the congregation), the priest with his noisy Canon, the inane parish announcements blabbed as the deacon cleanses the sacred vessels after Communion (making mental prayer impossible), the hopelessly hokey hymns. Ah, for an oasis of sacred silence!!!

Anonymous said...

My last comment didn't go through I think so I'll try one more time!

Thank you for sharing this, Father. A very perceptive letter; especially relevant in todays world - not only the secular world but also, sadly, in the Church today. I wish all people - Catholic or not - would read this letter and take it's overall point to heart.

The secular world seems to be deathly afraid of silence. All things today are means of escaping interior reflection and silence - the world wants to "save" us from Christ's saving sacrifice and the Gospel. As if the world says, "Any encounter with Christ must be avoided at all costs!" People are afraid of silence and loneliness and so they fill their hearts up with noise to drown out the Royal voice of Christ.

In the Church today one can hardly find a single parish where there is sacred silence anymore. If there isn't noise before Mass there most certainly is noise during Mass - bands, conversations, etc. Sacred silence has been replaced with banalities; the masterstroke of Satan where noise masquerades as 'participation'. If only we would understand that when we are silent at Mass we are participating the most! Only in silence can we be truly present at Calvary. I think this simple truth is reflected in the Tridentine Mass. Apologies for the long comment; but like all good pastoral letters this one made me think!

God Bless Bishop Hugh!

Dorothy B said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. Silence was the norm during my childhood and youth, out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and to help those who wanted to pray.

Then, after Vatican II, we started to have ecumenical services. When it was our turn to host the services it was a shock to hear the noise of cheerful conversation from non-Catholics in the church. I make no criticism at all of those good people; it's just that they did not have that sense of the Real Presence in the church.

But some Catholics must have liked it, because it seemed to catch on as a regular thing in our churches. This is my theory, anyway. How wonderful that your Bishop should have written so kindly and yet so firmly on the matter.

Anonymous said...

Here is a quote from Fr. Ripperberger of the FSSP regarding silence:

"We have already mentioned the silence that is necessary to ascend the heights of prayer. While it is not required for vocal prayer, it is required for mental prayer and the other seven levels of prayer. St. Augustine said that no person can save his soul if he does not pray. Now it is a fact that mental prayer and prayer in general have collapsed among the laity (and the clergy, for that matter) in the past thirty years. It is my own impression that this development actually has to do with the ritual of the Mass. Now in the new rite, everything centers around vocal prayer, and the communal aspects of the prayer are heavily emphasized. This has led people to believe that only those forms of prayer that are vocal and communal have any real value."

I think the last sentence succinctly sums up perhaps what His Lordship Bishop Hugh is getting at here (not surprising considering that he is a Benedictine!).

David said...


While giving due credit to Bishop Hugh, we must admit that it is precisely the inherent noisiness of the New Mass itself that he does not address in his pastoral letter. But that would be expecting too much in today's world, even from a Benedictine.

Anonymous said...


Yes, I realised after I posted that I should have mentioned that the quote from Fr.Ripperberger was in the context of an apologia for the Tridentine Mass; whereas of course Bishop Hughs' letter is not talking at all about the Mass qua Mass as far as I can tell. In any case, to me this is promising; a pastoral letter addressing the value of silence is perhaps a big step in the right direction. It may fall on deaf ears (there must be a pun in there somewhere...) but at least His Lordship is not afraid to tackle the issue of silence in our Sacred spaces.

The Tridentine Mass isn't going to be restored as the normative Mass anytime soon (God willing, it may happen though!) and we're far away from a point where prelates are comfortable with criticizing the new Mass... so I take it to heart when these small gestures are made.

Today, advocating silence.
Tomorrow, Tridentine Mass in all parishes in the Diocese?
If it pleases God; if it is His will, it will happen.

David said...

Tom, I agree that Bishop Hugh's pastoral letter is a positive sign. It shows an openness to the sacred silence that is at the heart of the Ancient Mass.

St. Jude Pray For Me said...

Dear Rev. Fr. Michael Mary, F.SS.R.

In this masterly pastoral letter your Bishop has been able to unite His great humaneness together with a bit of theosophy.

Personally I search silence, I need silence but " Create Silence ! " it is an imperative that will catch many people unprepared.
People fears silence cause they usually equate silence with solitude; people has to be educated to appreciate silence.
Much more, silence is both terrible and marvellous; humbly quoting Kierkegaard - the philosopher already quoted by your Bishop - : " Silence is the demon's trap, and the more one is silenced,
the more terrible the demon; but silence is also the divinity's mutual understanding with the single individual ".

Yours Truly

Michelle Therese said...

My kingdom for a silent mass! Not just "people talking in the church" but me not having to talk during the mass. I feel we babble, babble, babble endlessly, like we are in some kind of play performance. It is even more distracting then the talking before and after mass ~ I can't focus on **the mass itself!** Which is the greatest sorrow.

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