I want you to picture the scene in your minds. It’s Passover. Jesus has gathered his disciples to share in the Last Supper. Before His passion, He will give us the greatest sacrament we can ever have. His words will give hope and salvation to all souls until He comes again. The Apostles sit in silence and listen to his words intently but from the end of the table, there’s whispering going on.
“Hey Matthew, can you pass the salt?”
“I don’t have it Thaddeus”
“Oh okay, must be down by Peter, I’ll wait I guess”
“I have some egg left”
“Nah, I can’t eat eggs, they just give me indigestion. Ask Philip for some of that matzah would you?”
Now before you accuse me of being disrespectful, just hear me out. I know this absolutely did not happen at the Last Supper. The Apostles were as fallible as you or I but they knew that they were in the presence of Jesus and that what He was saying was so important, so vital and so remarkable that they sat in silence and listened intently. We know from the Gospels that the Apostles often had a lot to say for themselves – but we also know that they respected the Lord and when He spoke? They kept their peace and listened. And it’s time that some of us learned to do the same.
At yesterday evening’s Mass, I arrived a little early and took my place as usual. I like to have the chance to spend some time with Jesus before the Mass begins and whilst there’s always a little chatter and heavy footfall as people take their seats, I usually find it easy to zone the noise out and just focus on why I’m there – to see Jesus. Before I enter the church, I like to visualise a little suitcase full of all the daily irritations and annoyances and I leave it in the repository. I don’t want to take all those distractions into the church with me. Within a few minutes of taking my seat last night, two ladies arrived and took the pew in front. They began a hushed conversation but it wasn’t loud enough to be disruptive. The bell rang, we all stood up and the Mass began. But the conversation in front didn’t stop. They joined in the appropriate responses, they stood when we stood, they kneeled when we kneeled – but the conversation just didn’t stop. Finally we had a breakthrough. During the Homily? Perfect silence. Okay, it was accompanied by lots of frustrated glances and even the occasional rolling of the eyes but for the duration of the Homily, not a word was exchanged between the two women. And then….you guessed it. It started up again with a vengeance. All through the consecration of the host, in the line up to the altar, on the way back to the pew, throughout the hymn….it just didn’t stop.
Now I get it. Church has a social side to it and it absolutely should. We’re called to build a community in Christ, to help and support our brothers and sisters. We’re also called to tolerance. Sometimes little children are noisy and don’t quite understand what’s going on and that’s fine. It’s hard for parents and not all churches have the same resources to help little ones learn about the Mass in a way that helps them participate as best they can given their age. But children learn from example and what example is being set by those who seem to treat the church as a community centre or a pub rather than the house of the Lord? As a place for socialising rather than praising? For all the two ladies said to each other, there was only one thing they were saying to Jesus: “We know you’re here Lord but you’ll have to wait because this is more important”. Which is just tragic.
In his book The Power of Silence, Cardinal Robert Sarah has the following to say on the importance of quiet reflection:
How could it be possible to discover oneself in the midst of noise? A person’s clear sightedness and lucidity about himself can mature only in solitude and silence. A silent man is all the more apt to listen and to stand in the presence of God. The silent man finds God within himself. For any prayer and any interior life, we need silence, a hidden discreet life that prompts us not to think about ourselves. Silence, in important moments of life, becomes a vital necessity. But we do not seek silence for its own sake, as though it were our goal. We seek silence because we seek God. And we will find it if we are silent in the very depths of our heart.
Whilst His Eminence is focused on silent prayer in this excerpt, what he says is relatable to the way we behave during the Mass. From the moment the bell rings to the time we receive the blessing during the dismissal, we are in the presence of God and if we can’t give just one hour to Him free of all other distractions, just once a week, then why are we attending Mass in the first place? It isn’t just that we ourselves fall short of the respect due to Him and thereby lose out on the majesty and the gifts contained within the Mass but we also rob others of that same opportunity which is not in our power to deny. To ignore, to snub or to disregard Christ at any time during the Mass is to deny the real presence that is so integral to our faith and the same applies to those who disappear as soon as they’ve received communion or those who refuse to join in responses because they’re busy reading or chatting. When we go to Mass, we should go with a full heart and a clear mind. And yes it can be hard, yes it can be a struggle. But the reason we go to Mass is to be healed, to be directed and to be saved. We cannot do so if we’re concerned with temporal things and don’t take in the solemnity of what’s happening before us.
This week, Pope Francis gave a fatherly slap on the wrist to the faithful. “It makes me very sad when I celebrate Mass in the Square or in St. Peter’s Basilica and I see so many phones in the air”, His Holiness said, “Lift up your hearts, don’t lift up your cellphones to take a photo!”. His remarks were not just aimed at Catholic tourists either. “It’s not only the faithful, but also many priests and bishops”, the Pope chided, “Please! Mass is not a show!” – Amen to that! I can’t know or judge the content of anyone else’s heart. I don’t know their intentions or their trials and in no way am I suggesting that we must form rows of little automatons whilst at church. But the one thing I fear some Catholics forget is that Mass isn’t just about responses and hymns. It isn’t archaic ritual or a lecture in morality from a priest. It’s about being in the awesome presence of Jesus; body, blood, soul and divinity. Let’s learn from the Apostles and when we’re in that presence, let’s respect it. Let’s wonder at it. But mostly importantly, let’s thank God for it.
N.B: The Power of Silence (Against the Dictatorship of Noise) by Cardinal Robert Sarah is published by Ignatius Press and can be purchased by clicking here.