By Fr. Eugene Song
The deeply religious atmosphere of catholic liturgy often characterised by silence, reverence and solemnity seems to be fading away in some churches in the western world where chatty Christians commonly engage with impunity in lousy and noisy conversations before, during and after Holy Mass.
Regrettably, the western society in which we live and minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the church is notoriously unfriendly to silence. Life in the western world is too hectic, too restless and too noisy to foster silence and meditation.
Silence is a difficult discipline in this culture where noise is everywhere in the media, on the streets, in the restaurants, in the shopping malls, in homes and amazingly in churches where Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament. Some people hardly ever distinguish a sacred space like a church from a beer parlour or a coffee shop. Consequently, they extend their camaraderie into the church just to distract and perturb the decorum of liturgical celebration.
As a minister in the west, one witnesses various forms of distractions from unsolicited giggling and laughing, zipping and unzipping of food bags, crinkling sweet wrappers, toys dropping, electronic games beeping and choruses of wailing babies and fussy toddlers with parents demonstrating disgusting indifferentism during a Eucharistic celebration. Some parents nonchalantly watch their kids climbing up and down the pews, playing noisily with toys and even stepping on the sanctuary to distract the priest consumed in the serenity of the mystery being celebrated.
In addition, the minister gets distracted grappling with occasional churchgoers who have no clue to the responses and the appropriate moments to stand, sit or kneel at Mass. At such celebrations the priest finds himself saying: "The Lord be with you" and responding by himself: "And with your spirit". He incessantly has to remind the people when to stand, sit or kneel. This category of Christians attend Mass only on special family occasions like Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Wedding, Funeral or Memorial masses and will not use the available Mass cards to participate actively in the celebration. Also, their non-catholic family friends who attend such masses disregard friendly reminders that "Holy Communion is only for Catholics in a state of grace" and dare to come forward to receive the sacrament. One easily identifies them by their response to "The Body of Christ."Response: "Thank you."
Moreover, there are alarming distractions from the abusive use of cell phones, iPods and other wireless gadgets at liturgical celebrations. Despite reminders to turn off cell phones, some Faithful, stubbornly resist and afford to have their phones ring at Mass especially during serene moments like the readings/homily and Consecration. The case with teenagers is even sickening as they listen to music, send text messages and play video games in the heart of Mass.
Also, the phenomenon of inappropriate dressing at Mass remains a major distraction in our churches. Despite repeated sermons on dressing etiquette, many young girls still neglect austere dress codes and traditions and appear in church provocatively dressed in the name of fashion, human rights and freedom. The situation escalates during the beautiful summer weather when they invade our churches with miniskirts and sleeveless tops that barely cover some parts of their body causing quite a stir and disquieting during a liturgical assembly.
Furthermore, distractions sometimes come from the priests himself adjusting the heating system in church during the readings; the vocalists/organists flipping through pages, ushers moving at random in church and altar servers whispering and snickering on the sanctuary. In our childhood days, priests and our parents stringently emphasised the discipline of silence in church. If we acted up, the church warden would pull us up by the ear and scold us for bad behaviour. Today in this part of the world it is called child abuse.
The above-cited distractions are not a western specificity but are rather ubiquitous. Christians should realise that talking and disturbing in Church is disrespectful of Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus says, "My house will be called a house of prayer… (Matt 21:13). Disturbing in church is a violation of justice and lack of charity for those who want to pray. Silence is sacred and it takes us out of ourselves and enables us to focus on our deepest values, our worries and toils. We mean silence with content, not just the absence of speech and action.
God speaks through the silent moments of our lives and it is only in silence that we can hear Him. There can be no real encounter with the Lord in a noisy environment. If there is no silence, even the words of sacred scriptures can become noise. Christians should learn to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and have a quiet, still and calm moment with God just like Christ withdrew from the crowds and His disciples to a silent place to pray before taking any crucial decision.
The pastor has to be the pacesetter in restoring the discipline of silence in our churches by celebrating the Mass in a way that allows time and creates space for silence so that the inner mystery of the sacrament may be manifested. He should avoid hasty celebrations that hinder reflection and he should observe recommended sacred silence; within the Act of penitence and after the invitation to pray so that all may recollect themselves; after each scriptural reading, and after the homily for all to meditate briefly on what they have heard; and after Holy Communion to praise and thank God (GIRM no 45).
Furthermore, it is recommended that Christians be educated in the value of silence because it is only in silence that the word of God can find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence (verbum Domini n.21). Also the faithful should turn off their cell phones or leave them at home. Children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or fussy children should be taken outside or to "the cry room "if there is that facility. Parents should also teach their children church etiquette and the importance of silence and proper dressing.