Reflecting on Gestures and Silence: Has the Near-Wholesale Elimination of Rubrics and the Recitation of the Entire Liturgy Aloud Done Favors for the Church?

Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary

My dear friends,

Think of going to a Sunday Mass. The priest and servers arrive at the altar, with the accompaniment of a hymn. The priest and servers go to their chairs (quite often facing the people directly), and the priest, microphoned and ready to go, says, “In the name of the Father…,” possibly prefaced by a “good morning.” The Penitential Act follows, followed by the Gloria and then the Collect of the Day. Everyone merely stands in their place for the entirety of these prayers, with no gestures required on the part of the priest or servers throughout (besides the striking of the breast at the “through my fault” if the Confiteor is used, and the often-unknown-about bow of the head at the names of Jesus and Mary). At this point, everyone sits and listens to the readings (with a Responsorial Psalm in between them). There may be a pause of a few moments if the priest wants to recollect himself, but at any rate, he then gets up, accompanied by the “Alleluia,” reads the Gospel, gives his homily, and sits down again (very often, to say it again, in a chair directly facing the people). This sitting may involve a short period of silence before the Creed and the Prayers of the Faithful occur.

I don’t need to keep going. We all know how the Mass goes. For the entire first half, more or less, the priest and other ministers are made to stand in their places, with them staring toward us and us staring toward them, as we say or sing the various prayers required. There is little to no silence here, and in those cases where some moments of silence are called for (such as following the homily), they frequently come across as contrived, forced, “here because they have to be.” Very often, because the ministers and the people face each other, these moments of silence end up being awkward and brief, leaving those of us in the pews wondering how much longer it will be before the priest arises and the Mass continues (sometimes, the priest either sits down for a split second or simply proceeds with the Mass, no pause at all).

Because These Can Be Fun: A Comparison

It’s interesting to compare this to the setup, aura, and style of the Traditional Latin Mass. Readers may come away from what I write convinced that I’m simply in love with the older Mass and don’t like the present form. I wouldn’t say that’s the case. In fact, I rarely have opportunity to go to Mass in the older form, and the Masses that I do go to in the Novus Ordo tend to be thoroughly run-of-the-mill. But I would argue that the older liturgical form, with centuries of development and piety behind it, must not be easily brushed off as a relic of an age happily gone by, and that, given the rushed and from-the top-down nature of Vatican II’s reforms, the older Mass should be frequently re-examined by the Catholic world at large, with an aim to better understanding and appreciating why it may have done things for so long as it did them. It may, and I would argues emphatically that it does, have things to teach us about fostering a sensible liturgical spirit.

So, make a comparison we shall. The priest and servers enter the sanctuary, and instead of stopping at often-centrally-located chairs, they remain facing toward the altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament — and rather than standing immovable in their places, the servers kneel down on either side of the priest as he begins the Mass, still facing the same direction as the congregation, “In the name of the Father…” Then, not only does the position of the ministers (not looking out at the people) clearly indicate the focus of what will be happening, but there is also the notable lack of any kind of greeting, whether within the Missal or otherwise. The priest gives no improvised “good morning,” not even an official introduction directed to the people such as, “Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries.” The focus is not on the people, or on the priest, at this point. The focus is on the action of the Mass, as the priest and servers recite an aptly-suited Psalm: “I will go unto the altar of God.” Once the Psalm is concluded, the priest, rather than merely standing in place, bows profoundly as he recites the “Confiteor” for himself, striking his breast three times at the words, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” The servers kneeling by him do likewise as they recite the peoples’ Confiteor, and the fascinating thing during all of this is that, although the prayers are often barely audible, the gestures throughout manage to communicate the content of the prayers far more deeply than any amount of standing in place, upright, and speaking in a loud, clear voice, can do.

At the conclusion of the Confiteor, the priest not only says, standing passively and without gestures as in the Novus Ordo, the “May almighty God have mercy on us…”, but also adds another prayer which includes making a sign of the cross—a sign of God’s blessing and pardon—over those present. “May the almighty and merciful Lord grant you forgiveness, absolution, and remission of all your sins.” This makes it so that, rather than merely asking, in a microphone-aided, congregation-directed voice, that God would forgive our offenses, the priest subtly prayers that it would be so, and, through his gesture of blessing, gives a visible sign that it is so, that God has forgiven those who seek repentance.

Contrived Silence vs. “Filled” Silence

The quiet of these early prayers, yet the depth of the prayers being prayed and the clarity of the gestures which communicate their content, has been described as a “filled quiet” or a “filled silence” by many authors. In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, there are no stipulated or artificial “pockets” of silence. The entire Mass proceeds subtly, soberly, most of its prayers said quietly. Even in a sung form of Mass, where many of the parts are clearly chanted and clearly audible, and even when the choir is singing the texts of the day over many of the quieter prayers of the priest, the effect is still one of remarkable silence and peacefulness. As the chants are sung, clearly heard, there is a profundity, a solemnity, and a sense of peace as the prayers up at the altar are quietly prayed. One is not overwhelmed by the sense that he must listen closely to everything and anything being prayed, or that he must make some specific acclamation in a loud and clear voice.

The most profound example of this “filled silence” is the priest’s quiet praying of the Canon (a filled silence that will ultimately render Christ present), accompanied by multiple, profound rubrics which have been almost entirely removed in the present Mass form. In the Novus Ordo Mass, the priest says the Eucharistic Prayer in its entirety in a clearly audible voice, and, aside from the somewhat more complex Roman Canon (which itself has been substantially cut down on a rubrical level), he is only required to make one sign of the cross during the prayer, is only required to bow “slightly”—what does this mean?—before the consecration of each Element, and only genuflects twice from beginning to end. Compare this to the praying of the Roman Canon in the older Mass, wherein the very beginning of that prayer is profoundly gesture-oriented: rather than beginning the prayer standing upright, confidently, like a person prepared to deliver a speech, the priest bows profoundly over the altar as he says the opening words: “Te igitur, clementissime Pater…” — “You, therefore, most merciful Father, we humbly beseech and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord…” Then, still bent low, he kisses the altar before standing upright and continuing the prayer, which is typically heard only by those very near, but which has its meaning clearly demonstrated by the many rubrics and gestures to be made throughout.

Gestures of Reverence Founded, Ultimately, on Scripture

What I have described so far is merely within the opening sentence of the Eucharistic Prayer. Let’s ask ourselves this question honestly: is the reality of what will take place during the Eucharistic Prayer truly communicated in a clearer fashion to the faithful by eliminating the priests’ rubrics, so that he remains standing upright and proclaims the prayer with a volume which suggests that he’s somehow speaking to the people and not to God? Think of Christ’s parable in Luke 18. The one He commended was not the Pharisee, who stood and prayed with confidence, assured of himself, but the tax collector, who, the Lord relates, “would not even look up to Heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner'” (Lk. 18:13).

Another rubrical contrast between the Novus Ordo Mass and its predecessor is the priest’s “reaction,” if you will, to the Consecration. In the Novus Ordo, the priest may or may not make a notable bow while reciting the Lord’s words at the Last Supper (again, the rubric to bow “slightly” is a vague one), but he also elevates the Sacred Species in either form, and then genuflects. In the older Mass, however, it’s required that he bow profoundly while saying the words of consecration, and that he genuflect before elevating, as well as after. He gives an indication of adoration as soon as the Lord makes Himself present, and only then does he consider the elevation. It’s reminiscent of Peter, who, upon seeing the Lord’s power manifest, “fell at His knees and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man'” (Lk. 5:8). When St. John saw our Risen Lord in the Book of Revelation, he “fell at His feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17), and only at Our Lord’s bidding did he arise. All of these elements, far from being mere “medieval accretions” worthy of nothing but elimination, are ultimately given precedent within the Sacred Scriptures, and I would argue that their presence more clearly proclaims the reality of what goes on.

To go on and describe the rest of the Mass and all the differences, with the emphasis on words and hearing things and saying things in the newer Mass vs. the focus on contemplation and reverence in the older Mass, would take multiple posts, and it’s not my aim to bore my readers (or imply that the Novus Ordo can’t be offered in a contemplative spirit. It can be, but even the most traditionally-celebrated Novus Ordo is still required to be said with nearly every prayer “aloud,” which means there is never that “filled silence” that the Extraordinary Form affords).

Let us again compare the quiet and gesture-ridden nature of the older Mass to the largely gesture-free, yet loudly-recited, prayers of the Novus Ordo, and then, let us again consider one question honestly. Have we really gained better understanding by hearing every word and eliminating many actions on the part of the priest, or might we admit that, even with them perfectly audible, the various prayers, and indeed the Sacrifice of the Mass as a whole, go beyond mere things to be “comprehended,” and that a recovery of that mysterious and filled quiet, accompanied by its profound gestures, could lead the faithful to a deeper understanding of the Mystery of Faith?


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