He dwells among us: Reverence and silence

In the presence of Our Lord at church, quiet is a sacred blessing that we must all respect and practice

By Bishop Richard F. Stika

My house shall be called a house of prayer…” (Matthew 21:13).

I chose these words of Jesus to be inscribed on the cornerstone of our new cathedral church to stress the reverence and awe we should always have when entering not only the cathedral, but any of our churches. Jesus spoke these words when he cleansed the Temple of Jerusalem of those whose earthly pursuits were impeding — and even denying — others from genuinely experiencing the presence of God. For this reason, Christ finishes his injunction with a harsh rebuke, “… but you are making it a den of thieves.”

When we are the source of distractions that keep others from experiencing the presence of God in church, we, too, can become robbers of the divine.

Scientists, not surprisingly, are warning of an increasingly “deaf generation” due to the near constant exposure to the electronic noises of our technological age.

The worst symptom of this, I believe, is evidenced by the growing number of people who are increasingly uncomfortable and even agitated with silence. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our churches.

Sadly, the following is an all too common scene in our churches, particularly before and after Mass: people kneeling in prayer attempting to reflect upon Our Eucharistic Lord, while others chatter about them in trivial conversations. This is not only rude but irreverent.

Our churches are sacred spaces for prayer and adoration of Our Eucharistic Lord, not the parish hall. Our churches are sacred spaces, not worship spaces for a social religious gathering. It is sacred space because of the One who is truly present in the tabernacle and upon the altar in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

I find it interesting that the word “noise” is closely related in Latin to the word “nausea,” with its nautical reference to sea-sickness and the unpleasant sound often associated with this condition.

The first sin recorded in Scripture occurs precisely because man and woman welcomed the distracting noise of Satan’s lies into their hearts. In allowing this noise to become sin, their reaction was to hide from “the sound of the Lord God” (Genesis 3:8). And it is no different today; Satan uses noise because he does not want us to hear God’s Word within the garden of our hearts any more than he wants us to hear it within the house of God. This is the worst kind of noise pollution.

So great is the need to educate Catholics on the importance of sacred silence that Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has written a book titled The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. He notes that noise is the “drug” we use to avoid having to confront our interior emptiness.

Cell phones keep us connected with the world about us, but if our “interior cell phone” is always busy with worldly matters, “how,” he asks, “can the Creator reach us, how can he ‘call us’”?

For this reason our churches must be oases of silence where our hearts can rest against the Lord’s, like that of St. John at the Last Supper (John 13:23).

We must be a “welcoming church,” but above all foster the expectation people should have of encountering the sacred when they enter. Where physical space offers little buffer between the main area of the church (nave) and its entrance area (narthex), greeters and ushers should exercise care that while opening the doors in a friendly and welcoming way to those arriving that they do not inadvertently distract those within the church from opening the doors of their heart to Christ.

We must remember that Christ, too, is longing to be welcomed by us.

Scripture reminds us that we are each a temple of God. We are baptized into Christ, and as such are members of His Body. In the Eucharist, and in the tabernacles within our churches, Christ our Head is truly present. Jesus is the true Temple of God. Therefore, when we step inside a Catholic church, we are temples that enter the Temple!

Since we are admitted into the Body of Christ through baptism, we should bless ourselves with holy water as we enter and reverently genuflect toward the One who makes us a temple of His glory.

Christ hungers for us and our prayer helps us to hunger for Him. When we eat normal food, it becomes what we are. But when we partake of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ Jesus in the Eucharist, we in truth become what He is. How sad, then, the number of people who chew gum in church, even approaching to receive Our Lord in Communion while doing so. The church is not a movie theater!

Choirs, too, have their part in fostering silence and reverence. While sacred music is a beautiful and integral part of the liturgy, sacred silence is no less important during the proper times of Mass. But the temptation to fill this space with music robs us of these precious moments. Sacred music should be gentle on the ear in its volume level, particularly during the preparation of the gifts and holy Communion, so as not to overwhelm the heart’s intimate prayer and offering during these times. The temptation to “turn up the volume” must be resisted, for even sacred music can become “noise” if it weighs the heart down instead of giving it flight.

When we walk into a church, where is our eye and heart first drawn to? Hopefully, they are drawn immediately to the sanctuary by the welcoming presence of Our Eucharistic Lord and Savior in the tabernacle who bids us to receive Him sacramentally.

As your bishop, then, it is my hope that all who enter our churches will experience the presence of God as a house of prayer where they hear the Lord calling, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11).


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