One of the best things about our island home is that we are one big family. We bump into people we know all the time throughout the day on our small island. According to our cultural norms, it is rude, if not an insult, not to acknowledge every one we know when we meet and to exchange a few words, if not more.
Church is one of those places where we meet many people we know. You could spend your whole day alone in your home, but if you go to church that day or that night, you have “instant community.” Chances are you will meet people you haven’t spoken to in a while, or people you see constantly but need to touch bases with because of an upcoming mutual event or project. The urge to speak with people we know, or at least sometimes the cultural obligation to speak with people we know, is very strong on our island.
But there’s a time and place for everything, and I suggest that the place to have full-on conversations with people we know whom we meet at church is just a few steps away from our pews; just on the other side of the church door, on the porch, patio or sidewalk of the church. It only takes a few steps in that direction to accomplish two important things; reverence for sacred space and bonding with our brothers and sisters. We can do one without harming the other.
The interior of any church or chapel is indeed sacred space. In a Catholic one, the Real Presence of the Lord brings the level of sacredness in the inside of a church to a whole other level. We have become desensitized to the Divine Presence. We forget that no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20), so, in His bending down to our level, the Lord first came to us in a human body that we could see and take in, and since Holy Thursday He comes to us also under the appearance of bread and wine, things which we can also see, eat and drink.
Bread and wine look and taste like ordinary, material things so the danger is always that we will forget Who is truly present behind those visible appearances. So the Church has always insisted on similarly outward signs of reverence which manifest our faith in what we cannot see – the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. When we do not act out these outward signs of reverence, it can manifest our forgetfulness or weakening of that faith. Even if He comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine, He is still the God before whom angelic Dominions and Powers tremble.
Sometimes we in the clergy are partly at fault, as well, when we do not insist on this decorum in church and when we tolerate the opposite for so long that it develops into long-established custom to hold casual and sometimes loud conversations in church. Or, what we do and don’t do, including clergy, in church sets the example for casual behavior. But let us make a beginning somehow!
A Truly Catholic Witness
I know a man who was converted to the Catholic Faith because of silence in a Catholic church. It was more than the absence of noise. He saw people kneeling in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. He saw people genuflect. People might exchange a few words, but in hushed tones and quickly. He saw a lady get up and smile at another lady still kneeling in prayer, and move on. Later, he saw those same two women in the church hall talking to each other in a very ordinary, social way. He witnessed people act as if they were in the presence of something so important that it made them act this way, and another way when not in that space. Something touched his heart and suggested to him that God could be found here in a way he couldn’t find elsewhere.
Lively, noisy conversation can be had almost anywhere. What makes our churches and chapels a different kind of space for us? Or is it?
Silence in our churches and chapels is not just a value, it is official church policy. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, paragraph 45 says this : “Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner.”
Silence is needed for prayer. According to one bishop, Saint Ambrose said, “The devil loves noise, Christ looks for silence.” God Himself said in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” There is a truth here; we cannot know God until we are still. And in 1 Kings 19, Elijah does not find God in the strong wind, earthquake or fire, but in the gentle whisper.
There is no love of God without love of neighbor. How often we fail to realize, while we talk in loud tones in church, that there are people there who seek the silence necessary for prayer. “Two people talking,” someone said, “can stop forty people from praying.” We can talk almost anywhere we want; to speak to God in silence, before Him in the Blessed Sacrament, that can be found only in churches and chapels. We would not appreciate it if someone interrupted a conversation we were having with a friend; but we don’t realize we are interrupting someone else’s conversation with God when we hold conversations with others in church.
Funerals, Weddings, Etc.
True, it’s a bit harder to maintain very strict silence during viewings of the deceased, or when a bridal party comes into church or before a baccalaureate Mass. In these situations, some talk is necessary and unavoidable. Still, I think we can do that and still maintain an appropriate level of decorum. I think there are also ways to minimize the talk inside church, by having graduates line up outside the church and not in the vestry right before Mass, for example. I have more thoughts on this specific topic, but that’s for another post.
How much We have Changed
When I was growing up, we immediately switched gears when we entered the church. It was automatic; that was how strongly instilled it was in us as children. You open that church door, you observe silence. I was an altar boy all my childhood past the age of 6, and if no one was around, we altar boys might speak normally in church. But we were very conscious, even when it was just us, that we were in sacred space. Outside we horsed around like any kid our age.
Inside the church, we might speak in normal tones when we had work to do; cleaning, polishing the pews, fixing a side altar and so on.
The older people tell me that in their day, even further back in time, you could hear a pin drop in church. How much we have changed on our island.
An Easy Solution
As I’ve said, it only takes a few steps to go from the pew to the porch. There we can have all the conversation we want, provided the church doors and windows are closed, as is normally the case in our air-conditioned churches.