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On Talking in Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 14, 2012

All those who are serious about prayer will experience, at least occasionally, the problem of noisy conversation in church. Moreover, church decorum varies from place to place. Usually this arises from the encouragement or discouragement of silence by pastors, which over time results in a habit typical of the parish. I have answered many questions about this in the past, and would like to address the problem more generally here.

It has always seemed to me that unnecessary conversation among ourselves is inappropriate in church, and certainly inappropriate in the presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle. The church is His house. In most cases, if we are not engaged with Him while we are there, we are being rude. When we no longer wish to be so engaged, we should courteously take our leave.

Those who find themselves distracted by the easy conversation of others while trying to pray in church should discuss the situation with the pastor. But I would do so in a mild and exploratory way. The pastor may have a different view of the situation. He may prefer (by some unaccountable taste I will never fully understand) that people should feel quite free to be preoccupied with each other while in the presence of the Lord—not as an abuse of His hospitality but as a tribute to it. Or he may wish to avoid pestering people about the matter, lest they take offence and be estranged from himself or from the parish as a whole.

In the absence of priestly support for reverent silence, I have occasionally tried direct intervention on my own. I have asked people (sometimes I have even instructed people) to be quiet. This has never gone well. I have also looked around at those who were being noisy with an expression which suggests I am aware that something has gone terribly wrong and will surely be quickly corrected. This usually does not work.

So if silence proves impossible to achieve, I would suggest the following options:

  • Repositioning. If the church has a side chapel, or even a more isolated corner, which is typically quieter, moving to that place can be an excellent solution.
  • Ear plugs. I have never used ear plugs in church. It seems strange and readers may rightly balk at it. But if you must regularly pray amid noise and clamor, it might not be a bad idea to keep a pair of unobtrusive ear plugs handy. (Avoid bright colors and dangling pendants!)  At least it beats holding your hands over your ears (which I have done, but never for very long).
  • Recollection. I realize that recollection is the whole point, but we often fail to understand that the problem of recollection is a two-edged sword. Often the problem lies as much in ourselves as in our surroundings. Clearly, we ought to be able to learn to pray even when the external conditions are not ideal. This point is is worth considering at greater length.

In a crowded restaurant where there is a general and consistent level of noise, it soon becomes white noise, and it is still possible for us to carry on our own conversation. But when we distinguish clear, individual voices at a nearby table, conversation becomes very difficult. This again suggests the wisdom of moving to a place where the noise blends into a more generalized or ambient noise. But the point here is that, where prayer is concerned, it is also an excellent exercise simply to soldier on, working extra hard to develop the habitual ability to pray amid disruption.

In considering the wisdom of this effort, we will almost always notice an important spiritual point. Our prayer is not disrupted merely because of the noise. It is disrupted because of our emotional response to the noise. The conversation of others in church annoys and angers us, and these emotions are typically a significantly greater impediment to our prayer than the noise itself. The annoyance may be justified, but seen in this light it makes us realize that much of the problem lies in ourselves. There is both merit and growth in seeking a habitual (and non-judgmental!) spiritual calm. We might begin by praying for those who are annoying us—easy enough to focus on that!—and then ask for help with our own selfish inner turbulence. From there, perhaps, we can move on.

To summarize, there may be practical steps we can take to increase reverence in church, or at least to cope more easily with its lack. Pursued in the right way, these steps are typically worthwhile. But when we have done whatever we can at the practical level, there remains a larger and more personal spiritual task—a challenge, in fact, which can be a great occasion for spiritual growth. I am reminded of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was greatly bothered during silent prayer in the chapel by the fidgeting and throat-clearing of nearby sisters. Perhaps we can learn from the Little Flower, who was wise enough to blame herself.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 18, 2012 9:15 PM ET USA

    I attended the ceremony for former Bishop Sullivan of Richmond at the beautiful Italian Renaissance cathedral of the Sacred Heart. It was apparently an interfaith gathering. After the ceremony the widespread conversation made it difficult to concentrate on the quiet prayers as a lone congregant knelt in his pew to pray for the repose of the bishop's soul. The floodgates were open; it was noisier than the food court at the mall on Saturday... the current bishop, the priests and the attendees.

  • Posted by: 30 year priest - Dec. 17, 2012 12:33 AM ET USA

    For four years I wrote, spoke, and preached about quiet in church—not even silence, only quiet. I placed sign boards near the church entrance requesting quiet in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The vocal minority (those with $$$) complained to the ordinary (of one of the very largest archdioceses in the US, headed by an Eminence), and I received no support and eventually was removed.

  • Posted by: bobef3857 - Dec. 15, 2012 1:59 PM ET USA

    "My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it into a reception hall!"

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 15, 2012 8:00 AM ET USA

    But why do toddlers and infants get dragged in and out kicking and screaming, cry rooms go unused, and these angels are forced to "participate?" BY definition healthy toddlers don't stay still and are noisy, and they are programmed to fall out/scream always at the worst possible times (Elevation). Proven fact! They are already in the state of grace, little saints, and they can begin to participate in the liturgy appropriately in their pre-school years growing in Our Lord's "grace and wisdom."

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Dec. 14, 2012 8:00 PM ET USA

    Generally I notice that at the Traditional Latin Mass there is far less talking than at the New Rite but the weekday Masses in the New Rite around here are just as quiet as the Sunday Latin Masses. I think it has a lot to do with how catechized the crowd is more than anything. If you really believe Our Lord is present and that the Mass is a re-presentation of the Calvary sacrifice you will act accordingly but if it's just a communal meal or a "celebration" you won't.

  • Posted by: a son of Mary - Dec. 14, 2012 5:54 PM ET USA

    it takes a lot to restrain myself at times with the gross irreverence in church these days but last week I shushed an adult man and two younger adults with him as they were talking and laughing prior to Mass. They were about 50ft away and it was downright disrespectful. That pretty much locked them up and the rest of talkers many of whom are seniors or ushers. God forbid I ever release the inner Marine but there are times when it's quieter prior to a movie...

  • Posted by: pja - Dec. 14, 2012 5:21 PM ET USA

    Go to the Tridentine Mass. I have found it to be free of distractions, including conversation, etc.

  • Posted by: bservaes4399 - Dec. 14, 2012 4:57 PM ET USA

    Amen.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Dec. 14, 2012 3:08 PM ET USA

    I was recently in the Atlanta area, and was absolutely charmed by the little hymn that was sung by the congregation about five minutes before Mass. It reminded all of the presence of God, as well as the saints and angels. I wish I had a copy of it. Maybe someone knows it and can share it.

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