“Uncrowd my heart, O God, until silence speaks in your still, small voice; turn me from the hearing of words, and the making of words, and the confusion of much speaking, to listening, waiting, stillness, silence.”
— Esther de Waal; “Lost in Wonder”; Chapter: “Silence”
Silence as a theological challenge:
This week, we started my favorite liturgical time: Advent.
Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting for Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Waiting for the Second Coming, the renewal of all things and the eschatological telos for which we were created.
Being a time of waiting, it is also a time of silence. The silence of mere mortals in quiet waiting for the coming of their Savior. And the silence of God while He is yet to come. A silence that will eventually be brought to a close on that Silent Night, as sang by that gorgeous Christmas hymn, one of the most beautiful musical pieces of all times.
This too highlights how silence is a very theologically charged concept. Jesus was not born in the midst of a noisy palace, in the bosom of a cosmopolitan metropolis, with the bustling of servants and high dignitaries, announced with trumpets for the whole world to see. No. He was born in a serene stable, in a humble and inconspicuous corner of a small town in the backwater of the Roman Empire. This is consistent with God’s modus operandi: in a revelation given to prophet Elijah, God showed that He is not present in the racket of the hurricane, or the cacophony of the earthquake, or the clamor of the wildfire, but in the gentle rustle of a breeze (1 Kings 19:11-13).
This divine silence is also one of the main points of strife between God and modern-day Man: how can God keep silent when there is so much evil about? God’s silence is intimately connected to Man’s suffering, which is a source of great scandal for our contemporary mentality.
This tension is not limited to modernists and atheists, however. Christians are not immune to experiencing God’s silence, sometimes in dramatic ways. In fact, from Job to St. John of the Cross and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, many saints have tried the bitter taste of divine silence under the form commonly known as the Dark Night of the Soul. The difference between those saints and the atheists is not the circumstances they lived, but how they chose to deal with God’s silence. The saints look up to Jesus’ death on the Cross, akin to a silent lamb going to the slaughter, as the ultimate expression of God’s silence… a silence not of distance and indifference, but of profound closeness and communion with Man’s deepest misery. The saints understand perfectly well the meaning of that (likely apocryphal) Holocaust tale, where one Jewish child is being tortured to death in a Nazi concentration camp, and one devout Jew answers the question “Where is God?” with “He is right there, present in that poor child.”
God’s silence is not a silence of spite, but a dignified silence, a silence necessary in order for Him to not be manipulated by Man. God does not do so out of pride, but because this is the only way to freely guide Man towards a salvation he is not inclined to accept. If He broke His silence, Man would not have to search for Him, but would try to negotiate His plan on Man’s own terms.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Pope Francis, as the Vicar of Christ, can help us better understand the depths of meaning conveyed by the concept of silence. In fact, Francis has produced some impressive theological reflections on this topic. On the other hand, it is interesting, also regarding Pope Francis, that silence can be viewed as a source of scandal for those who do not understand him. After all, his critics attack him for his silence, ranging from not answering the dubia, to not answering Archbishop Viganò’s testimony against him.
However, if Pope Francis keeps silent in those situations, maybe we can better understand why by studying his reflections on silence. Hence the question: what does silence mean to Pope Francis?
The “bad” kind of silence
On the earthly realm, human silence is not like divine silence. As with everything, it can be used for good and evil. Just like words can be used to exalt or to humiliate, to inform or misinform, to utter insults or tenderly express sweet nothings… the same can be said about silence. There is the silence of a contemplative monk and the silence of the priest passing by the unfortunate man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is the silence of the Blessed Virgin, keeping all of her Son’s words in her heart, and the silence of Pilate, washing his hands of the death of an innocent.
Pope Francis warns us against this kind of bad silence. Before we proceed to acknowledging how His Holiness wields silence, we must accurately grasp what his silence is not. Before we take the pontiff’s advice on how to use silence in our daily lives, we must guard ourselves against this silence he warns us against, lest we fall into error by failing to understand what’s expected of us.
In my study of Pope Francis’ writings, I have found three kinds of bad silence.
The first one is a forced silence, a silence imposed by earthly powers to quell the cry of the oppressed or the gratuitous destruction of Creation (emphasis from now on is always mine):
“How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour? Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.”
— Evangelii Gaudium (EG) #211
“We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration. (…) We know, for example, that countries which have clear legislation about the protection of forests continue to keep silent as they watch laws repeatedly being broken”
— Laudato si’ (LS) #36; 142
Against this kind of silence, Francis echoes the calls of the ancient prophets against rotten, false peace (Jer 6:14). The Pope tells us there is no “authentic peace” in a “social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle while others have to make do as they can” (EG #218). The Holy Father says that, against the silence imposed by this false peace from such social structures, there arises the noise of protests demanding freedom and justice, and this noise “shall not be silenced by force” (EG #74).
Sometimes, this kind of imposed silence comes from (either theoretically or de facto) atheistic social structures, trying to suppress any public expression of religion, namely Christianity.
“A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions. In the long run, this would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace.”
— EG #255
Neither can faith be silenced from public expression in the World by trying to stifle its political implications. Just like the secular protests demanding freedom and justice cannot be silenced, we can also not claim to “lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” (EG #183). Therefore, “no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life” (idem).
Silence as a form of self-centeredness
The imposed silence from unjust societal structures is, ultimately, a silence that exists to justify the egotism of those in power. However, the other two kinds of bad silence are no less egocentric. For example, when Francis speaks of the crises that the couples may face in the course of their lives:
“Crises need to be faced together. This is hard, since persons sometimes withdraw in order to avoid saying what they feel; they retreat into a craven silence. At these times, it becomes all the more important to create opportunities for speaking heart to heart. Unless a couple learns to do this, they will find it harder and harder as time passes. Communication is an art learned in moments of peace in order to be practised in moments of difficulty”
— Amoris Laetitia (AL) #234
This kind of silence is a way of (not) dealing with crises by “denying the problem, hiding or downplaying it, and hoping that it will go away” (AL #233). It “does not help; it only makes things worse, wastes energy and delays a solution” (idem). Worse of all, it is a kind of self-centeredness, in that it is a way for us to “react defensively, since we feel that we are losing control, or are somehow at fault, and this makes us uneasy” (idem).
The third kind of bad silence is also egotistical, for it is a kind of spiritual pride or sloth. It happens in people who, in order to preserve inner peace (again, a false peace), withdraw from the activity needed to build the Kingdom of God right here. They use silence as a refuge, an excuse.
“It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service.”
— Gaudete et Exsultate (GE) #26
Does this mean that silence has become a bad thing, according to Pope Francis? Not at all. In this, as with any other thing, we apply the principle Abusus non tollit usum (i.e. just because something is abused, it does not mean that it can’t be properly used.) Nevertheless, how can we combat these pernicious forms of silence?
Holy silence as an antidote for bad silence
Since noise is the opposite of silence, one may feel justified in thinking that the best way to counteract the bad kinds of silence would be to make some noise. In fact, Francis seems to hint at this when he says legitimate protests in the public square will not be silenced, just like the voices of the saints. Also, for “certain silences [which] are oppressive, even at times within families, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, among siblings” (AL #133), Francis advises the power of three words: “Please, Thank you and Sorry” (idem).
However, another way to do this (and the two ways are not mutually exclusive) is to temper the bad silence with good and righteous expressions of holy silence. For instance, against the silence of complicity with destructive anti-environmental laws, Francis proposes the silence of contemplation of the wonders of Nature as a gift from the Father to all of mankind. “[F]or the believer, to contemplate creation is to hear a message, to listen to a paradoxical and silent voice” (LS #85). Quoting St. John of the Cross, the pope says:
“Mountains have heights and they are plentiful, vast, beautiful, graceful, bright and fragrant. These mountains are what my Beloved is to me. Lonely valleys are quiet, pleasant, cool, shady and flowing with fresh water; in the variety of their groves and in the sweet song of the birds, they afford abundant recreation and delight to the senses, and in their solitude and silence, they refresh us and give rest. These valleys are what my Beloved is to me”
— LS #234
Against the oppressive silences within the family, Francis proposes the silence of loving listening:
“This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right. Instead of offering an opinion or advice, we need to be sure that we have heard everything the other person has to say. This means cultivating an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without mental or emotional distractions. Do not be rushed, put aside all of your own needs and worries, and make space. Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard, to feel that someone has acknowledge their pain, their disappointment, their fear, their anger, their hopes and their dreams.”
— AL #137
Also, he proposes the silence of tempering one’s tongue against speaking ill of other within the family:
“Married couples joined by love speak well of each other; they try to show their spouse’s good side, not their weakness and faults. In any event, they keep silent rather than speak ill of them.”
— AL #113
And lastly, he proposes the “meaningful silence” of “quality time [spent] together” (AL #224). After all, the nature of married love, as expressed in the Genesis account of the creation of Eve and Adam’s encounter with her, “suggests a direct encounter, face to face, eye to eye, in a kind of silent dialogue, for where love is concerned, silence is always more eloquent than words” (AL #12).
Finally, relating to the third kind of bad silence, the spiritually slothful one, Pope Francis tells us that silence can indeed be a way to find holiness in the midst of the noise of contemporary life:
“This does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary. The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful”
— GE #29.
In other words, silence per se does not keep us from the path of sanctification. In fact, it can actually be needed in a society filled with meaningless, distracting noise. The bad silence denounced in GE #26 only happens when it is used to excuse oneself from building the Kingdom of God. But, as is said in the same paragraph: “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.” And later on: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes” (GE #31).
Silence as a defense against the accusations of the suspicious man
What does all of this have to do with the Holy Father’s silence in key aspects of his papacy, a silence that maddens his critics? This contextualization was important, because I have seen some papal critics trying to ensnare His Holiness in his own words. They would pick up AL’s warnings against “craven silences” as a way to avoid dealing with marital crises… to accuse Francis on the way he has dealt with the crises within the Church. And they would postulate that Francis, as a Dictator Pope, tries to silence his opposition (just like unjust societal structures try to do against legitimate claims of freedom and justice) whenever he uses his God-given authority to interpret what is valid teaching within the Catholic Church in order to stop illegitimate dissent from magisterial documents or to curb resistance to his reforms on the part of his enemies.
But of course, if we really try to understand Francis, instead of playing “gotcha” with the Pope in order to trap him in his words (a strategy first undertaken against Christ by the Pharisees,) we should, in charity, assume that Francis is not being inconsistent. Maybe there are alternative explanations as to why Francis has chosen the silent route to address these charges.
After all, we have seen that according to Pope Francis, silence is not bad per se. It is only bad when it is not properly used. One could argue that he is not using it properly in the context of these crises, but if there is something that I have tried to show in this article is that Francis’ concept of silence is nuanced (pretty much like most of his theology, or the full theology of the Catholic Church for that matter.) The craven silences which do not help in solving crises can be counteracted by loving silences, for instance.
Silence should not be interpreted on his own, but according to the manifest will and thought of the Holy Father, especially when he is the one using silence. If he is keeping silent, what does silence mean to him in this particular context?
The answer lies in a silence that is also a part of Francis’ theology, but which I have yet to talk about: the silence used to resist the accusations of what he terms “the suspicious man.” I will talk about it on my next article.
[Photo credit: Montage created from a photo of Pope Francis, published on the Catholic Thing, and “The Silence”, painted by 19th century artist Johan Heinrich Füssli]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.