The National Catholic Review
Jim McDermott
What ever happened to the sign of peace?
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Not long ago I was at weekday Mass in a big church, not very full, all of us congregants spread out as far as we could be from one another. Even so, almost no one was more than a pew or two distant from anyone else. At the sign of peace, most people just gave "the wave.” You know the wave. The person turns in your direction, maybe smiles slightly and places his or her palm face out, somewhere between the gesture you find in an icon of Jesus and the Supremes singing "Stop in the Name of Love.” When used at a distance, and with a second of eye contact, it can be a pleasant form of acknowledgement, "Hello from across the room.” But when you're standing one pew apart, the vibe is often more like, "Please don't touch me.”

A week later, at Sunday Mass elsewhere, I noticed the same thing: though the pews were crowded, many people would not extend a hand to one another, or they did so only to people directly in front of them. And the ritual lasted only about 10 seconds, before the organist was on to "Lamb of God…” and the priest was breaking the host. It is not like this everywhere. Still, when I encounter it I cannot help but wonder, What ever happened to the sign of peace?

Not the Same As Ever  

A little history:In the early days of Christianity, the "kiss of peace” came at the end of petitions or significant rites and served as an acclamation, much like "Amen.” Tertullian called it the "seal of prayer.” As communities developed their own liturgical traditions, placement of the kiss varied. The Roman Rite placed it where we find it today. Other traditions placed the ritual in the middle, immediately after the petitions or after the presentation of the gifts. At the millennium, it had been relegated to clergy alone and by the 16th century is had vanished from the Latin litrugy altogether. Only with the 1970 General Instruction of the Roman Missal did the rite officially become a part of Catholic liturgical practice again.

Today liturgical theologians talk about the sign of peace as a moment that connects worshipers back to the desire for reconciliation they sought at the end of the Our Father: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” it also anticipates the reception of Communion. In offering peace to one another&ampampampmdashnot thanks, not "Howdy,” but peace, and not only to friends and family but also strangers and enemies-we express our desire for healing, for communion in our church and in our world and by the grace of God we experience that communion as a reality. At least, that's the theology.

Location, Location

One view of the problem with the rite is that it might be in the wrong place in the liturgy. About to receive Communion, having been drawn through the eucharistic prayers into a holy space, some of us might be thinking, "Hey, I'm praying now. Talk to me later.”

Other liturgical positions for the sign of peace have a certain logic, too. The beginning of Mass, for instance, seems a natural place for a rite that draws us together as community. The transition between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist also makes good theological sense: before we present our gifts, we reconcile with one another. It makes good human sense, too. Having just listened to readings and a homily, the congregation might need a chance to get up and get the blood moving again before proceeding into the eucharistic prayer. Finally, at the end of Mass it is hard to miss a strong gravitational pull to linger and share community. You find a lot more handshakes and embraces going on when people are leaving church than you find polite waves.

In some places, one finds a different solution. Instead of barreling directly into the rite after the previous acclamation, some presiders stop at that point and invite the community to take a moment to pray for peace. In Australia, where I lived last year, almost every parish I visited used this approach. The change in the congregation after just a few seconds of silence was notable. Having undertaken the liturgical equivalent of a deep breath, congregations (and their priests) entered into the sign of peace with a greater equanimity and presence to the moment. Yet, paradoxically, the total time spent on the rite had not increased.

Breaking and Entering

The sign of peace is not a formality, an exchange of pleasantries or an introduction. It is another opportunity in the liturgy for God to break in and affect us. Some days, as I listen to the familiar prayers and their cadences, it is hard not to get distracted. If I am lucky, it is a good distraction, the offering up of worries, relationships and the like to God in prayer.

More often than not, though, my mind wanders through itineraries, problem solving and the latest episode of "Grey's Anatomy.” I can finish the Our Father without even realizing I have said it.

On those days, the sign of peace is my salvation. By forcing me to look up, see the people in front of me and exchange a greeting with them, I am freed, if only momentarily, from my inner hamster wheel, freed sometimes from my grudges, too. Living in a small community, you inevitably have to exchange the sign of peace with someone, in your darkest moments, you'd rather see hit by a truck (or at least repeatedly by a toddler with a Wiffle Ball bat). Oh God, I pray on those days, please let him turn the other way, please don't make me face him. It can be very hard. But much to my surprise, I have found offering and receiving the sign of peace from people who bug me or have hurt me (or whom I have hurt) can be tremendously liberating. What has drawn tight or hard inside can unexpectedly be loosened.

In the face of wars and economic crises and family problems, we are all longing for peace, for reconciliation, for freedom of one kind or another. If we take the sign of peace a little more gently and slowly, or perhaps if we experiment with relocating it, we might be able to experience that grace a little more deeply.

 

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor of America. General Instruction of the Roman Missal

Comments

Edna McGrew | 5/29/2009 - 4:58pm
There is one point that the seventeen responders above do not mention, other than negatively. The handshake is one of the easiest and most likely means of transmitting germs. Today, many have weakened immune systems, frequently due to leukemia, AIDs or chemotheraphy. A bow, combined with words of peace and a smile, seem to me to be far more meaningful than a hasty handshake.
Robert Burke | 5/26/2009 - 11:28am
The "kiss of peace" was always present, even in the old days, but it was such a jolt because you never saw it in the typical parish. It only occurred in a solemn Mass with deacon and subdeacon (or, as common parlance had it in our Boston neighborhood, "a Mass with three priests"), but since the only solemn Mass anyone ever saw was at a funeral - where the "kiss" and the preceding prayer were omitted along with the final blessing - no one had ever seen it before when it suddenly appeared in 1970.
TIMOTHY TILGHMAN | 5/25/2009 - 11:48am
I liked the article. I think it advisable to spend some time on the "why" on the sign of peace. It is tough for one to come to the altar to receive God in the Word and the Eucharist, if one is not at peace and reconciled with his neighbor. In the course of my day, I try to recall all those I might have wronged during the day and pray for them. Why not take advantage of the teaching moment and remind brothers and sisters to seek out those with whom they need to reconcile, or seek out those who appear to be alone in the full church because no one made peace with them?
Patricia Masi | 5/22/2009 - 4:55pm
Father Jim McDermott, if it wasn't so true, I wouldn't have been laughing, but your commentary is a true epidemic. What a beautiful world it would be - if everyone greeted one another "Italian style"! Of course, I'm Italian, but I had to learn in this very culturally diverse world we live in, not everyone welcomes being touched, let alone their hand being shaken as a sign of peace. I purposely, "left my pew" last evening at mass, the Feast of the Ascension, and was greeted very warmly as I extended my hand in peace to those who sat alone. I must always remember, to extend myself "first", instead of waiting for someone to extend to me. And also to note, if someone declines, they are missing out on shaking a very sweet Italian woman's hand! Peace be with you all...
Collette Gallagher | 5/21/2009 - 5:10pm
Maybe I'm just in a "touchy-feely" parish, but during the "Sign of Peace" at most of our Masses, family members are frequently giving one another the "kiss of Peace" and most folks are more than happy to put out a hand to those both in front, back, and around them. Even when some of us are accompanied by obviously "runny nosed" kids. For the germo-phobes, maybe a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the Holy Water font? What I want to know is, when the fashion of everyone holding hands during the "Our Father" came into being? Is it a revival of an old custom, or something new?
Edward Lally | 5/19/2009 - 6:50pm
I too appreciate Fr. McDermott's thoughts about the "Sign of Peace." As a youngster in the pre-Vatican II Church, I was profoundly moved when I first witnessed this ritual action and intuited its meaning even before it was explained to me as the "Kiss of Peace" Now I am not that old, so the rite did not disappear in the 16th century as Father suggests. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, the "Kiss of Peace" was always a part of Solemn Masses when many priests were in attendance such as First Masses, Dedication of Churches, funerals of priests, etc. It's placement then was where it is now, after the Lord's Prayer. The priests would turn to each other, bow slightly, place their hands on the other's shoulders and offer the "holy kiss" (without touching) first the one side then the other, and then a slight bow again. I am reminded of this every time one of my Asian Indian friends greet me, with hands together as in prayer and bowing to me in recognition of the divine in me. While I appreciate the restoration of the Rite of Peace and glad that the practice is no longer restricted to clergy, I cringe when it is referred to as the "Handshake of Peace." And haven't we all been at Masses were it really got out of control? Often it seems that peace has little to do with it. Rather than interrupting the movement of the Mass, it should b observed for what it is: a ritual sign sign, that, having prayed the Mass thus far, having had the two-edged sword of the Word pierce our hearts, having identified our lives as bread and wine now transformed, having come to the peace that only Christ gives, we are ready for the Breaking of the Bread. We are ready for Communion with our Lord and with one another. During the Rite of Peace in my Church, nobody ever shakes my hand. I am the organist and my hands are otherwise occupied. But many within my view catch my eyes, smile, and give a little nod, and I find healing and peace in these powerful moments. Pax tecum!
Edward Lally | 5/19/2009 - 6:50pm
I too appreciate Fr. McDermott's thoughts about the "Sign of Peace." As a youngster in the pre-Vatican II Church, I was profoundly moved when I first witnessed this ritual action and intuited its meaning even before it was explained to me as the "Kiss of Peace" Now I am not that old, so the rite did not disappear in the 16th century as Father suggests. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, the "Kiss of Peace" was always a part of Solemn Masses when many priests were in attendance such as First Masses, Dedication of Churches, funerals of priests, etc. It's placement then was where it is now, after the Lord's Prayer. The priests would turn to each other, bow slightly, place their hands on the other's shoulders and offer the "holy kiss" (without touching) first the one side then the other, and then a slight bow again. I am reminded of this every time one of my Asian Indian friends greet me, with hands together as in prayer and bowing to me in recognition of the divine in me. While I appreciate the restoration of the Rite of Peace and glad that the practice is no longer restricted to clergy, I cringe when it is referred to as the "Handshake of Peace." And haven't we all been at Masses were it really got out of control? Often it seems that peace has little to do with it. Rather than interrupting the movement of the Mass, it should b observed for what it is: a ritual sign sign, that, having prayed the Mass thus far, having had the two-edged sword of the Word pierce our hearts, having identified our lives as bread and wine now transformed, having come to the peace that only Christ gives, we are ready for the Breaking of the Bread. We are ready for Communion with our Lord and with one another. During the Rite of Peace in my Church, nobody ever shakes my hand. I am the organist and my hands are otherwise occupied. But many within my view catch my eyes, smile, and give a little nod, and I find healing and peace in these powerful moments. Pax tecum!
Joseph Komadina | 5/19/2009 - 12:36pm
Thanks for sharing some possibilities. In the Maronite Rite the hands are touched and this is passed from person to person. One technical point, when I was young (in the early 50's) we gave the "pax" at solemn masses - clergy and servers - and this was explained to us as the "kiss of peace".
joyce Macnamara | 5/19/2009 - 9:46am
Here in Montreal in our parish we were told that in lieu of the handshake of peace we could nod to our neighbor. This was because of fears of swine flu. I wonder whether the handshake of peace is effectively being eliminated. I know that some people are chary of it because of unfounded (my opinion) health concerns. It would be a grave mistake to accede to this point of view. The gesture of looking someone in the eye and physically touching him is powerful. If one is sincere and thoughtful, this action can truly bring peace to one's heart and to others.
michael alba | 5/18/2009 - 10:43pm
Timely commentary. Lately I have been thinking about the sign of peace. What peace ? from whom ? for what? I have come to feel tha it is the peace of Christ that we wish to each other to be at peace with our fellow men to receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. I would leave just where it's now in the liturgy.
John-Otto Liljenstolpe | 5/18/2009 - 8:23pm
Perhaps it is time that we begin to consider and teach yet another understanding of what transpires during the "Kiss" of Peace. Among the many liturgical treasures recovered for us in Vatican Council II, is the teaching that in the Mass Christ is present for us not only in the consecrated elements but also in the preached Word, the person of the presider and the assembled people. Scripture scholars tell us that this last mode of Presence appears to be the earliest understanding of the Eucharist and underlies Paul's whole theology of the Church as the Body of Christ. Yet it appears that many faithful Catholics have yet to grasp this profound truth. Beyond catechatical instruction and sermonic admonitions, I believe that asking the faithful to acknowledge the Presence of our Lord in the each person they greet (perhaps with a bow before speaking)and receiving the greeting of peace itself as the words of Jesus addressed to them would have the salutary effect of making us all more aware of who we as the Church really are. Per sacramentum fimus sacramentum.
David Brennan | 5/18/2009 - 8:07pm
Thomas Day wrote an excellent book titled 'Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste'. He recounts an incident shortly after the introduction of the vernacular in which he was sitting beside a woman who was grimly saying the rosary throughout the Mass. When the time came for the sign of peace and he reached out to her, she stopped him with a glare and said 'I don't do that shit.' As an Australian, I'm sorry I missed Fr McDermott when he was here, and I'm glad that he found the minor variation he observed here rewarding. However, I'm not sure that it's to be found everywhere in Australia. I also recognise the descriptions from other contributors here - the 'don't touch what you can't afford' wave on the one hand, and on the other the anxious roiling maelstrom as people search the congregation for someone they haven't shaken hands with. I love the sign of peace, but I think his suggestions for other places for it in the liturgy are good ones.
Bruce Byrolly | 5/18/2009 - 7:58pm
Fr. McDermott, Thank you for your good article. The Kiss of Peace, like Communion from the Cup, is an indispensable sign of who we the People of God are, of how inseparable from each other we are, and of the love we are to have for one another. Bruce Byrolly Cambridge MD
PEGGY KRUSE | 5/18/2009 - 5:08pm
Reading Jim McCrea's comment reminded me of another rule for the sign of peace - that the priest is not to come off the altar to greet members of the congregation unless there is a special circumstance, such as the presence of political officials! I was incorrect in my first post, these rules are now several years old.
DAVID LUKENBILL MR | 5/18/2009 - 4:53pm
Excellent reflection, and I have found the same thing you mentioned, that the act of shaking a hand and looking into a person's eyes while wishing them peace is a subtle but powerful reminder that we are together, right now, as the People of God.
Don Killgallon | 5/18/2009 - 3:24pm
In our archdiocese (Baltimore), because of the Swine Flu scare, we were told not to shake hands, at least temporarily, because of flu fear. Oh, dear. It will be interesting to see if there's an exit strategy promulgated to the parishoners, when, once again, touching hands with each other will be allowed. We have nothing to fear but fear of flu itself! Oh, well-this, too shall pass, and we shall shake hands again.
Virginia Oleksyk | 5/18/2009 - 3:05pm
Extending the sign of peace before receiving the Eucharist seems an appropriate sequence to me. In Congregational churches, communion is taken simultaneously by the whole congregation, as a sign that we are all part of the mystical body of Christ, not as a private exercise.
JIM MCCREA | 5/18/2009 - 2:57pm
Now that the presider is supposed to ensconce himself away from the masses in a "don't touch me, I'm ontologically favored" posture, maybe that attitude has drifted into the pews. In my parish, on the other hand, the presider comes out into the crowd and the attitude is infectious. We sometimes take almost 5 minutes to "pass the peace" with lots of hugging, bussing (depending on whom, of course) and "grippin' and grinnin'." We wouldn't have it any other way.
PEGGY KRUSE | 5/18/2009 - 2:49pm
I thought the 'rules' had changed in the last year and that we were not supposed to 'overdo' the sign of peace, not supposed to go beyond a brief motion to those right next to us. Also - some dioceses suggested that priests discourage shaking hands (and receiving from the cup) for fear of spreading swine flu. Sounded like a great excuse for those who wanted to discourage those actions for other reasons.

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