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Thomas J. ReeseApril 15, 1995
People exchange the sign of peace during Mass at St. Pius X Church in El Paso, Texas, Sept. 23, 2019. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

When the bishops meet in Chicago from June 15 to 17 [1995], they will discuss and vote on a proposal to move the kiss of peace from its current location after the Lord's Prayer to a new position in the eucharistic liturgy. The proposal would place the sign of peace before the preparation of the gifts (which used to be called the offertory). If the bishops adopt this proposal, they may be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

The kiss of peace, which originated among the first Christians and fell into disuse centuries later, was restored to the Roman missal in 1970 as part of the liturgical reforms initiated by Vatican II. In the United States, however, the kiss of peace is rarely a real kiss. Rather, the congregation is asked to exchange a sign of peace, which for most people is a handshake. Family members, lovers or close friends might kiss or embrace or touch cheeks in the continental fashion. But the vast majority of people in the assembly shake hands, a gesture with which Americans are more comfortable.

When this kiss of peace was restored to the liturgy, many people at first found it disconcerting. From their earliest years they had been trained not to talk in church. Suddenly, "in the middle of the most sacred part of the Mass, they were being told to kiss or shake hands with the people around them. Most Catholics soon accepted the practice, and for many it is one of the high points of the liturgy. In some congregations, the exchange of peace is a quick, quiet, token gesture among strangers. In other congregations, it is an explosive and joyful event that goes on for some time as friends exchange greetings.

But some complain that although exchanging the sign of peace is a good idea, its place before Communion is distracting and irreverent. A number of bishops appear to share this view. They argue that before Communion the congregation should be preparing to receive the body and blood of Christ and not be greeting one another. The worshipers should be facing toward Jesus, not toward one another.

In its crudest form, this argument smacks of an individualistic piety that sees the Eucharist as something "between me and Jesus," with the rest of the congregation only a distraction. Some who complain about the kiss of peace even object to singing at Communion because it distracts them from preparing to receive Jesus and from making their private thanksgiving. Those defending the present location of the sign of peace respond: "Is there any better preparation for Communion than expressing our love for our neighbors?" The kiss of peace is seen by these people as a gesture of unity and communion that will be sacramentalized in Communion.

In order to sort through these opposed arguments, it is necessary first to examine the nature of symbolic gestures and then to examine the history of the kiss of peace in the Roman liturgy.

Human beings communicate in a number of ways: through written words, through spoken words, through music, through art and through gestures. Gestures are nonverbal, symbolic actions used by a person to communicate with others. A police officer directing traffic uses gestures to communicate with drivers in their cars. Drivers, either through training or through observation, have learned how to interpret these gestures.

THE MEANING OF A GESTURE is not always clear to the person to whom the gesture is addressed. When I was in high school, a new teacher from Germany asked for volunteers to put the homework assignment on the black board. When no one raised his hand to volunteer, the teacher said he wanted to see some fingers. The students immediately showed him some fingers-whose meaning he luckily did not understand.

Gestures can also have different meanings in different contexts. Extending the right arm in a classroom means the student wants to be called on, extending it at an auction means you are making a bid extending it at a Nazi rally means something else. Often, therefore, when the meaning of a gesture is not clear, people add words to make the meaning clearer. If you walk into a bar and hold up two fingers, the meaning is clarified if you say "peace," or "two beers," or "a table for two." Similarly, words also help interpret gestures in a liturgical setting.

Finally, it should be noted that the meaning of many gestures is culturally determined. Gestures can even have exactly opposite meanings for different people. Wearing a hat in a synagogue is a sign of respect wearing one in a Catholic church is a sign of disrespect-unless you are a bishop.

In the film world of Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a kiss was just a kiss, but in real life things are more complicated. A kiss, an embrace and a handshake are gestures used to communicate some meaning. They are forms of nonverbal communication, symbolic gestures. But the meaning of these symbolic gestures is not always self-evident.

A KISS can have many meanings, depending on the persons who kiss, the place, the time and the culture. Depending on the circumstances, a kiss can be an invitation to a sexual encounter, a greeting, a good-bye, an expression of a special (spousal, familial) relationship, an expression of sympathy to someone in pain, an expression of reconciliation (kiss and make up), an act of aggression (if the kiss is unwanted) or even an act of betrayal (as with Judas). It can also be a sign of subservience, as in the kissing of feet.

Similarly, a handshake can have many meanings: hello, good-bye, a sign of agreement (let's shake on it), an indication of a promise or commitment, a sign that a conflict is not personal (shake hands and come out fighting). It can also be a sign of congratulations (when receiving a diploma) or a sign of reconciliation. Handshakes can take place between strangers or intimate friends.

What then is the meaning of the sign of peace in its present location in the liturgy? Coming as it does after the Lord's Prayer, some would see it as a sign of reconciliation: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us .... " The sign of peace fulfills that prayer through an action-we show that we forgive each other and are at peace with one another. Following this interpretation, some priests introduce the sign of peace by saying, "Let us show that we are at peace with one another," although these words are not in the liturgical texts. The new Sacramentary proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy gives as a second option: "As children of the God of peace, let us offer one another a sign of reconciliation and peace." The third option is: "Brothers and sisters, let us offer one another the peace of the risen Christ."

The prayer that immediately precedes the sign of peace does not speak of mutual forgiveness or reconciliation. It is an unusual prayer, one of the few in the eucharistic liturgy addressed to Jesus. Most prayers in the Eucharist are addressed to God, that is, to the Father. This prayer quotes from John's Gospel the words Jesus spoke when giving his peace to his Apostles at the Last Supper. In that fourth Gospel, the Lord then speaks of not being distressed or fearful. Elsewhere, he speaks of reconciliation, but not here. The eucharistic prayer asks Jesus to look not on our sins, but on the faith of his church, and to grant us the unity and peace of his Kingdom, where he lives for ever and ever. The prayer does not even ask for forgiveness it asks that Jesus simply ignore our sins.

After this prayer, the presider says, "The peace of the Lord be with you always." These are not words requesting forgiveness from the congregation, nor are they words expressing the priest's forgiveness of the people for their sins against him. Thus we are not talking about mutual reconciliation. Rather, the words sound like a blessing or a prayer: "Peace be with you." The celebrant is asking that peace, a gift of Jesus, be with the congregation.

The presider or deacon then says, "Let us offer each other the sign of peace." Although many celebrants have attempted to turn the sign of peace into a sign of reconciliation, most of their efforts have failed, and rightly so. There is a tendency among some clerics to believe that sin and reconciliation must be brought up during the liturgy every 60 seconds or the people of God will forget that they are sinners in need of forgiveness. Prayers of praise, thanksgiving and petition must be constantly interrupted with a remembrance of sin. That conviction is clearly at work when the sign of peace is turned into a sign of reconciliation or a mini-penitential rite.

But the people in the assembly do not buy this. Despite what the priest might say, most people do not see the sign of peace in its present location as a sign of reconciliation. Of course, there are exceptions: The family that had an argument in the car on the way to church the parish ripped by racial tension the old enemies who accidentally sat next to each other. But the average person turning to his neighbor is not thinking of his sins against that neighbor or of that person's sins against him. In many cases he does not even know the person's name.

HOW THEN DOES THE ASSEMBLY view the sign of peace? Too often during the kiss of peace, people are simply saying hello to their neighbors. Some, like the presider, are wishing the gift of Christ's peace for their neighbors. They are bestowing a blessing. They say, "Christ's peace be with you." They do not say, "Let's be at peace with each other." The exchange is done with smiles of joy, not with tears of regret. The kiss of peace can also be a physical gesture indicating an openness to communion with one's neighbors, those with whom one will be united in Christ through Communion.

The Pastoral Introduction to the Order of the Mass proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy gives one of the best interpretations of the kiss of peace. It points out:

The exchange of peace prior to the reception of communion is an acknowledgment that Christ whom we receive in the sacrament is already present in our neighbor. In this exchange, the assembly acknowledges the insistent Gospel truth that communion with God in Christ is enjoyed in communion with our sisters and brothers in Christ. The rite of peace is not an expression merely of human solidarity or good will it is rather an opening of ourselves and our neighbors to a challenge and a gift from beyond ourselves. Like the Amen at communion, it is the acceptance of a challenge, a profession of faith that we are members, one with another, in the body of Christ.

The bishops are now asked, however, whether the sign of peace should be moved or stay where it is. Before considering that question, it will be helpful to look at the history of the kiss of peace and its place in the liturgy.

Kissing and hugging are ancient practices among Christians. After telling the Corinthians to live in harmony and peace, St. Paul tells them to greet one another with a holy kiss. In his Letter to the Romans, after greeting a series of people, Paul writes: "Greet one another with a holy kiss. All of the churches of Christ send you greeting." Thus, to the divided Corinthian community he makes the kiss a sign of reconciliation, but to the Roman community it expresses greetings of affection and love. Peter tells his readers to greet one another with the embrace of true love. He then immediately concludes his letter with, "Peace to all of you who are in Christ." The kiss was sometimes, but not always, a sign of reconciliation.

Kissing at Christian liturgies, then, has a long history. According to the ancient custom, adults were baptized and then confirmed by the bishop, who immediately welcomed the new Christian with a kiss. Catechumens, on the other hand, were not to give or receive the kiss of peace. According to Joseph J. Jungman, S.J., a historian of liturgy, this was a Christian appropriation of the secular practice in which a kiss was the sign of initiation into a fraternity or society (The Early Liturgy, p. 128). The Christians took this secular practice and incorporated it into their own sacrament of initiation, where it took on added meaning. While the practice died out in secular society as culture changed, its meaning in the Christian community continued, although it degenerated, through German influence, to a mere tap on the cheek.

The first record of a kiss in the eucharistic rite goes back to the oldest recorded description of the liturgy-the one provided by the first Apology of Saint Justin in the mid-second century. Justin describes the Liturgy of the Word as including readings from the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets. Instructions and exhortations from the presider follow the readings and then all rise together and pray. He also notes: "Having ended the prayer, we salute one another with a kiss." Then the gifts are brought forward. Thus the kiss occurred immediately after the prayers that concluded the Liturgy of the Word. Today this would mean placing the kiss of peace after the prayer of the faithful.

What did this kiss mean in a mid-second-century liturgy? Justin does not explain it, but it is worth noting that he does not use the word "peace." Nor does he use the word "reconciliation." The word "salute" implies some kind of greeting or acknowledgment of each other. One possibility is that the kiss at this point is a holdover from the time when the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist took place at separate times and places. The Liturgy of the Word would have taken place on Saturday, on the ~ame day the synagogue met. The Liturgy of the Eucharist would be celebrated on Sunday, the day of the Lord's resurrection. The kiss could have concluded the Liturgy of the Word before people left. When the two liturgies were combined, the kiss was kept after the prayers ending the Liturgy of the Word. ­­

WHATEVER ITS ORIGINS, the kiss began to be interpreted and explained in different ways. This is not surprising, since a kiss is a symbolic expression open to different meanings.

Kissing at the conclusion of prayers appears to have been a common Christian custom. It could have been as spontaneous as the actions of a family today, hugging and kissing each other after saying the rosary together. Another early Christian writer, Tertullian (d. 230), asks, "What prayer is complete without the holy kiss?" He saw the kiss as a seal of the prayer that preceded it. Like the Amen, it represents assent to what has gone before.

The Gospel of Matthew provides an alternative meaning for the kiss: "If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (5:23-24). Although Matthew does not mention a kiss, it is easy to see how preachers would link this text to the kiss of peace that took place just before the gifts were brought to the altar. Thus a new meaning was given to an old gesture. ­

According to Jungman, in The Mass of the Roman Rite (2 vols., 1951-55), the kiss of peace was originally placed at the end of the service of reading and prayers rather than at the start of the sacrifice-Mass. In keeping with the ancient Christian conception, it formed the seal and pledge of the prayers that preceded it. But after the service of readings and prayers had been joined to the celebration of the Eucharist, regard for our Lord's admonition (Mt. 5:22 ff.) about the dispositions required in one who wishes to make an offering would probably have led to placing the kiss of peace (as guarantee of fraternal sentiment) closer to the moment when one is bringing one's gift before the altar. ­

How then did the kiss get moved from the end of the Liturgy of the Word to its present location after the Lord's Prayer and before Communion? The Roman liturgy may have picked up this practice from the African liturgy, in which, according to some historians, the Lord's Prayer originally concluded the prayer of the faithful and thus was followed by the kiss. When Africans moved the Lord's Prayer to a position after the breaking of the bread and just before the Communion, in line with the petition, "give us this day our daily bread," the kiss went with it. St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) explains the kiss of peace as an enactment of the petition, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive .... " It thus became an expression of reconciliation immediately prior to Communion.

But the first indication of a new location for the kiss in Rome appears in 416, when Pope Innocent I wrote to the bishop of Gubbio telling him that he should follow the Roman custom of having the kiss at the end of the eucharistic prayer. The bishop had been following the more ancient practice of having it before carrying out the mysteries.

Innocent's reason for placing the kiss after the eucharistic prayer is interesting: By it the people give a token of their consent to everything performed in the mysteries and celebrated in the church. As Tertullian had said, the kiss is a seal or guarantee of the prayer that has just been recited. And what greater prayer is there than the eucharistic prayer? The kiss, therefore, goes at the end of that prayer. Innocent did not see the kiss as a sign of reconciliation.

At the time of Pope Innocent I, the Lord's Prayer was recited after the breaking of the bread, immediately before Communion. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) rearranged the Communion liturgy and moved the Lord's Prayer to a position immediately after the eucharistic prayer. It was followed by the embolism, "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil.. .. " The kiss, therefore, was quite a distance from the eucharistic prayer it was supposed to be sealing. On the other hand, Roman practice now followed the African custom of having the kiss after the Lord's Prayer, although in Rome that Lord's Prayer occurred before the breaking of the bread. Corning as it did after the "Our Father" ("Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive .. , "), the kiss now took on a reconciliation theme. The prayer for peace ("Lord Jesus Christ ... ") before the greeting of peace appeared first in Germany in the 11 th century. It replaced older prayers for peace and was adopted in the Missal of Pius V (1570).

The kiss of peace continued to be bounced around. Before the Second Vatican Council, it occurred during high Mass after the Agnus Dei, whose last petition is, "grant us peace," despite the fact that the Pax Domini ("The peace of the Lord be always with you") was sung before the Agnus Dei. After Vatican II, the kiss of peace was returned to its Gregorian location that is, following the Pax Domini but before the breaking of the bread.

THE VARIETY OF PRACTICES in the Christian churches is almost endless. In some Eastern liturgies the kiss of peace occurred before the eucharistic prayer but after the presentation of gifts. In others it took place after the Nicene Creed to indicate an affirmation of the creed. In still others, the priest's or bishop's hand is kissed before receiving Communion from him. In contemporary Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant liturgies the kiss has been returned to the end of the Liturgy of the Word. Simply for ecumenical reasons, returning the kiss of peace to its ancient position has merit because it would put the Roman liturgy closer to the practice in the Eastern and Protestant liturgies.

By the time of Gregory the Great, the kiss of peace was being seen as a natural preparation for Communion. Even when Communion was received by the sick or others outside of Mass, the kiss of peace would be exchanged before Communion. In some places, those who did not receive Communion could not exchange the kiss of peace. But in certain monasteries, in which the congregation received Communion only at the Sunday Eucharist, the kiss of peace became the high point of the daily liturgy. A common restriction on the kiss of peace was that only men could give it to men, and only women could give it to women. This rule was easy to keep in churches where the sexes were separated, a custom also practiced in the synagogue. ­

BY THE 10TH CENTURY the kiss of peace had developed a hierarchical flavor. It began with the bishop and descended through the ranks of the clergy to members of the laity in the congregation. No one could pass on the kiss of peace until he had first received it from above. This practice led to unedifying disputes among the clergy over who would receive the kiss of peace first. Thus the gesture became a symbol of hierarchical power and precedence--a perversion of its original meaning.

When a priest presided alone, the practice evolved of his first kissing the altar and then passing the kiss of peace to the people. By kissing the altar, which symbolizes Christ, the priest symbolically receives the kiss of peace from Christ which then passes from him to the congregation. In France, the symbolism was more graphic because the priest kissed the host before passing on the kiss of peace. This exchange is similar to the practice on Holy Saturday in which the flame (the light of Christ) from the paschal candle is passed along to all the congregation.

In today's liturgy the priest no longer kisses the altar before extending the kiss of peace to others, so the idea of his passing on something he has received is lost. To forbid people in the assembly to exchange the sign of peace until they have somehow received it from the priest is now seen as too clerical and as contrary to the view of the church as the people of God sharing a common priesthood through baptism. As a practical matter, passing along the kiss of peace in a large church takes time. So for theological and practical reasons this practice has been dropped.

Whether the priest should only exchange peace with those in the sanctuary or whether he should go into the assembly to exchange it there is a debated point. Some argue that he has already extended peace to the entire congregation and need not give it individually to any in the assembly. But if this is the case, why does he extend the sign of peace to people in the sanctuary? On this issue, liberals and conservatives are opposed to moderates. Liberals, reacting against the "pass it along" model, argue that the people do not need the priest to help them exchange peace with each other. Conservatives are reluctant to have the presider leave priest territory, that is the sanctuary. Moderates simply respond to the people who seem to enjoy receiving the kiss of peace from the celenbrant. This moving back and forth also breaks down the artificial barrier between the sanctuary and the assembly.

Almost 2,000 years of liturgical practice, therefore, show that in the Catholic Church a kiss is never just a kiss. Rather, it is a symbol into which many different meanings have been poured. What does this tell us about the current proposal to move the position of the kiss of peace? Six points are worth noting:

First, the kiss of peace has been moved before and there is nothing wrong with moving it again for a good reason.

Second, the kiss has been given different meanings by the Christian community in different periods of its history. There is nothing wrong with endowing it with new meaning today if that fits our current eucharistic understanding and practice.

Third, the most ancient practice is to have the kiss at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word. The Roman and African practice was unusual. In a community where history and tradition are important, the ancient placement must be given serious consideration, especially when it is used by other churches. The most ancient practice supports the proposal to move the kiss of peace to the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word.

Fourth, in its original form, the kiss of peace was not a sign of reconciliation. In a community where history and tradition are important, attempts to turn the kiss of peace always into a sign of reconciliation must be questioned. The most ancient practice does not support the idea of the kiss of peace as a sign of reconciliation. On the other hand, less ancient interpretations of the kiss of peace as a sign of reconciliation are not necessarily invalid. Nor are interpretations of the kiss of peace as a symbol of unity and love invalid. The community has a right to give symbols new and different meanings.

Fifth, the kiss was originally seen as a seal or guarantee of the prayer just recited. Like the Amen, it is a congregational affirmation, a pledge by the worshipers to incarnate in their lives what they have heard in the Liturgy of the Word. In this sense, it is much more like shaking hands on a deal than like kissing and making up. It symbolizes the people's affirmation and renewal of the community's covenant proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word. An essential part of that covenant is reconciliation, but reconciliation is not the only message. Whether or not this original meaning of the kiss can be recaptured is uncertain, but this interpretation would have a better chance of being understood if the kiss were at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word rather than anywhere else in the liturgy.

Sixth, most people in the assembly currently see the kiss of peace either as a blessing they bestow on each other or simply as a chance to say hello to their neighbors. Attempts to change this view are probably not going to succeed as long as the liturgical text remains unchanged and as long as the kiss remains where it is.

SO, SHOULD THE KISS OF PEACE BE MOVED? A joint study by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy and the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions revealed some dissatisfaction with the current place of the sign of peace and recommended it be moved. The recommendation presented to the bishops at their November 1994 meeting proposed moving the kiss of peace to its more ancient position after the Liturgy of the Word and at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist (emphasis added).

The innacurate wording of this proposal is surprising, considering its source. As we have learned from Jungman, it would be more accurate to say that the more ancient position was at the end of the Liturgy of the Word and before the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The point is not as trivial as it first appears. Does the kiss of peace conclude (look backward to) the Liturgy of the Word, or does it begin (look forward to) the Liturgy of the Eucharist? Or is it a neutral hinge between the two?

The proposal quotes Mt. 5:23-24 ("If you bring your gift to the altar. .. ") in defense of moving the kiss of peace. The proposed text has the priest introduce the sign of peace with the following or similar words:

"Christ reminds us that before we bring our gift to the altar, we must be reconciled with one another. Together let us be reconciled in Christ, who puts our hearts and minds at peace."

The priest then extends his hands and gives the greeting of peace: "The peace of the Lord be with you always." After the people respond, "And also with you," the priest then uses the following or similar words: "Let us offer one another a sign of reconciliation and peace." The text, therefore, explicitly identifies the kiss of peace as a sign of reconciliation. Hence my conclusion: The bishops appear to be getting ready to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Once again Augustine and his sense of sin triumphs.

The only saving grace is that the actual words are not mandatory. Thus a presider could refer to something in the day's Scripture readings while introducing the sign of peace. For example: "Jesus told us, 'Love one another as I have loved you.’ To show our love for one another, let us extend to one another the love and peace of Christ." Or another example: "Jesus came to establish his Father's Kingdom, a Kingdom of justice and peace. As a community we commit ourselves to working for justice and peace. The peace and justice of Christ be with you always. Let us pledge peace and justice to one another." ­

But if the bishops really want to use the kiss of peace always as a means of implementing Mt. 5:23-24, then they should move the penitential rite to the end of the Liturgy of the Word and conclude the penitential rite with the kiss of peace. In this rearrangement, the penitential rite would be seen as a response to the call for repentance and reconciliation as proclaimed in the Scriptures and the homily. There is a lot to be said for such a rearrangement, which is used in the Zairean liturgy approved by Rome. It follows the pattern of proclamation and response that is a fundamental liturgical principle. The downside (or upside, depending on your point of view) is that homilists would be encouraged by this structure always to conclude the homily with references to sin, forgiveness and reconciliation. ­

If the bishops want to make the kiss of peace always a sign of reconciliation, another possibility is to move it to the end of the penitential rite in its current location at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word. Such a move, however, would give the penitential rite more emphasis than most people believe it deserves and would reverse the pattern of proclamation-and-response to response-and-proclamation. If we are truly reconciled and at peace this soon in the liturgy, why listen to the word of God?

Finally, some people believe that the kiss of peace is liturgically unsalvageable and would like to have it occur before the liturgy begins. Here it would revert to its secular meaning as a greeting or part of an introduction. Many parishes have already introduced a greeting initiated by a lay person before the priest enters the assembly. Since it occurs before the liturgy starts, there is no law against doing this. Such a greeting fosters a sense of community. When properly done, it introduces strangers to one another or allows greetings between friends who have not yet spoken to each other. But this is not the time for families and friends who came to church in the same car to shake hands!

BESIDES FOSTERING COMMUNITY, this introductory handshake also helps people understand that the kiss of peace is not just saying hello. It is different. You say hello to someone you have not yet spoken to, but you exchange the sign of peace with all the others (family, friends and strangers), even if you had a long chat with them before the liturgy.


To sum up: The bishops should vote to return the kiss of peace to the end of the Liturgy of the Word. It should go after the prayer of the faithful, that is to say, return to its most ancient position. How the kiss will be interpreted by the clergy and by people will be interesting to watch.


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Vincent Gaitley
9 years 11 months ago
Now nearly twenty years later we know Rome's mind: Fire Fr. Reese. Stall on the Kiss of Peace. Stonewall the victims of abuse, then pretend to do something. When nobody expects or needs a change in the Kiss of Peace, remind the couple dozen remaining Catholics that they shouldn't get carried away, the priest must stay put, even at a funeral, and no worries, we might ban it anyway. But do love one another, just keep your distance.

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