Sunday Mass: a blessed tradition wherein people of faith across the globe gather in celebration and remembrance of God’s loving sacrifice for us. It is the spiritual highlight of the week and an opportunity to gather in community with our fellow believers to be reminded of what is truly important.
Most of Mass is a peaceful experience. But three-quarters of the way through the celebration, after the last words of the Lord’s Prayer are uttered, Massgoers are thrust headfirst into a 30-second trial of social competency that causes even the most extroverted of Catholics to break a sweat: the sign of peace.
To an untrained eye, the sign of peace might appear to be a simple and brief exchange of greetings among friends and family before returning our attention to the altar. In reality, it is an intricate and complex obstacle course of social gymnastics that, more often than not, ends in at least one awkward encounter. But, as in any good challenge, failure is not inevitable. On the contrary, I have found that a successful sign of peace is achievable through four basic, yet vital, strategies.
To an untrained eye, the sign of peace might appear to be a simple and brief exchange of greetings among friends and family before returning our attention to the altar.
1. Get aggressive. Here’s the situation: The Our Father has just ended, and “peace time” is upon you. You aren’t worried, though, because your best buddy is in the seat directly to your left and should be an easy place to start. However, when you turn his way, you find that he has abandoned any loyalty to you in order to get the first crack at shaking the hand of the pretty girl to his immediate left. Suppressing your urge to panic, you spin to your right only to find that person is already shaking hands with someone in the row behind you. Now, completely out of options, all you can do is stand there, a lonely sentinel, waiting to be someone’s second choice.
If you want to avoid this, you need to be proactive. Make a habit of mentally selecting one of the people sitting next to you as your primary target. When crunch time arrives, it is a good idea to start your hug/handshake before the priest even finishes the phrase “sign of peace.” This ain’t the Olympics, and there is no penalty for jumping the gun.
A vital tip: make sure that your selected target is not one half of a couple. Couples are a strange beast when it comes to the practice of peace-giving. It doesn’t matter if they have a continuous, 24/7 texting conversation with each other. It doesn’t matter if your friendship with one of them predates their relationship by 10 years. It doesn’t matter if they spend every second of their free time in each other’s arms already. The simple fact is that a couple will always turn to each other first during the sign of peace, despite any plans you may have laid ahead of time. They cannot be counted on.
The simple fact is that a couple will always turn to each other first during the sign of peace.
2. Be ready for anything. Ninety-nine percent of your peace-time interactions are going to fall into one of two categories: the traditional handshake or the more intimate hug. The difficult part comes in determining which one your peace partner prefers. Taking a guess can be risky business. If you opt for the immediate hug, you run the risk of creeping your partner out and fostering an uncomfortable tension. If you opt for the handshake when they preferred the hug, you run the risk of offending.
I have found the best solution to this problem to simply let your partner make the first move, without telegraphing any sort of preference on your part. There is always a chance, however, that your partner will mimic this strategy, showing body language as ambiguous as yours. In this case, you are left with no choice but to attempt a hybrid move. To execute this, you advance toward your partner with your right arm cocked loosely, in a position that could easily accommodate a handshake. At the same time, you hold your left arm up loosely near your head. As you get closer, analyze your partner’s body language for signs of a preference. If they seem to be showing “hug,” simply loosen both of your arms and embrace them in your favorite hugging style. If they seem to be showing “shake,” execute it with your right hand as you normally would and bring your raised left hand down in a warm, yet respectable shoulder clasp. Checkmate.
Ninety-nine percent of your peace-time interactions are going to fall into one of two categories.
3. Stay dry. The human body is an amazing creation. Among hundreds of thousands of other miraculous functions, we are blessed with a built-in self-cooling mechanism: sweating. Unfortunately, this mechanism has an annoying tendency to fire itself up during Mass after 45 minutes of prayerful hand clasping. Trust me, sweaty palms can be a serious problem if you are hoping to capitalize on the sign of peace as an opportunity to make a good impression on your fellow Massgoers. Your chances are going to tank in a major way as soon as your peace partner finds him or herself shaking a hand that feels like it spent the last half hour sitting in a bowl of lukewarm pasta.
For this reason, a preemptive cool-down period is vital. Fifteen minutes or so before peace time, unfold your hands and use your left one to hold your right wrist. By doing this, you maintain a reverent pose while allowing righty the time it needs to air-dry.
4. Remember we are family. At the end of the day, the sign of peace is more than just an awkward pause in the Mass: it is a chance to look to the people around you and to be reminded that the Catholic faith is not a lone-wolf operation. It is a membership in a family. And really, family is one of the most important things we have. So for this tiny, little, 30-second piece of your week, every ounce of your focus should be spent on appreciating the people you love. And there is absolutely no excuse for any of that time to be lost worrying about your overactive sweat glands. If you stick to these strategies I’ve developed over my 21 years of Massgoing experience, you will be able to glide through with no issues. So get out there and shake some hands. Hug some loved ones. I believe in you.