Four tips for surviving the sign of peace at Mass

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lisa Weber
3 months 1 week ago

This article conveys way too much ch worry over a minor matter. If you worry about sweaty palms, put just the tips of your fingers together during the Our Father. That will slow your hands to dry. For the rest, just shake hands with whoever is in the vicinity. If you miss someone or someone misses you, it really doesn’t matter.

Nora Bolcon
3 months 1 week ago

I am with you. I read this article and ask is it that slow a news day at America Magazine that they let this article publish. Seriously?! Yikes!

Shall we discuss what to do if you have an itch during mass next?

J Jones
3 months 1 week ago

I enjoyed it. A little bit of humor about Catholic life, a life in which there hasn't been much levity lately.

Stanley Kopacz
3 months 1 week ago

Agreed, J. Jones. A little light fare now and then is nice.

Sue Dahms
3 months 1 week ago

So many people are germaphobic now that it is a rare occasion to be able to shake hands. It is often hi, or a wave of a hand, or a head nod in our church. And it is only a few people you need to be concerned about.

Robert Klahn
3 months 1 week ago

If you are that germaphobic how do you function in the outside world? You meet a potential customer who is going to boost your sales report 20%, who is going to offer you a management job you dreamed of, who will get you elected to congress, and you blow it by not shaking hands? Oh well, if you are that germaphobic at least you won't pass it on to the children you won't have.

Kenneth Wolfe
3 months 1 week ago

Of all the novelties invented in the 1960s the sign of peace is perhaps the silliest. It was never intended to be an interruption in the Mass for the congregation to chit-chat with each other in the pews and pick up chicks. The kiss of peace, for centuries, was a simple embrace between clerics in the sanctuary in order of rank (celebrant to deacon, deacon to subdeacon, etc.) The best way to "survive" the 1960s version is to simply avoid it.

James M.
3 months 1 week ago

That needed saying.

Peter Schwimer
3 months 1 week ago

The first thing that came to mind is an old adage about mountains and mole hills. The second thing was something about getting a life. The third was that some folks havevtoo.much time on their hands.

Paul Halsall
3 months 1 week ago

Oh dear. Some moderation. I find all those "conservatives" who attack the sign of peace a bit wearisome. On the other hand, it does not need to go on much longer than 30 seconds and making it a big thing is part of the mawkish sentimentality of certain types of "liberal" liturgy.

JOHN PELLEGRINO
3 months 1 week ago

Two problems: the macho bone crusher hand shake and the stifle-the-wet-sneeze and then grab my hand peace sign

FRAN ABBOTT
3 months 1 week ago

Thank you, Gavin Cummings, for providing a much needed chuckle. I enjoyed this article.

Patricia Hammarth
3 months 1 week ago

It gave me a chuckle, too !

Kathy Dilg
3 months 1 week ago

Finally some levity! Thank you. We need more of it.

John Walton
3 months 1 week ago

Change your grand-daughter's diaper in the pew and see who shakes your hand at "the sign of peace".

Lori Milas
3 months 1 week ago

Oh gosh. You totally forgot the growing number of people who will not shake a hand at all. "Germs". So you are standing there with hand out thrust, and then have to withdraw it. Everyone feels foolish. And then (like at yesterday's Mass) little kid and mom sneezing, blowing noses, and then they DO want to shake. Now I'm the one waving a peace sign. Fun article, bummer that a warm moment for welcoming each other is really so awkward.

Marion Sforza
3 months 1 week ago

Thank you for a really good laugh!!! Well-written. Good job!

Elissa Roper
3 months 1 week ago

The sign of peace reconnects us, the People of God, with our sense of touch. During Mass we touch the pew, the floor, the hymn books, and our Lord in the Host. Why not each other?
Once I visited another parish and observed an elderly man in a wheelchair who parked in the front row and ended up alone during Mass. From the moment he arrived to the moment he was about to leave the foyer not one person had touched him, looked him in the eye, or spoken a kind word directly to him. Are we made blind to this because we are thinking too much of ourselves? The sign of peace is one way that our ritual can form us to be loving and outgoing to the other, and not too caught up in ourselves.
Peace is a to-and-fro giving and receiving, it needs an open heart.

Jeanne Devine
3 months 1 week ago

Thanks for this story, Elissa. So many comments seem to suppose that the only people we need to greet are those right next to us, the ones we already know. During my years as a pastor, I always encouraged people to exchange the peace with those they didn't already know. I hoped it would make guests and those who sat alone feel included, not ignored. I sure didn't have 100% success, but it was better than people just being friendly to their friends.

Will Nier
3 months 1 week ago

Good points except it is a sign of peace not a handshake of peace. Most in my parish wave except for families and I guess close friends who shake a hand or give a kiss of give a hug. What always makes me laugh is the rush for the door soon after the last prayer. At that point get out of the way. Ergo: what sign of peace. Finally this sign of peace is an offer from the priest ( presider ) to the congregation. The following should also be an acknowledgement from the congregation to the priest ( presider ) in one voice offering him ( eventually her ) the sign of peace back with a faith filled: And with your Spirit. This way we avoid the problem in the first place and these steps are not needed.

A Grady
3 months 1 week ago

And with your spirit is best - the kiss of peace is awkward - shaking hands during cold/flu season is not recommended nor drinking from the same cup... the mass lacks affection and there’s never a coffee afterwards to chat with fellow parishioners - In my 60’s - except for the gospel - I’m finding the whole experience slightly bizarre

Vince Killoran
3 months 1 week ago

The early form of the Kiss of Peace came earlier in the Mass, i.e., to mark the healing in any rifts that occurred between people during the week. I seem to recall that it fell right after the Confiteor. That makes more sense to me.

Julie A Miller
3 months 1 week ago

This awkward compelled moment of physical inteaction makes attending mass even more daunting for introverts.

MJ Painter
3 months 1 week ago

I'm glad some commenters saw this as a light-hearted essay, rather the anngst-filled comments leading off the pack.

I was getting worried there ...

Adrian Hoppel
3 months 1 week ago

Amen. I was laughing through the article, came to the comments, and was like, "Uh... "

Robert Klahn
3 months 1 week ago

I agree with those who say this is much ado about nothing.
Shake hands. Hugging and kissing for those who know each other well enough to know it's acceptable.

Fr. Ronald G Schmit
3 months 1 week ago

The sign of peace is one of the more successful reforms of the Council. Along with the prayer of the faithful and the offertory processional the sign of peace signifies that the liturgy is celebrated by Christ acting through his body the Church. It is also a humanizing moment for those who find many a liturgy drained of humanity. It is not my friend or family member or stranger I greet but it is Christ in the flesh. If I can’t find Christ in the persons around me what makes me think I can find him in bread and wine?
Fr. Ron Schmit

Bill Collier
3 months 1 week ago

Nicely put, Fr. Schmit. 👍

Vincent Gaglione
3 months 1 week ago

What an enjoyable guide for the “kiss of peace.” So much of it struck a chord of familiarity! I never cease to be amazed at the number of “little old ladies” who demur from shaking hands but lift the open hand in a sort of royal wave to everyone. I also never cease to be amazed at the same ladies leaving church greeting and touching the celebrant of the Mass, the deacon, friends and other parishioners!

Stephen Shore
3 months 1 week ago

I hate this part of the Mass. Just have to admit it. And I am 56 years old, so at this point I don't think I am all of a sudden going to "get used to it".

And yes, I am one of the ones that leaves church as soon as my wife allows (after the last word in the hymn) and gets to the car as fast as possible.

Robert Klahn
3 months 1 week ago

If you can't touch another person, so much as shaking hands, how do you function in public. If you have a church full of people that dysfunctional either it's part of a treatment center or what is that priest doing to screw up so many people?

A: Shake hands.

B: Do not even think about hugging unless you know the person well enough to know it's acceptable.

Now go forth and be less dysfunctional.

John Wakefield
3 months 1 week ago

I am here in the Dominican Republic. There is a degree of falsity in the Catholic Church that is ´asombrosa´ .. there is a real contorsion, a socio-economic contorsion vis-a-vis the giving of the sign of peace .. and/or ´the wave´ .. remember Nixon waving to the empty airport? There is a lot of that in these, our thymes ... the writer is form Carroll College I am graduated from Gonzaga .. there was a time there could be a time when this little nick ´o peace would be a balm, a hopeful sign .. a something. We´re not doing very well with it. We don´t live as if we really believe that we are a community.

Ann Sauer
3 months 1 week ago

A friend and I always make a peace sign across aisles to wherever each other. Makes a pleasant experience at Mass.

Thomas Jennings
3 months 1 week ago

Yo dude, the priest isn't the one who says, "Let us offer each other a sign of peace".

Henry George
3 months 1 week ago

Before Vatican II, the Church was quiet before and after Mass.
Now, in many, but not all parishes, people talk in loud voices, call out to each
before and after Mass, as if there were no one trying to pray/listen to the voice of God
in God's house. If you arrive early, the Church is often locked, and if you wish to stay late
you are asked to leave, as the lights are being turned off, the votive candles blown out,
as the Church must be locked up.

The Sign of Peace is not the time to wish each other Peace !
rather it is a time to wish each other the Peace of Christ, which Jesus makes clear
is not the Peace of Humans.
No need to shout across the pews, to work the crowd like a politician running for office
who must shake each hand, to tell a quick joke.

Move the Sign of Peace to the beginning of Mass and wish each other the Peace of Christ.

James M.
3 months 1 week ago

Well said, all of that.

Maureen Garvey
3 months 1 week ago

I think this was a very funny piece.

michael baland
3 months 1 week ago

Gavin,
A really enjoyable article. Thanks much for brightening my day.

Louise Mclaugh
3 months 1 week ago

Better yet, greet the folks as you enter a pew or as they do. A simple Good Morning! With a smile can share and acknowledge God’s love. It beats pretending we worship in isolation.

Louise Mclaugh
3 months 1 week ago

Better yet, greet the folks as you enter a pew or as they do. A simple Good Morning! With a smile can share and acknowledge God’s love. It beats pretending we worship in isolation.

Louise Mclaugh
3 months 1 week ago

Better yet, greet the folks as you enter a pew or as they do. A simple Good Morning! With a smile can share and acknowledge God’s love. It beats pretending we worship in isolation.

James M.
3 months 1 week ago

“4. Remember we are family.”

Anything less family-like than the CC is hard to imagine.
Cliquey ? Certainly.
Unwelcoming ? Definitely.
Hostile to those outside the tribe ? Absolutely.
Family-like ? Not in the slightest.

“At the end of the day, the sign of peace is more than just an awkward pause in the Mass.”

That is exactly what it is. It’s a stupid interruption which requires people to put on a fake bonhomie they are far from feeling, merely because Big Father in Rome says so.

“it is a chance to look to the people around you”

Ugh. What is the good in pretending one cares about total strangers, or that they care about oneself ? Going to the same Church as a group of other people means nothing beyond that fact.

“and to be reminded that the Catholic faith is not a lone-wolf operation. It is a membership in a family.”

The Mafia is said to be a family, so that is hardly a recommendation.

“And really, family is one of the most important things we have.”

Except that, in the Gospels, Jesus goes around breaking families up, and insisting, in no uncertain terms, that God must come first. Many of the Sainted religious founders had exactly the same attitude. The modern idolatry of the family has very little - has nothing - to do with the Gospels. It has some slight foundation in the Epistles.

Alan Johnstone
3 months 1 week ago

Did you just get out of the wrong side of the bed in the morning or are you always so angry and bitter?

My experience of family is of strife, suffering, discord and mysteriously belonging.

Perfect model of parochial life; more like 'The Waltons' than 'Leave it to Beaver'.

Victoria Figueroa
3 months 1 week ago

Good article - America magazine, thank you for printing. For an introvert, sign of peace can be intimidating. The greeting of strangers definitely is not a minor matter. Plus, from a secular, practical standpoint, the sign of peace can be an awkward event for the "germophobes" in the pews. We have to be careful not to judge - this is the time to take off our lofty theological hats and show some empathy. If we see a person struggling during sign of peace, we should try to help them instead of being arrogant, righteous church people forcing the issue. The sign of peace is a vital part of Mass - maybe catechesis from the altar could help clarify meaning of its purpose and thus, reduce anxiety.

Molly Roach
3 months 1 week ago

This is truly one of the silliest little articles I have read anywhere in some time.

Dcn Cliff Britton
3 months 1 week ago

The sign of peace is a moment of reconciliation. Ancient. I dreaded it when my wife and I were at odds with one another but we promised to always sit next to one another (with the five children to each side) so that, even on our worst days, we "reconciled" at Mass. Life-giving. After 32 years of doing this I miss it now (10 years as a deacon)...

Del Adams
3 months 1 week ago

LOVED this article. You’re putting to words so many funny thoughts that have gone through my head at mass, while still keeping the reverence at the forefront. You are Incredibly witty and talented. Best article I have read in a long time. KEEP WRITING MORE!!

karen oconnell
3 months 1 week ago

I agree. the ''exchange of peace''' is awkward...cumbersome.......superfluous........as is just about everything. but...just about everything comes together as a joyful noise. please don't regiment it. it is probably the one moment of truth in the whole celebration: the pursuit of love and acceptance. let us not destroy it.

Daniel Meyers
3 months 1 week ago

I understand the meaning behind the sign of peace and I respect it. What really bothers me is all the people who cough or sneeze into their hands, blow their nose with the an old handkerchief or wipe their child's nose with a damp and crumpled Kleenex, root around in their ear with their little finger, or any number of things that turn me off to ever wanting to shake their hand - and yet they think nothing of it! Cold and flu season is coming up soon and I really wish we could take a lesson from our brothers and sisters in other cultures who simply bow as a sign of respect and reverence to the holy in one another. Namaste.

Maureen Williams
3 months 1 week ago

A cleverly written article that addresses a common experience in a fun way. It brightened my morning, and when I offer the sign of peace later today, I will probably smile a bit more thinking about this.

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