Sign of Peace Needs to Maintain a Public Character

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

The Catholic liturgical tradition regards the Sign of Peace at Mass as a disciplined and restrained public gesture, and not an affectionate gesture of intimacy and friendship. In fact, the peace sign is designed for people who, for the most part, do not even know each other’s names.

This derives from the fact that the liturgical assembly is not (and is not meant to be) a gathering of friends and intimates. In my view, it is a mistake to view those gathered in worship as friends and “friends who haven’t yet met.”

While the liturgical assembly includes spouses, family members, and friends, for the most part, it does not. It is generally a mixed gathering of neighbors, fellow citizens, and persons who are (and will remain) strangers to each other.

Indeed, the Eucharistic gathering is more like a town meeting than a community of intimates. It is a public rather than an intimate grouping.

Saying this goes against the strong emphasis on small group intimacy and interpersonal relationships popular in liturgical spirituality today? Many pastors and people appear to have absorbed from the culture at large a bias toward intimacy and against publicness. Indeed, our culture sets such store on privacy and intimacy that the small group is regarded today as the only humanly authentic social grouping. This explains why many parishes have over the years been busy attempting to turn liturgical assemblies into intimate gatherings of family and friends, and why they think anything less is intolerable and inauthentic.

By contrast, I believe that the Church needs to redeem publicness and challenge assumptions about intimacy that have their origin more in modern group therapy theory than in the Gospel.

Accordingly, I would hold that the Sign of Peace should not be regarded primarily as an intimate gesture, but as a public sign expressing fellow citizenship in Christ. It should retain its traditional role as a sign shared between people of goodwill, whether they know each other or not. The peace sign is not designed to turn people into friends, but to express the graciousness of all kinds and degrees of relationships in the public world.

What about the practice of spouses, relatives, and friends–people who know each other well–kissing and hugging each other during the Sign of Peace? The practice is probably here to stay, and pastors would be foolish to lose much sleep over it.

Yet, it should be kept in mind that when we gather for the Eucharist we come together as sons and daughters of God who are all equally related by baptism. For the moment, the stranger and the marginal person are as close to us as spouse and children.

Certainly, the Eucharist does not abrogate spousal and familial relationships, but it does set before us an order of things beyond all human degrees of relationship.

This is why the Sign of Peace is not meaningless when shared between strangers and only meaningful when exchanged between intimates. Indeed, the peace sign is never more meaningful than when shared between strangers, or those separated by human barriers of various kinds. The Sign of Peace declares: “We may be strangers at the human level, but not in God’s scheme of things.”

The Sign of Peace before Communion is an eschatological sign, by which I mean a sign of the way things will be in the Kingdom of God, in which the present world of division, racism, hostility, and suspicion will have passed away.


  1. I love this reflection.

    Just speaking for myself, when I offer the sign of peace to friends and family, I will do so in a way that acknowledges that personal relationship. And when I offer it to strangers, I’ll endeavor to do so in a one-citizen-to-another mode.

  2. I heartily concur. My parish, however, is very much on the sign-of-peace-a-intimate-encounter side of the spectrum, with the sign of peace going on for several minutes and all too often becoming an occasion for people to catch up with each other. Fortunately for me, my diaconal duties keep me sufficiently busy at that point that I can opt out after about a minute. At the same time, visitors to our parish often comment on how much they love the lengthy sign of peace and the genuine warmth with which it is carried out. And they don’t seem to feel excluded by the fact that they don’t know anyone. So obviously lots of people do not share my particular liturgical sensibility.

    1. I can relate to Fritz’s parish from a different perspective. Our previous Pastor would come off the altar and spend enough time shaking hands that I could give each of my choir members a sign of peace. Our new pastor does not, so now I may be able to acknowledge the the front row of the choir, before I am effectively responsible for cutting off the entire congregation, when I have to begin the Agnus Dei at the fraction.

  3. I wonder if Msgr. Mannion has ever participated in an authentic passover meal with Jewish friends and acquaintances. It is a gathering of family and friends marked by true intimacy though in a framework of a meal that includes ritual actions. One does not have to unrealistically expect that a certain warm and affective sharing of the sign of peace will turn “strangers” into “buds” in a large assembly, but it can indeed reinforce the important belief that when receiving communion which soon follows we are becoming united with Christ and each other. A while back we adopted as our parish vision: We are becoming a Catholic community of faith in which all are welcome to become friends with each other, with Christ, and with the least of his brothers and sisters, and so become Holy as God is Holy. This statement was inspired in part because one of the not so positive results of the ME25 (A Gallup Survey that measures levels of engagement) we had indicated that very few members said they had friends at the parish. We are working on that because Jesus calls his followers friends. And parishioners we don’t know very personally are friends and family members nonetheless and our goal should be to realistically promote a certain level of intimacy. The Greeting of Peace could serve that objective even with some efforts to make clear this is not a “hi, how are you moment” but a “I am glad we are both the recipients of Christ’s peace that surpasses all understanding.” Directing the music people to begin the Lamb of God within a minute of the invitation brings us back to the breaking of the bread.

  4. A great reminder of how all parts of the Mass point us towards a greater understanding of our faith. I’ve frequently found the sign of peace the most resonant when I’m traveling, and a visitor at a new parish. I may have never been to the city before, and will likely never see the person I’m standing next to again. The sign of peace is a moment of recognition of our shared faith, and a reminder of the Church Universal.

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