An Irrepressible Desire for Peace

I hear from friends that some liturgies in the U.S. have reintroduced the exchanging of the Sign of Peace.  This has been fully absent from Irish liturgies since March 2020 and I miss it. In this post I don’t want to deal with polemics as to whether it is prudent to have the Sign of Peace or not. Simply put, it is not possible here in Ireland and I have not seen it in any liturgy I am aware of since COVID started.

True there are different expressions of the Sign of Peace (handshake, hug or kiss on the cheek). I note that some celebrants have introduced a new form of bowing to each other, which  personally I am not a big fan of. Maybe it works in some other cultures, but it seems a little artificial in mine.  However, I note that this is the practice being followed during the Papal Eucharist in the current Apostolic Voyage to Cyprus and Greece. Last Sunday, during Pope Francis’ celebration of the Eucharist at the “Megaron Concert Hall” (at minute 59) there is a sign of peace that entails bowing to each other. The same procedure was followed in the Eucharistic celebration in Cypres last Friday (at 1:13 in the video).

Not everybody likes the Sign of Peace as found in the current edition of the Roman Missal (for different opinions see this 2013 synergy between PrayTell and The New Liturgical Movement). In other centuries there have been radically different expressions of the Sign of Peace, such as the pax-board. Today these are to be found in museums (I use an example from the New York’s Metropolitan Museum’s collection as the title photo for this post). In this case the clergy (and occasionally the laity) kissed a sacred image on a panel or board as a sign of peace. it wasn’t very commonly done and, obviously it would be even more unhygienic in today’s situation.  But it does show that things can be done differently.

In 2007, Benedict XVI spoke of the Sign of Peace in his Sacramentum Caritatis. His Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation following the 2006 Synod on the Eucharist.  Here he said that :

  1. By its nature the Eucharist is the sacrament of peace. At Mass this dimension of the eucharistic mystery finds specific expression in the sign of peace. Certainly this sign has great value. In our times, fraught with fear and conflict, this gesture has become particularly eloquent, as the Church has become increasingly conscious of her responsibility to pray insistently for the gift of peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family. Certainly there is an irrepressible desire for peace present in every heart. The Church gives voice to the hope for peace and reconciliation rising up from every man and woman of good will, directing it towards the one who “is our peace” and who can bring peace to individuals and peoples when all human efforts fail. We can thus understand the emotion so often felt during the sign of peace at a liturgical celebration. Even so, during the Synod of Bishops there was discussion about the appropriateness of greater restraint in this gesture, which can be exaggerated and cause a certain distraction in the assembly just before the reception of Communion. It should be kept in mind that nothing is lost when the sign of peace is marked by a sobriety which preserves the proper spirit of the celebration, as, for example, when it is restricted to one’s immediate neighbours.

[This is accompanied by this footnote:]

(150) Taking into account ancient and venerable customs and the wishes expressed by the Synod Fathers, I have asked the competent curial offices to study the possibility of moving the sign of peace to another place, such as before the presentation of the gifts at the altar. To do so would also serve as a significant reminder of the Lord’s insistence that we be reconciled with others before offering our gifts to God (cf. Mt 5:23 ff.); cf. Propositio 23.

In 2014 one of the last acts of Cardinal Cañizares as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship was to publish a Circular Letter on the Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass. This letter was in answer to Benedict. Not only did Cañizares reject proposals to move the Sign of Peace, but he also took advantage of his letter to discourage an exuberant sign of peace and recommended that nobody leave their place for the sign of peace (i.e. that a priest celebrant could not leave the sanctuary to shake hands with a widow during her husband’s funeral Mass).  Shortly after its publication, Pope Francis made a very public show of a long sign of peace when celebrating the Eucharist during his trip to the Philippines. The practice of exchanging peace has changed quite a bit over its history (for a general historical outline see here). In 1995 the US bishops requested (and were denied) permission from Rome to move the Sign of Peace to before the offertory, as in the Ambrosian and some other liturgical rites.

But today, to get back to my original point, what should we do? Is there another meaningful sign that can take the place of the handshake or other forms of physical contact? Or would it be better to “do” peace in another way? Given the variety of the forms of the Sign of Peace over the course of history, is there room for a radical revision of how we give ritual expression to this “irrepressible desire for peace present in every heart?”

9 comments

  1. As an English Anglican our normative position for the peace follows the ‘venerable and ancient’ placing in the Ambrosian rite. I have used the permitted alternative following the Roman rite. This has been done in Lent partly as an attempt to tone down the nature of the exchange – the service order and oral announcement indicates that given the placing of the sign of peace it is not appropriate for worshipper to move from their places. I just about get asway with it as its is clearly seasonal. This restraint is soon lost in the Easter season. My pastoral experience is that it is very difficult to restrain the way in which the peace is exchanged. On this basis I think it more ‘fitting’ for the sign of peace to some before the eucharistic prayer so as to avoid disruption between the eucharistic prayer and receiving the sacrament.

    1. Sign Language is absolutely to be encouraged among those who know Sign Language, but I presume that Masses with those who use Sign Language prior to COVID used a hand shake for the Sign of Peace (please correct me if that is incorrect).

      However, I don’t think that people giving the “peace sign” to each other is a good expression of the Sign of Peace!

      1. I agree with the Peace Sign bit, but the use of American Sign Language for the peace greeting can be very spiritual indeed.

  2. In college, our chaplain was doing a summer liturgy degree at ND. The following Lent, we gave up the sign of peace. I protested. Bad sign for students at an institution with questionable school spirit, but I was challenged: if I had such strong opinions on liturgy, join the committee. So I did.

    I think the fuss about peace is a solution in search of a problem. Lay people do not need clergy, even those in Rome to tell us how, when, or what to do with it. Like any ritual expression it should take time, and it should express a certain mindfulness. The ten-minute quasi-charismatic Peace I experienced as a young adult was appropriate, and certainly lengthy beyond patience for a liturgical fussbudget. I recall a certain breathlessness after greeting, hugging, clasping hands with a few dozen people, and maybe someone with whom I needed to have a Matthew 5:23-24 moment. As a fledgling liturgist was I going to complain? Not after having experienced it. Was I going to import it to my next parish? Certainly not; they weren’t ready.

    As for the next stage of the pandemic, I think any quick sign that can be accomplished in two or three seconds or less is unworthy. I find a bow is fine for five or six seconds or more–it’s what I did as a conductor, as I scanned the choir with eye contact.

    If bishops, theologians, liturgists, and others find themselves wringing hands over it, perhaps it is a moment to look within, and search for reasons why peace may be resisted, or why aspects may be uncomfortable, or why as a pastor or liturgist, one might be inclined to herd the cats of exuberance.

  3. During Covid, we stand in place and turn to others and give a bow with smiling eyes, given that mouths are covered in most instances; perhaps adding some other gesture connoting love and familiarity (opening the hands outward towards the other person). Our community is fairly small; maybe this makes a difference.

    I don’t find a bow to be artificial. One has to learn how to do it!

  4. In our parish in the U.S. on the East Coast, we have the sign of peace but are not shaking hands. Most people nod and lift a hand up to acknowledge people and say peace be with you. This is just spontaneous. No one gave directions on what to do.

    I happened to see a video of the sign of peace on the West Coast and it seemed the alternative was a bow with the hands together.

  5. For me it’s not so much the gesture as the words. Several years ago someone shared the peace with me by saying “the peace of Christ “ and that struck me. I’ve been sharing His peace ever since. I don’t have any peace I can give. I can only give as the world gives unless I am joined to Christ

    1. Absolutely. I’ve been using “The peace of Christ” as a greeting for many years.

      A bigger problem with our current situation is with the time that we take.

      Over the years I have often asked people to watch themselves during the greeting of peace and see if, while they were holding someone’s hand, their eyes had not already moved on to the next person…. And then I tell them how my life was changed by hearing Fr Michael Joncas saying that when we exchange a sign of peace we are not just wishing someone a Christian version of “Have a nice day” but saying “As a Christian, I would lay down my life for you in order that you might be at peace.”

      That’s something which simply cannot be rushed, and it’s why, for me, we need to use both hands to clasp (not shake) the other person’s hand(s) and look them in the eye for rather longer than just a fleeting moment as we say “The peace of Christ”.

      In pandemic times, when we avoid physical contact with others or even getting in close proximity to them, the risk is that we will return to a hurried sign of peace which no longer carries the full weight of meaning that is needed.

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