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 :
- 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?”