Some Aspects of Peace at Mass

handshakeDiscussions on the Sign of Peace in the modern Roman Rite are not new to this site. We looked at it five years ago in our survey of the GIRM. We had a follow-up a few days afterward. Visitor Anthony Phillips offered a comment on another thread that I’d like to pull out for a separate discussion. Or a renewed one.

On the topic of dialogues prior to Communion, and unlike what occasional traditionalist commentators might say about it, the peace dialogue may never be licitly omitted from Mass.

As for how people exchange peace, this is left to the bishops on the conference level. According to the GIRM, it is not really an option:

82. There follows the Rite of Peace, by which the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament.

It would seem the Missal envisions an expression among the faithful, not just between the clergy and assembly. The second paragraph seems to support this, given the 2000 addition to the earlier edition:

However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest.

Mr Phillips offers this additional interpretation:

Paul VI’s Missal directs that the priest says, ‘Pax Dómini sit semper vobíscum,’ and the people responed, ‘Et cum spíritu tuo.’ If that’s what you mean, you’re right. But that’s all that’s needed. The rubrics continue: ‘Postea, pro opportunitate, sacerdos subiungit: Offérte vobis pacem…’ Pro opportunitate translates as ‘when appropriate.’ So all that hand-shaking we’re subjected to should only be done when appropriate. And I’d argue that it’s almost never, ever appropriate.

I’ve seen this opinion offered by some internet commentators, and it’s false. I can see the misunderstanding, though. What is to be done “when appropriate” is the invitation to share the peace. If people need no prompting, then it would seem the words are unneeded. I suspect that in most parishes, if the deacon or priest just began shaking hands with the servers, people would do likewise with their neighbors in the pew. And if a priest unlawfully moved straight to the Agnus Dei, some people would still exchange peace in some form. And they would do so licitly.

I do think that the Sign of Peace deserves a very deep discernment. Some commentators suggest this “reenacting” of Matthew 5:23-24 is better placed at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Or even before the entrance rites of the Mass. I’ve heard and read arguments in favor of these, and I’m hard-pressed to rebut some of the better points I’ve encountered.

Catholics of two stripes might do well to consider one of two questions:

  • Why do you make it into an extended time for social exchange?
  • Why do you have difficulty with it?

Mr Phillips expresses a response to this second question:

(P)erhaps we can agree that one of the defects of the Pauline liturgy is that it forces people to be so busy speaking (and shaking hands) that they don’t have time to pray. And also that it robs us of some of the powerful gestures that in some ways carry more meaning than words: genuflecting when the Incarnation is mentioned in the Creed and the Last Gospel, for instance, and at other sundry occasions during the year.

I understand that personal interaction can be a distraction. When I pray, I don’t prefer it. But I don’t view my role at Mass as prayer in the same sense as Lectio Divina, the rosary, or other forms of personal spirituality. The Mass is worship. It is primarily an expression of Christ, and we mortal beings are drawn into a greater worship, something much larger than just “me and God.”

Granted, this observation is open to a wider and different interpretation. My experience of liturgy, either Mass or the other sacraments or the Hours, is usually rooted in my duties as a liturgical minister. Rare is the moment when extended periods of public liturgy is pure prayer.

I can see that people accustomed to a “one-stop shopping” approach might be able to only squeeze an hour once a week for prayer. That is a foreign thing to me. I was formed as a young Catholic in the 70’s–not exactly the most “enlightened” time in the eyes of some, to come early to Mass to pray. Even before I became a church musician, Mass was more like seventy to eighty minutes, not just an hour. It usually had a substantial prelude of quiet time. I never saw an exchange that intends to underscore “peace and unity” to be a disruption. If quiet prayer in church is such a value, why not do it on the way to or from work, after school, on a weeknight date, or snatch some minutes when one can. I’ve worked for a lot of churches. Rare is the time outside of Mass when there’s not room to kneel or too much noise to focus.

Clasping hands, bowing without words, embracing, or even sharing a handshake all strike me as powerful gestures.

Any comments?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Some Aspects of Peace at Mass

  1. Liam says:

    After the flu scare several years ago, when local bishops cautioned people about exchanging peace with body contact, the wave became the default in most of the suburban parishes near me (where I don’t normally worship), and the handshake has never come back as best I can tell. The wave is so strange. No one seems to care.

  2. Judy Taylor says:

    As a former Catholic, now a Unitarian who occasionally takes my mother to Mass, I find the Our Father and Sign of Peace to be the only time during Mass that isn’t rigid and ritualized, when people actually connect with one another and share the Spark of the Spirit that lives within them. Maybe it would be better exchanged at the beginning of Mass to bring the congregation together, but I find it especially meaningful after holding hands and saying the “Our Father”.

  3. Jim McCrea says:

    I cannot believe that how the Peace is passed is a matter of concern/contention. Is there nothing more important ………… like diminished attendance at masses and in the parishes in general …. to be matters of concern? Will the last traditionalist turn out the light as they are the only ones showing up!

    • Liam says:

      It’s not only traditionalists who make the Pax an matter of contention. My current pastor for quite a while would hector and stall until the congregation to crossed the aisles, which could be physically awkward/difficult for people who happened to be at aisle end. He finally relented. His was not the first time I’ve witnessed this problematization of the ritual.

  4. Todd says:

    Peace is an important symbolic action. Testimonies like Judy’s bear this out, as do the opponents of it. Opponents of peace want comfort and surety. A changing liturgy doesn’t give that.

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