In his indispensable book Why Catholics Can’t Sing Thomas Day recounts an incident that occurred shortly after the ancient practice of the Sign of Peace had been reinstated in the Latin Rite Mass. He turned at the appropriate time to an elderly woman who had been piously praying over her rosary beads and extended his hand. The woman, says Day, responded with a curt “I don’t believe in that s - - t”, and returned to her rosary.
While not everyone has quite as negative a view as Day’s pious fellow congregant, there have continued to be concerns about the role of the Sign of Peace (also known as the Kiss of Peace) in the Mass. Nine years ago the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments made a formal decision to examine the role of the Sign of Peace, especially whether it should be moved to another part of the Mass. According to the Catholic News Service, the Congregation has finally issued its report (article here).
As to the question of whether to move the Sign of Peace, the Congregation has decided to leave it where it is, for now at least. That is not to say, however, that all is well as it is. According to the CNS article, the Congregation
asked bishops to study whether it might be time to find “more appropriate gestures” to replace a sign of peace using “familiar and profane gestures of greeting.”
That sounds good to me. I’m all for anything that leads to more reverence at Mass and makes it seem less like a business meeting – or a cocktail party. The letter also asks bishops to discourage abuses, such as congregants (or priests) leaving their places to give the sign of peace, or using it as an occasion to exchange other greetings (“Peace be with you – and happy birthday!”) or even (this is a new one on me, but someone must be doing it) accompanying it with a “song for peace”.
This sounds like a step in the right direction. The Sign of Peace should not be obtrusive. Really, it doesn’t need to be done at all: it’s optional. All the same, I can’t recall ever seeing it omitted, and I have often seen most of the disruptive abuses noted above. At high school student Masses the Sign of Peace general erupts into a frenzy of wide-ranging glad handing, backslapping, and general good fellowship that could, and would, go on for a very long time if permitted. While things rarely get so rowdy in the parish church, one will often see the same thing on a smaller scale. It’s conceivable that some people might get the impression that the Sign of Peace is really one of the high points of the Mass.
Well, what if they do get that impression? Would that be so bad? Yes, it would. Here’s the problem: the Mass is our most direct and profound encounter with Jesus Christ, and it is centered upon the Eucharist, the “Source and Summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11). A raucous outbreak of joviality among ourselves between the Consecration and the reception of Communion not only detracts from an appropriate sense of reverence at this most solemn part of the Mass, but also draws our attention away from the miracle of the Eucharist. We need to remember that the word “communion” when we speak of the Eucharist means communion with Christ, the God made Man, through the reception of his body and blood; our communion with each other is only through Christ. This is most emphatically what we call a “vertical” relationship: we people “down here” directing ourselves to God, in the person of Jesus Christ, “up there”. The interruption of a very “horizontal” relationship, that is you and I directing attention to each other, threatens to distort our understanding of the true significance of what we are experiencing, particularly if the horizontal seems to be receiving more emphasis.
So, yes, the letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments is a good first step. We should hope to see some real follow-up on its recommendations. In explaining why the Sign of Peace will remain where it is in the Latin Rite Mass, the Congregation says that it relates to “the ‘paschal kiss’ of the risen Christ present on the altar”, and points out that it immediately precedes the moment in which “the Lamb of God is implored to give us his peace”. The letter further explains:
Christ is our peace, the divine peace, announced by the prophets and by the angels, and which he brought to the world by means of his paschal mystery.
The Sign of Peace is really all about Christ, not about us. If that reality can be clearly taught and practiced, maybe even Thomas Day’s skeptical pew mate will be satisfied.