In a recent circular letter, the text of which I have only come across in Spanish, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments announces some measures to ensure greater dignity and less distraction when it comes to the sign of peace in the Mass.
Although I have personally rarely experienced this moment in the Mass a overly distracting, its place in the liturgy may be considered odd, coming as it does at a moment when we are focussed on Christ among us in the bread and wine that have just been consecrated. We have prayed the Our Father and will soon come forward to receive Him in the communion. The sign of peace asks us to look to the people around us and exchange our wishes for peace with them. This can be distracting, as the question arises how many people to greet (just those immediately around you, the pews in front and behind you, people across the aisle?) and how long and in what manner to do so. In more enthusiastic societies, this may be fairly distracting and even disruptive in the atmosphere and focus of the liturgy. More subdued communities will, clearly, have less of a problem here.
In order to lessen this distraction and increase awareness of the actual meaning of the sign of peace, the Congregation proposes four things:
- It first emphasises that the gesture is not obligatory. The priest is free to decide when it is and is not suitable to invite the faithful to exchange the sign of peace. In my own parish I have seen this happen in weekday Masses, where there is no sign of peace, as opposed to the Masses on Sunday.
- Bishops’ conferences should think about making changes in how the sign of peace is made. Familiar and worldly greeting should be substituted with more appropriate ones. So, no high-fives, backslaps, bearhugs and such, but, for example, a short handshake, kiss, bow or other gesture.
- Clear abuses of the rite, like other liturgical abuses, are right out. No song of peace in place of a gesture between individual faithful, no roaming about the church looking for friends to greet, and during wedding or funeral Masses it should not be an occasion for congratulations or condolences.
- Lastly the Congregation urges the bishops’conferences to prepare catechesis on the sign of peace and how it should be observed.
In the end, the final point is the most important one: catechesis for both clergy and faithful. Without knowledge or awareness, there is no proper use or benefit. The sign of peace is never strictly horizontal, between people alone. It first has to be vertical, between God and man, before it can use its horizontal dimension. The sign of peace in the Mass is not like a regular greeting in the streets. In it we pass on the peace that Christ gives us (John 14:27), we must first receive before we can give. Let’s hope this letter will bear fruit.
And, dear Congregation, get some other official translations out…
Photo credit:  Jennifer Willems