A Trinity of Bad Hygiene

“Let us continue to abuse one another / With the kiss of Peace.”
∼  Geoffrey Hill, “The Triumph of Love,” part XLIV

Few moments are as completely uncomfortable, for me at least, as the “Kiss of Peace” or the “Sign of Peace” at the Novus Ordo Mass. It’s actually painfully awkward. And during this high-point of cold-and-flu-season, it does those of us with low-immune systems no favors. In fact, it can actually do harm in the passing on germs. However, it follows a pattern of bad hygiene in the New Mass that culminates with Holy Communion in the hand and dozens of people drinking from the same chalice, so I suppose that at least it is consistent, if consistently unclean.

While the Sign of Peace was once reserved for the deacon and the priest at High Mass and Solemn High Mass, this seemed like one of those good ideas at the time (post-Vatican II) to share with the congregation. And like many of those ideas it seems to have run away with a life of its own.

However, as with much of the New Mass, the Sign of Peace sometimes gets moved around to the very beginning of the Mass when the priest—or, worse, the music minister—tells the assembled believers that before the opening hymn “Let us turn to one another and greet each other.”

On the face of it there’s nothing objectively wrong with this—but I’m not sure what, exactly, I’m supposed to take from it: I’m now shaking hands with a complete stranger who happens to be a Catholic. Or, even more weirdly, I’m shaking hands with my own family (my twins find this hilarious). Perhaps this is not such a bad idea for an opening-semester Mass at a Catholic College to get the freshmen to know one another, but in a parish setting I find it almost meaningless… Especially because it is usually repeated again later right before Communion as the “Sign of Peace,” or as the misnomer has it, the “Kiss of Peace.”

Thus begins what I call an unholy trinity of bad liturgical hygiene: from shaking the hands—perhaps the dirtiest part of the exposed body—we move to receiving Holy Communion in those same hands, which, unlike the priest’s, are unwashed. Worse, it culminates in drinking from a communal cup—something I wouldn’t even do with my own family and especially with my twins, given the number of germs that they bring home from school.

True: one can forego the Chalice completely and receive Christ on the tongue, thanks be to God and Blessed Paul VI. But in one of those ironies that you couldn’t make up, I find that many of the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are not used to distributing the Body of Christ to a communicant who is (a) kneeling, and (b) ready to receive on the tongue. Further, the minister is often on a step above in the sanctuary (where the altar rail used to be) and when I kneel, and open my mouth I’ve wound up with the extraordinary minister’s fingertips in my mouth–by accident–as they try not to fall too far forward.

I used to think that “hugging” might be a better “Sign of Peace”: after all, it’s closer to what the priest and deacon exchange at the Tridentine Mass. However, in a few cases I’ve gotten great-big-giant bear-hugs from people in pews behind or before me who have done my long-suffering back no favors, especially given the odd angles one has to lean into such positions to perform such a hug.

My uncle, a church-going Catholic who grew up with the Latin Mass once commented that the Sign of Peace in the Novus Ordo resembles “The beginning of a very bad cocktail party.” Despite the lack of reverence in this remark, the older I get the more I think he was really on to something. No one likes “Forced-Fun”: for one thing it is forced—and secondly, it isn’t fun. But in the case of the Sign of Peace it is also potentially unhealthy, too.

During cold and flu season some U.S. bishops suspend (or at least make optional) the Sign of Peace and reception of the Blood of Christ from the communal Chalice. This is nothing more than good common sense—and good hygiene, too. But why end it with the beginning of spring? Drinking from a common-cup is a bad idea all year-round in terms of spreading germs.

As for the Kiss of Peace: it appears to be strictly optional, cf. The Roman Missal “128. Then, if appropriate, the Deacon or the Priest adds: ‘Let us offer each other the sign of peace.’” (Emphasis added.)

I’m sure we could all swap horror stories of Novus Ordo masses where various parts of the liturgy were omitted outright. (The Credo seems to be ripe for omission for some reason, even on Sundays, which I’ll never understand. Also: the Kyrie.) But I don’t think I’ve ever been to any Pauline Mass where the sign of peace was side-stepped (even at daily Mass).

However, as the saying goes when referring to the Holy Books: “Do the red print, read the black print.” And there it is in red: “Then, if appropriate….” I can’t think of any reason why exchanging of the Sign of Peace would be appropriate during cold and flu season, or, for that matter, the rest of the calendar or liturgical year, if only for reasons of keeping people healthy. I love children as much as the next parent, but one thing that makes me wonder about the sanity of other parents is when they insist that they have their toddler “shake hands with the nice man in the pew” (that would be me). I don’t blame the toddler for not washing his or her hands and then sticking them in their mouth—this is, of course, what toddlers do. However, I do blame the parents for forcing their kids—who, wisely are reluctant to extend their hands to a stranger—to partake in the Sign of Peace, especially since they are not of the age of reason and have no idea what they are doing, or why.

Again, none of this is railing against the Novus Ordo Mass simply because it “changed” some of the venerable parts of the Mass that were reserved to the clergy. Rather, I’ve attempted to point out that simply on the basis of good health and hygiene, the Sign of Peace, the reception from the common chalice, and distribution of Holy Communion by lay extraordinary ministers on the tongue should be abolished. Indeed, as pointed out above: the Sign of Peace is up to the priest to even offer. We all might be spared a bad case of the flu if this were followed.

Kevin T. DiCamillo

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Kevin T. DiCamillo is a freelance writer and editor who writes regularly for National Catholic Register and PublishingPerspectives. He won the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. His work has appeared in Columbia, The Priest, The Times Literary Supplement (of London), James Joyce Quarterly, The National Poetry Review, The Antigonish Review, Opium and other publications. In addition to being a co-founder of The Notre Dame Review (where he earned his Master’s degree), he is the former poetry editor of Traffic East, and was a University and Doctoral Research Fellow at St. John’s University.

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