The Liturgical “Sign of Peace”: Move or Remove?

At the request of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a requisite inquiry into the timely appropriateness of the Latin Rite’s gesture of peace shared amongst the people during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass commenced almost a decade ago. The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (“the Congregation”), under the papal authority of a new Holy Father, Francis, disseminated publicly this year their conclusions on the placement of the gesture. In its Circular Letter on the Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass, the Congregation, although reiterating authoritative instruction on the avoidance of gestural abuses, decided that the gesture shall remain in the current liturgical place.

It is indeed born of a sound theology that amongst the faithful there is some sign of peace during the Mass, which in the current Novus Ordo Missae (contemporary Ordinary Mass) occurs prior to the breaking of the consecrated body and soon before Catholics of good conscience are invited to consume the actual flesh and blood of God. Further, the gesture also correlates with doctrinal teaching on communal worship and Christian fraternity.

Benedict XVI’s request for study of the topic, however, brings papal credence to the idea that the placement of the gesture is thoroughly and unreasonably anachronistic. Quoth Benedict XVI 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis:

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.

 

Indeed, it is the place of the peace gesture in the Novus Ordo Missae that is the problem.

Rather than reminding the faithful that they are sharing in a solemn sacrifice and preparing to participate communally in worship (lex orandi), and in the Supper of the Lord, receiving His very body and blood as did the apostles on the night that they were told He was to become the Passover Paschal Lamb, the gesture of peace in its current place obliterates the reverence of the moment.

As Saint John Paul II reminded the faithful in his encyclical letter Ecclesia De Eucharistia: “Every priest who celebrates Holy Mass, together with the Christian community which takes part in it, is led back in spirit to that place and that hour.” By “that hour,” John Paul II meant “the hour of his Cross and glorification.”

If at “that hour” Mary and John on Calvary looked up to the cross, smiled, hugged, and shook hands, this column would have nary any authority; but, alas, the Gospel of John says Mary and John did nothing of the sort.

The mind and soul are to be fixed upon the transsubstantiatio (“transubstantiation”) occurring on the altar; thus one is to be focused in soul, mind, and body, solely upon God.

The anachronistic confraternal peace gesture takes the soul, mind, and body away from the necessary contemplative prayer, thought, and internal preparation in which one should be engaged immediately prior to the receipt of Holy Communion. In a few short liturgical seconds, one is re-directed from the rightful focus on Christ and the Father (the latter most directly through the recitation of Jesus’ own Pater Noster [“Our Father”]), and onto the people by way of the peace gesture. The liturgy then swiftly reverts focus back onto the Lord with the chanting of the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”), which repeats twice the request of the faithful for the Lord to “have mercy on us,” which is surely aidful in, and companion to, a proper examination of conscience and soul in preparation for unworthy receipt of Holy Communion. One need not have considerable knowledge of the liturgy to see that the peace gesture just does not fit.

The move from focus on the Eucharist and onto the people is troublesome, for as John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia De Eucharistia:  “[T]he Eucharist, which is in an outstanding way the sacrament of the paschal mystery, stands at the centre of the Church’s life” (original emphasis).

More akin to evangelical Protestants’ understanding of worship, the gesture of peace in its current place maims the Catholic teaching of the sacrificial purpose of the Mass. Evangelical Protestants and so-called charismatic Catholics similarly view worship as celebratory fun full of pomp, whistles, vocal affirmation, clapping, and music that mirrors that which is played at dance parties. The Catholic Mass, however, is not a celebration, nor it is a weekend party filled with bread, wine, and good company. Catholics gather to venerate the Eucharistic sacrifice upon the altar.

For those Catholics who participate exclusively in the Novus Ordo, or in conjunction with the forma extraordinaria Missae (Tridentine Latin Mass), some solemnity-crushing modern liturgical abuses are avoidable. The peace gesture, however, can sometimes be difficult to avoid. Those Catholics leery of the placement of the peace gesture may feel as though they will be assessed as inconsiderate if they do not greet those around them. The trepidation of those who hold this opinion is valid, for the vast majority of Catholics at the Novus Ordo will likely see the non-peace-gesturer as individualistic and uncouth, rather than theologically upright—this, simply because they have no knowledge of the liturgical difference of opinion on the rightful place of the gesture. In the words of the Congregation’s instructional 2004 Redemtionis Sacramentum: “[A]buses are often based on ignorance, in that they involve a rejection of those elements whose deeper meaning is not understood and whose antiquity is not recognized.”

Thankfully, the Roman Missal has allowed consecrating priests to omit the gesture of peace among the people. The Vatican’s Circular Letter reaffirmed that the gesture is indeed optional, meaning that those who choose not to participate in the gesture when invited and those who intellectually disagree with its placement in the Mass are in no way challenging Church hierarchy on liturgical instruction.

Nonetheless, it remains strikingly confounding how the Congregation, which has spent considerable time within the last decade attempting to curtail what they rightly consider to be liturgical abuses with respect to the peace gesture, do not realize that there would exist no abuses in need of correction and on which instructions must be disseminated if the gesture was simply moved to an appropriate place of the Mass.

In Ecclesia De Eucharistia John Paul II declared with respect to the Eucharist:

In various parts of the Church abuses have occurred, leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament. At times one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet…. This has led here and there to ecumenical initiatives which, albeit well-intentioned, indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith. How can we not express profound grief at all this? The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.

Again, there would be no abuses on which Supreme Pontiffs would have to spend time writing if the gesture were moved to a place in the Mass during which abuse upon the Eucharistic sacrament would not be an issue of concern.

In Redemptionis Sacramentum, the stated abuses of the peace gesture mirror some of the points made in the Congregation’s Circular Letter, released over ten years hence. The latter cited abuses that include a so-called song of peace in place of the gesture; the movement of worshippers from their immediate stations to extend the sign; the consecrating priest descending from the altar to offer the sign to laymen; and “the exchange of peace being the occasion for expressing congratulations, best wishes or condolences among those present.”

As the catholic, universal Church it is necessary to avoid the quiet, but very real, incessant growing rift that increasingly sees more traditionalist Catholics embracing the forma extraordinaria Missae, thus leaving many Novus Ordo Masses filled almost exclusively with the less liturgically pious. Just as is necessary in politics, the Church needs unification of all community members in order to keep a healthy balance. To utilize analogous contemporary political terminology, we need those on the right, the left, and those in the middle under the same roof, for the effect is compromise, as friction and diversity of opinion undeniably helps to move everyone to the center, thus reducing factitious extremist tides.

With a view toward respect for the Lord and unification in the Church, the Church’s good and blessed priests who seek to avoid the devolution of the Mass into celebratory weekend party sessions must begin to move away from inviting the people to embrace as they would at a weekend cocktail party, reminding the faithful that they are about to receive the flesh and blood of the Lord.

Perhaps inviting worshippers to embrace after the Mass might be a compromise, for this move would not eliminate the communal gesture but would also aid in the reclamation of a lost reverence in the Novus Ordo sacrifice.

For the Congregation, perhaps it will in the future analyze the gesture. If so, it might consider a liturgical analysis that finds the place most appropriate to which the gesture could be moved would be following the priest’s words that conclude the sacrifice: Ite, missa est, or “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Appropriate placement of the gesture would be something like … Offerte vobis pacem … then … Ite, missa, est or “Let us offer each other the sign of peace”… then … “Go forth, the Mass is ended.”

The communal peace gesture’s placement makes so little sense that the Congregation’s affirmation of its placement is confounding. The inquiry into the gesture’s proper place was initiated by Benedict XVI, but the results were released under Francis. If Benedict XVI had not abdicated his divine papal authority, perhaps there would have been another decision. It is impossible to know what would have been, but Catholics believe in inalienable truths and both unwavering intervention and guidance by the Holy Spirit in the Lord’s Church. The Church is intrinsically inerrant, for it is guided by the Holy Spirit; therefore errors by the earthly men at its worldly helm shall always be corrected over time. Fiat voluntas tua (“Thy will be done”).

If it is His will, the gesture’s rightful liturgical placement shall again be considered. If John Paul II’s forceful declaration in Ecclesia De Eucharistia that: “No one is permitted to undervalue the mystery entrusted to our hands: it is too great for anyone to feel free to treat it lightly and with disregard for its sacredness and its universality,” then one can reasonably conclude that the gestural placement will find itself again under scrutinizing eyes in the Congregation.

For at the Last Supper, when Jesus told his followers most dear that he was to die the next day, his apostles upon hearing this did not smile, hug, shake hands and break into song at the prospect of their divine rabbi’s forthcoming bloody and inhumane sacrifice. Remember, the Lord’s hands with which he raised the bread and chalice in the Upper Room would be nailed heinously to a cross, his digestive tract pierced with a spear to ensure bodily death. He looked up to heaven that evening and asked that they eat and drink in his memory. One would think that such a Lord would deserve rightful due, and that the gestures would be saved for either the conclusion of, or following, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Gerard T. Mundy

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Gerard T. Mundy is a writer and a university professor of philosophy and political theory at a Catholic institution in the New York area.

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