I know the Vatican had to “reign in” the Sign of Peace a few years ago, but putting it positively, how should we participate in that part of the liturgy? What is it there for?
A very good question regarding proper participation in what is deemed a
traditional element of the Mass, but one that has not always been well understood (or carried out well). Risk I say, the answer I am about to give may leave you to wonder, “if such is the case, why do we have it at all?”
When the author of the question refers to the reigning in of the Sign of Peace, it is notable that in June 2014, the Holy See (in particular, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments [CDW]) issued a letter to national conferences of bishops throughout the world regarding this very matter. This letter comes as a consequence of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for more study on the manner for exchanging the Sign of Peace within the Mass in his apostolic
exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, issued in 2007. Part of the study was to look into the meaning of the Sign of Peace in relation to the manner by which it is best expressed. To that end, the results of the study included the directive that the Sign of Peace ought to remain in its current place within the rite (after the
Eucharistic Prayer, before Holy Communion,) and that proper attention should be brought to the fact that when it is appropriate (emphasis added), the priest (or deacon) may say the words, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” For, as the letter states:
“With this gesture, whose ‘function is to manifest peace, communion, and charity,’ the Church ‘implores 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,’ that is, the Body of Christ the Lord.” (CDW, Circular Letter: The Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass, June 8, 2014, paragraph 2)
Given the context of the whole action of the Sign of Peace, it is also noteworthy that they use the words “when appropriate” regarding the invitation for exchanging the Sign of Peace. For, what is always necessary at this part of the Mass is for the priest to turn to the people saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” to which the people respond, “And with your spirit.” However, it is not essential to the rite that we “exchange” that peace with those around us. For the essential meaning of this “peace” (in expressing communion and charity, as said above) is the awareness that our sharing in Eucharistic communion is meant to be founded upon a unity of faith (that we all believe and profess the same Catholic faith) and in charity as “agape,” or self-sacrificing love. To say it in bluntest of terms: the Sign of Peace is meant to express that we hold fully to Catholic faith [without any dissent from the Church’s faith and teaching] and that we would willingly die a martyr’s death, if necessary, for each of those with whom we stand amidst during this Holy Mass. Accordingly, the gesture by which we offer this Sign of Peace ought to express such unity and self-sacrificing love.
If you have understood the significance of the last few sentences, it is hopefully clear that a “handshake” does not necessarily hold the most fitting meaning for expressing the peace, unity, and charity that are intended in this action. Likewise, when looking at lived experience of this part of Mass, the loss of any sense of the sacred that often accompanies the exchange of the Sign of Peace (as betrayed by audible talking and/or laughter) has no place in this gesture. What is a fitting gesture? This question remains for the bishops in each cultural setting to discern. For we in the U.S., there may not be any gesture that easily and fittingly accomplishes the meaning of unity and self-sacrificing love required by the sign of peace – leaving us in a tough spot. We could simply settle for the verbal exchange between the priest and people as the only required action, with the exchange among people “when appropriate” not being used ever – but that is also not the expectation. What we can take, however, is that when we enter this moment of the Mass to always have in mind the call to fidelity and charity that is becoming of true followers of Jesus Christ, through His cross, to His resurrection – no matter what gesture, if any, is given.