Can Priest Go Down Aisle at the Kiss of Peace?

ROME, OCT. 28, 2003 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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Q: Is it OK for the priest to come down during the peace offering to shake hands with the congregation? I hear this is wrong and I’d really like to know if it is or not since it makes me uneasy about our doing something inappropriate. — I.S., San Ysidro, California

A: The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), with approved adaptations for the United States, refers to this question in No. 154: “The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord with the decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a sign that expresses peace.”

For the moment the above exceptions, which are quite reasonable, apply only within the United States as almost no other episcopal conference has submitted a translation for the Holy See’s approval.

The reason the GIRM dwells on this point is to put the kiss of peace into its proper context as a brief, and relatively unimportant rite in preparation for Communion; in fact, few realize that it is actually optional. It is the forthcoming Communion, not the priest, nor the good feelings we harbor toward our neighbors, that is the reason and source of the peace we desire for our fellows and the peace we receive from them. As GIRM 82 says, in the Rite of Peace: “the Church asks for 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.”

So, when the celebrant walks down the aisle shaking hands, the gesture, despite his good intentions, tends to inordinately draw attention to his person, as if he, and not the Lord, were the source of the peace that only Christ can give. Sometimes we priests can forget that being a “Pontifex” means being a bridge, and a bridge serves its purpose only when we walk over it, not when we admire it from a distance.

The gestures of the faithful, while respecting local custom, they should avoid excess exuberance and ebullience, again according to GIRM 82: “as to the sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.”

At the same time when this rite is done well it can be very effective spiritually. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, for example, has written of the powerful impression caused by witnessing this gesture at a Catholic Mass as he struggled to leave behind radical atheism and find, first belief in God, and eventually, acceptance of the Catholic faith.

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Follow-up: Extraordinary Ministers

To judge by the large amount of correspondence, it seems that our reply regarding the use of extraordinary ministers has touched a nerve (see Oct. 14). Many of the messages received serve to confirm that many Catholics perceive a widespread overuse of extraordinary ministers. Some follow-up questions, however, allow me to expand on my original reply although it is impossible for me to respond to all of the queries.

As stated before, priests and deacons, unless physically impaired, should not sit down and omit administering holy Communion. They may be assisted, but not substituted, by other ministers.

These extraordinary ministers, according to GIRM 162, “should not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the priest celebrant the vessel containing either species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful.” The deacon also receives Communion after the priest and from his hands.

A reader from Rome asked if an instituted acolyte were not also an ordinary minister. Properly speaking he is not, but he does have precedence, in the sense that, should an extraordinary minister be required, he should be called upon first before anybody else. Also, in the absence of the deacon, the acolyte may purify the sacred vessels, something that is not permitted to other extraordinary ministers (although the United States has received an indult allowing them to assist in the purification in cases of necessity).

After the instituted acolyte, the usual order of preference for designating extraordinary ministers is to first choose an instituted lector, a seminarian, a religious brother, a nun, a catechist and a lay person of either sex (see instruction “Immensae Caritatis”).

An American correspondent asked who has the authority to designate extraordinary ministers and what intellectual and moral traits are required of them. In special cases (for example, a sudden illness of the scheduled minister) the celebrant may designate a known member of the faithful for that precise celebration.

In normal circumstances, the question of extraordinary eucharistic ministers falls under the supervision of the bishop who establishes the conditions, and grants the authority, for admission. This is usually done through the parish priest or religious superior. In Rome, for example, besides being proposed by the pastor the candidate has to attend a specific course lasting several months to a year before being allowed to serve.

This is related to an English correspondent’s inquiry regarding uniformity of movement. Extraordinary eucharistic ministers should be properly trained in the rubrics, and the pastor should assure that all of them adhere to the same procedures with respect to movements, purification of the hands, etc., in accordance with the general norms and the particular structure of the Church building.

Morally speaking, while not necessarily a candidate for beatification, the eucharistic minister should be a devout Catholic in good standing. As stated in the instruction “Immensae Caritatis,” the choice of an extraordinary minister “should never fall upon a person whose designation could cause astonishment to the faithful.” A person who does not fully adhere to, and strive to live by, Catholic teaching either in doctrine or morals should not undertake nor be admitted to this ministry. Likewise, if one is unable to receive Communion because of some momentary fall, one should first seek the sacrament of reconciliation before exercising the ministry.

Rather than seeing this as being somehow cast out from the fold, separating oneself from this ministry, if one’s life and belief lack conformity with the Catholic faith, is a sincere act of respect toward Christ in the Eucharist and the other members of the faithful. More grace and strength will come from refraining in this field than from perhaps living the lie of being a public witness to a faith not fully one’s own.

Several readers asked what to do if they believed that there were too many extraordinary ministers, some even suggesting that they should refrain from receiving Communion. As we explained in the earlier column, there may be good reasons for using them which are not immediately apparent, so one should always be willing to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt. One could approach the pastor and politely ask him to clear up whatever doubts one might have. In grave cases of abuse one may inform the bishop.

Even if one has serious doubts regarding the propriety of using extraordinary ministers in a given case, the gift of Communion is a greater good and should never be refused. In a very real sense we always receive Communion from unworthy hands no matter how holy the minister, for nobody is ever fully worthy to touch Christ’s sacred body.

Finally, a semantic note, in some places t
he extraordinary minister is referred to as a “special minister.” “Special” may not be the most literal translation although the word is sometimes used in this sense, as in “special representative,” but in the end it matters little whether they are called “extraordinary,” “special,” “supplementary,” or any other denomination as this does not change one whit the canonical norms regarding their use.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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