Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I know the importance of making the sign of peace at Mass, but should it be done or carried out at every Mass? — F.O., Ado Ekiti, Nigeria
A: Some say that it is a truism that there is nothing so durable as a provisional solution and nothing so obligatory as an option.
In fact, the sign of peace is always an option and is never obligatory at any Mass. The General Introduction of the Roman Missal says:
“The Rite of Peace
“82. There follows the Rite of Peace, by which the Church entreats 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.
“As for the actual sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest.
“154. Then the Priest, with hands extended, says aloud the prayer Domine Iesu Christe, qui dixisti (Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles) and when it is concluded, extending and then joining his hands, he announces the greeting of peace, facing the people and saying, The peace of the Lord be with you always. The people reply, And with your spirit. After this, if appropriate, the Priest adds, Let us offer each other the sign of peace.
“The Priest may give the Sign of Peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary so that the celebration is not disrupted. 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 small number of the faithful near the sanctuary. According to what is decided by the Conference of Bishops, all express to one another peace, communion, and charity. While the Sign of Peace is being given, it is permissible to say, The peace of the Lord be with you always, to which the reply is Amen.
“181. After the Priest has said the prayer for the Rite of Peace and the greeting The peace of the Lord be with you always and the people have replied, And with your spirit, the Deacon, if appropriate, says the invitation to the Sign of Peace. With hands joined, he faces the people and says, Let us offer each other the sign of peace. Then he himself receives the Sign of Peace from the Priest and may offer it to those other ministers who are nearest to him.
“239. After the Deacon or, in the absence of a Deacon, one of the concelebrants, has given the instruction Let us offer each other the sign of peace, all give one another the Sign of Peace. Those concelebrants nearer the principal celebrant receive the Sign of Peace from him before the Deacon does.”
Also, the 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum says in No. 71:
“The practice of the Roman Rite is to be maintained according to which the peace is extended shortly before Holy Communion. For according to the tradition of the Roman Rite, this practice does not have the connotation either of reconciliation or of a remission of sins but instead signifies peace, communion, and charity before the reception of the Most Holy Eucharist. It is rather the Penitential Act to be carried out at the beginning of Mass (especially in its first form) which has the character of reconciliation among brothers and sisters.”
Therefore in accordance with Nos. 154 and 181 the indication to share the Sign of Peace is given “if appropriate.” The decision as to whether it is appropriate falls to the presiding celebrant in the concrete pastoral situation of the particular celebration.
The reasons for including or omitting it can vary widely, and it is almost impossible to give a fixed rule. Many priests reserve the sign for Sundays and feasts.
One priest I know always omits it at first Communions as he finds that it can adversely affect the children’s spiritual attention and preparation so close to the moment of their first participation in the Eucharist. Others avoid this pitfall by careful planning and making the rite as brief as possible with minimal movement of relatives.
However, it would be wrong to see this brief rite only as a potential obstacle and challenge. When done well it can be very effective spiritually as we share the peace that comes from Christ upon the altar that we will soon receive as our peace.
As mentioned above in No. 82, the gestures of the faithful are established by the bishops’ conference and, while respecting local custom, should avoid excess exuberance and ebullience, and it is “appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.”
All the same, pastorally speaking, it is preferable to have some stability in using or omitting the rite. If a priest occasionally or irregularly omits the rite, he will probably find that the faithful start shaking hands anyway from force of habit. This can lead to confusion.
The kiss, or sign, of peace, was known from the earliest times, often inspired by St. Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Corinthians 16:20). Jesus urged that one should be reconciled with a brother before taking one’s sacrifice to the altar. The kiss of peace is also an explicit answer to Christ’s admonition to fraternal reconciliation and peace, to purify one’s sacrifice.
The rite is mentioned in ancient sources such as the “Apostolic Constitutions” and the sermons of St. Augustine. It has probably been in its current position in the Roman rite since Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604).
At first, the kiss of peace was considered as an important, and even obligatory, preparation for those about to receive Communion but was later extended to all. After the year 1000, the kiss of peace gradually became a far more formalized rite and later the exclusive preserve of the clergy, except for some special occasions.
Thus the sign of peace, as described in the present missal, roughly restores the rite to the form it had in medieval times in which everyone briefly gave the kiss of peace to the person beside him, taking into account that men and women occupied separate aisles in the church. At that time the gesture of the kiss was more a mark of respect than of affection. Hence, the gesture adopted today should be what local custom considers as a gesture of respect.
We addressed a closely related question on January 30, 2018, which can complement the present reply.
We conclude with Pope Francis’ catechesis on this part of the Mass in the general audience of March 14, 2018:
“Indeed, what we ask in the ‘Our Father’ is extended by the prayer of the priest who, in the name of all, implores: ‘Deliver us Lord from every evil, and grant us peace in our day.’ He then receives a sort of seal in the Rite of Peace: what he first asks of Christ is that the gift of His peace (cf. Jn 14:27) — thus different from worldly peace — may help the Church to grow in unity and in peace, according to His will; then, with the concrete gesture exchanged among us, we express ‘ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament’ (cf. GIRM, 82). In the Roman rite the exchange of the sign of peace, placed from antiquity before Communion, is ordered to Eucharistic Communion. According to Saint Paul’s admonition, it is impossible to communicate with the one Bread that renders us one Body in Christ, without recognizing that we are reconciled by fraternal love (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:29). Christ’s peace cannot take root in a heart incapable of experiencing fraternity and of restoring it after it has been wounded. Peace is granted by the Lord: he grants us the grace to forgive those who have offended us.”
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