Tuesday, 12 August 2014


I have hesitated to comment on the recent Circular Letter on the sign of peace without being able to read the text itself. An English version has been posted here, though the blog posting it has not been sympathetic to the Letter in its own comments.

I have been thinking about a number if inter-related points over the last few months, relating both to the sign of peace and to the practice of people who are not able to receive Holy Communion approaching the priest for a blessing. One prompt has been Fr Tim's post in June: The modern Sign of Peace is a distortion, a certain affinity to which you will recognise in what follows. The discussion around access to sacramental Communion for the divorced/re-married adds some immediacy to my points.

1. Approaching the priest for a blessing.
From a liturgical point of view, this does not seem to me to be envisaged by the rite of reception of sacramental Communion (a neutral point, in itself). From a pastoral point of view, it seems to be motivated by a desire at a social level that no-one appears to be left out, that everyone can feel to be taking a full part even if they are unable to receive sacramental Communion. It also seems to provide for two quite distinct types of pastoral situation: firstly, those who will at some point in the future receive Communion sacramentally (young children, catechumens and those entering into full communion with the Catholic Church); and, secondly, those who regularly attend Mass but whose life situations mean that they are not foreseeably going to be able to receive Communion (non-Catholics, non-Catholic partners, those who have re-married).

The most fundamental difficulty lies in the social sense of communion that is encouraged by this practice. It certainly seems to me a rather less appropriate practice with regard to those who will at some point in the future receive sacramentally - not approaching for a blessing in this case appears to me a better reflection of the nature of sacramental Communion as a completion of the cycle of the sacraments of initiation - than for those who regularly attend Mass but are not going to foreseeably be able to receive Communion.

2. The form of the sign of peace.
So far as I can tell, the sign of peace is always exchanged between the people in parishes in the form of a handshake (though, of course, there is some individual variation from this, say, between close family members, and my experience is limited to Europe and does not extend to the Far East, where a quite different form might be used). In the majority of those countries, a handshake is a sign that does not have a religious significance - it is the greeting that might be exchanged at the start of a business meeting, for example. A sign without a religious significance is therefore used at a point in the liturgy where the representation is one deeply laden with a religious significance.

3. A sign that is celebrated without understanding.
The explanation/directions with regard to the sign of peace in the Roman Missal only partly communicate the weight of the sign being offered (cf General Instruction nn. 82, 154):
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....
... all express to one another peace, communion and charity.
The suggested dialogue (cf the General Instruction n.154) is, in my experience, entirely neglected, though its use would go some way towards practising the religious character of the sign:
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". 
My experience suggests that most of the clergy and most of the faithful celebrate the sign of peace as a sign of communion at a social level, and little more.

So, what is to do?

A. Restore a sense of communion in the order of grace.
It seems to me that this represents the fundamental pastoral challenge, or purpose, that practical suggestions about the sign of peace and the practice of approaching the priest for a blessing needs to meet. The "peace, communion and charity" expressed by both the sign of peace and by sacramental Communion are the "peace, communion and charity" that are given by Christ to his Church and, in the liturgical context, are given through the action of the priest ("in persona Christi") at the altar and then shared from the altar to the people. In this respect, the practice of the sign of peace in the celebration of High Mass in the Extraordinary Form is instructive, and offers a clear opportunity for enriching the celebration of Mass in the Ordinary Form.

The suggestion in the Circular Letter that Bishops Conferences might give consideration to changing the way in which the sign of peace is exchanged seems to offer a significant opportunity to achieve this. The Letter also attributes to Pope Benedict XVI a recognition of a contemporary relevance to the question:
Pope Benedict XVI, further than shedding light on the true sense of the rite and of the exchange of peace, emphasized its great significance as a contribution of Christians, with their prayer and witness to allay the most profound and disturbing anxieties of contemporary humanity ...
If the faithful through their ritual gestures do not appreciate and do not show themselves to be living the authentic meaning of the rite of peace, the Christian concept of peace is weakened and their fruitful participation at the Eucharist is impaired.
A period of catechesis in this regard seems important, if the changes suggested below are to be implemented successfully.

B. Change the manner of exchanging the sign of peace.
I think that the handshake should be replaced by the more liturgical practice of the person offering the sign placing their hands on the shoulders of the person receiving the sign, while the person receiving the sign places their hands under the elbows of the person offering. At the level of the individual members of the congregation there is therefore mirrored the offering of peace by Christ and its being received by the Church. I would also suggest that, as the Circular Letter indicates, there are circumstances where omitting the exchange of the sign of peace among the congregation is appropriate (I know one parish, for example, where the exchange of the sign of peace is reserved to Sunday Mass and major celebrations). If the relation of the exchange among the congregation to the dialogue between priest and congregation that immediately precedes it is taken seriously, then there has still been an exchange of peace. The exchange of a sign of peace among the congregation becomes a fuller liturgical expression of the exchange contained in this dialogue.

The Extraordinary Form offers an additional possibility that could inform the Ordinary Form - that the priest should kiss the altar before the dialogue with the people, so that there is represented the origination of the peace with the person of Christ represented by the altar and its subsequent communication to the Church represented by the lay faithful. See The modern Sign of Peace is a distortion.

C. End the practice of people approaching to receive a blessing.
I suggest this with two strands in support. For those who are able to receive sacramentally, or can be foreseen as being able to do so in the future, this would reduce the sense of the social in the reception of the Eucharist and enhance the sense of communion in the order of grace.

For those who are not going to be able to receive sacramentally, the promotion of a much more sacred sense of the sign of peace offers opportunity for that to become the point at which they are able to participate in an act of communion. This is, of course, a suggestion that has particular relevance to the discussion around the admission of those who are divorced/re-married to sacramental Communion.

The practical points of the Circular Letter (n.6 (a)-(d)) contain nothing that is new or has not already been said - but I have yet to see a text of the attachment to the Circular Letter referred to in (d). This is indicated as offering "helpful guidelines" to help Bishops Conferences in preparing catecheses on the rite of peace and its proper realization in the Liturgy.

And, for those who would insist on a practice of the sign of peace that reflects a social, pastoral care or congratulatory role (cf n.6 (a) of the Circular Letter), I would end with the same suggestion made by Fr Tim at the end of his post. All of these pastoral needs can be met by adopting strategies outside of the immediate liturgical celebration - greeting people before or after the celebration, arrangements for a social gathering after Mass.

I wish to make clear that the above post does not assert that the Sign of Peace of the Ordinary Form is meaningless, nor that it is about a social inclusion only. I express the view, based on my own experience, that "most of the clergy and most of the faithful celebrate the sign of peace as a sign of communion at a social level, and little more" - an observation about the practise rather than the principle of the meaning of the sign. The post intends to suggest a way in which clergy and faithful can celebrate the sign such that its full liturgical and ecclesial meaning is better expressed; and it goes on to suggest a relevance of this to the question of the admission of divorced/re-married Catholics to sacramental Communion.


Sister Lynn Marie said...

In Taiwan the congregation and priest bowed to each other and then both sides of the church turned and bowed to the other as a group. There is no touching involved and the atmosphere is one of profound respect and silence.

Anonymous said...

zero says
This reminded me of I visited New Jersey many years ago and attended a large, sparsely filled Church for week day Mass-the Congregation turned and waved to each other.