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A Letter on Divine Worship Print E-mail
By Fr. Gerald E. Murray   
Friday, 22 August 2014

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published a Circular Letter entitled “The Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass” on July 8.  Pope Francis approved it the previous day and ordered its publication. The letter treats the question of the Sign of Peace, resolving the question whether the Holy See would move the Sign of Peace to earlier in the Mass.

The decision was made to leave the Sign of Peace where it is. The Letter explains:

In the Roman liturgical tradition, the exchange of peace is placed before Holy Communion with its own specific theological significance. Its point of reference is found in the Eucharistic contemplation of the Paschal mystery as the “Paschal kiss” of the Risen Christ present on the altar as in contradistinction to that done by other liturgical traditions which are inspired by the Gospel passage from St. Matthew (cf. Mt 5: 23: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”). 

This distinction is important: the sign of peace at Mass refers to the Risen Christ’s gift of His peace, hence the appropriateness of this rite coming just before the moment when Christ will feed His people with His own Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Christ is our peace, and the rite of exchanging a sign of peace must reflect this gift and not distract us as we prepare to receive that gift of Christ’s peace in the Holy Eucharist. Yet the common experience in many parishes is that the exchange of the sign of peace has often become a moment of turning away from the Eucharistic Christ present on the altar, instead focusing the congregation’s attention on itself, with little thought about Christ’s peace.

The question of the moving of the Sign of Peace, which was raised at Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in 2005, surfaced varied concerns among the Synod Fathers about this disruptive aspect of how the Sign of Peace is carried out in many places. Pope Benedict XVI noted in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis: “[D]uring the Synod of Bishops there was discussion about the appropriateness of greater restraint in this gesture, which can be exaggerated and cause a certain distraction in the assembly just before the reception of Communion. It should be kept in mind that nothing is lost when the sign of peace is marked by a sobriety which preserves the proper spirit of the celebration, as, for example, when it is restricted to one’s immediate neighbors.” 

The Circular Letter addresses the absolute need for a reverent and sober exchange of a sign of the Lord’s peace, offering “practical guidelines. . .to better explain the content of the exchange of peace and to moderate excessive expressions that give rise to disarray in the liturgical assembly before Communion.”


        A certain distraction . . .

The Letter surprised many in stating: “If it is foreseen that it will not take place properly due to specific circumstances or if it is not considered pedagogically wise to carry it out on certain occasions, it can be omitted, and sometimes ought to be omitted. It is worth recalling that the rubric from the Missal states: ‘Then, if appropriate, the Deacon of the Priest, adds: Let us offer each other the sign of peace.’” (emphasis added)

The Sign of Peace is not required at Mass. The Holy See is clearly concerned that this optional rite has become the occasion for all sorts of problems and distractions. The Circular Letter lists “abuses” that we must “definitively avoid.” These include: singing a song of peace during the exchange of the sign of peace, people moving around the church to exchange the sign of peace with others, the priest leaving the altar to give the sign of peace to the faithful in the pews, and the not uncommon practice of using the sign of peace at special Masses such as weddings or funerals as an “occasion for expressing congratulations, best wishes or condolences among those present.”

I have witnessed all these things, most memorably (and lamentably) the organist at one parish playing “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” at the sign of peace. I’m sure readers have seen these abuses, and other spectacles. The faithful have been victimized by the general ignorance of the true meaning of the sign of peace as Christ’s gift to us, not our gift to others. The result has been disorder in the house of God.

The Holy See’s action is a welcome intervention to re-establish liturgical order at a moment in the Mass in which the supernatural is easily overwhelmed by human concerns that are important in life, such as amiability  or sympathy or enthusiastic congratulation, but do not form part of the liturgical action, in which Christ’s peace is offered to all by the priest and then imparted by each one to those nearby with fitting soberness. The worshipper must focus on worship, and the rites of the Mass are meant to foster, not distract from this attitude. 

Will this Circular Letter have its desired effect? I have my doubts. For too many years an antinomian spirit has taken hold in the minds of many Churchmen and the lay faithful. Law is viewed with suspicion and disdain when it curbs popular enthusiasms by moderating or omitting something that has gotten out of hand.

We can expect reactions such as: “I cannot believe that the most important moment of the Mass for me is under attack from Rome,” or “There is already enough focus on Jesus in the Mass, why shouldn’t I be able to say a friendly hello to my neighbors.”

That some people will innocently reason thus is enough indication that this Roman reform is truly needed.

 
The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church, New York, NY, and a canon lawyer.
 
 
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Comments (23)Add Comment
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written by Myshkin, August 22, 2014
The rubrics of the Tridentine missal restrict the pax to a formal sharing among the clergy: priest to deacon to subdeacon, and so on. If moderns insist on doing it with everyone, perhaps it's time to intoduce the pax-brede for the Novus Ordo!
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written by Jim S., August 22, 2014
I happen to live in Beirut, where I attend Mass at a Maronite church. The moment of the sign of peace is in the tradition of Matthew; it takes place in connection with the presentation of the gifts. It is also sung; chanted actually, with a rote formula. But there are elements in the rite worth considering for adaption to current use. There is no, "and now let us turn to one another and offer the sign of peace." Instead the sign of peace is initiated by the priest, who does not leave the altar, who turns to an acolyte, who is typically kneeling at the altar with his or her hand resting on the altar itself. The priest touches the outstretched hand, the acolyte rises, hands pressed together, proceeds to the first pew, extends the greeting, hands still clasped together, to other acolytes, whose hands are held prayer style but semi-open. The one receiving the gesture clasps the outstretched hands with a touch of the fingertips. These acolytes then proceed down the aisles, extending the gesture to the person sitting on the edge of the aisle. That person then turns to the one sitting next to him, extends the greeting, and so forth along those sitting in that particular pew. Note: the parishioners are sitting, which adds to the dignity of the gesture and avoids hubbub at this moment; they are chanting a stylized prayer, so there is no individualized greeting like, "peace to you, Ernie;" there are no embraces, man hugs, or hand-shakes. The gesture is that of one set of hands, semi-open in prayer, touching another person's hands held together prayer style. The most important point is that the priest initiates. He extends the sign of peace to one person, who then extends it to others. The moment foreshadows the choreography of the distribution of the Eucharist. The action goes from priest to worshiper, altar to pew, top-down, as it were, whereas in current practice, the action is self-initiated by parishioners themselves, creating that disturbing buzz and distracting side-to-side action. Why should there be any self-initiation at all? Suggestion: Priest: "The peace of the Lord be with you always." Response: "And with your sprit." The priest then turns to an acolyte and extends the sign of peace to that person. The acolyte in turn extends the gesture to others. Parishioners wait in a dignified manner until the gesture reaches them. They do not initiate the sign of peace themselves.
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written by DJR, August 22, 2014
"The Sign of Peace is not required at Mass. The Holy See is clearly concerned that this optional rite has become the occasion for all sorts of problems and distractions."

The Holy See is concerned about an abuse at Mass? Is this a serious observation? Where has the Holy See been for the last 50 years? The writer doesn't believe that it is the Holy See that is responsible for promoting "the sign of peace"?

When "the Holy See" (whatever/whoever is meant by that nebulous term) is TRULY concerned about something, the Holy See acts instanter. Witness the actions against the Franciscan Friars. Yet when the Holy See is only "concerned" about something, the "action" can take decades. Witness the LCWR, the Neocatechumenal Way, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera (in the words of Yul Brynner).

The observation that the Holy See has been "concerned" about outrageous conduct at Mass lo these past 50 years is laughable at best.
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written by WSquared, August 22, 2014
Enthusiasm is great and all, but it has to be properly channeled and directed.

That much is true of anything. Nobody ever got an 'A' in a college course just by showing up and making an effort. Efforts themselves need direction: what, after all, is all this about?

Likewise, Anthony Esolen's piece the other day touched on a similar theme when he asked progressives "where is this going?" He could just as easily have pointed out that "progress" without direction is just meaningless.
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written by Richard A, August 22, 2014
Perhaps a hermeneutic of the spirit of Vatican II can be applied to "... it can be omitted, and sometimes ought to be omitted". Considering what was done to the Mass with the Gregorian Chant's "pride of place" and "the vernacular language may be used", it should be possible to leverage the sign of peace right out of the Novus Ordo. In accordance with the norms and directives of the Apostolic See, of course.
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written by james moxley, August 22, 2014
I agree that many of these distractions at the sign of peace must not occur. I travel to many parishes and I never witnessed anything like these, so I'm a little shocked to hear that they happen.  I have attended non Catholic churches that do holy communion, and they spend 10 minutes or so walking around the church talking and saying hello to others this I find strange, but then again it is not the Eucharist there. These need to be addressed so it remains a solemn moment about the Eucharist. BUT it can't be removed from Mass. There is another side of the sign of peace that wasn't mentioned in the article. That is that one cannot receive the body and blood of Christ unworthily, and without discerning the body. That is why the sign of peace is right before receiving  the Eucharist. If we are properly prepared  to receive then we have gone to confession, taken part in the pennitenial right in the beginning of Mass, and right before we recieve the  Eucharist we offer each other Christs peace. This brings us back from whatever distractions we may be having at that moment and removing any unworthy or angered thoughts as close as we can get before receiving. We then repeat the lamb of God three times, and say the preparation of  bread like that of the centurion, which is so that if we have come to far away from Christ during the sign of peace we are brought back in reverence before we receive the greatest gift of all. So we can't remove or change the sign of peace, we need to make sure everyone one understands its purpose.
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written by grump, August 22, 2014
Not having attended mass for several years, I decided to go again one Sunday to a Catholic church not far from my house I picked at random. The service was nothing like I remembered. No Latin, the annoying strumming guitars playing folk songs, a sparse altar, lay people giving out communion, a priest who badly needed a microphone or a stentorian voice to be heard clearly; in sum, an hour devoid of the mystery of the Mass I remembered from my youth.

When it came to the "sign of peace," I found it awkward, artificial and contrived to shake hands with people around me, who seemed similarly flummoxed by this "ceremony." What did it have to do with worshiping God? It seemed so out of place.

As for the sermon, not a word of Scripture was mentioned. Mostly announcements about social events and a plea for money.

It was all such a turnoff that I never went back.
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written by mghamberger, August 22, 2014
It might help to restore the meaning of the ritual if the words used by congregants were "The Peace of the Lord be with you", as opposed to the informal and personal "Peace be with you" which implies personal good wishes, not the Peace of Christ in the Eucharist.
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written by Howard Kainz, August 22, 2014
The photo accompanying this column could have been taken at a parish a few blocks away from me. This distortion of the "kiss of peace" is extremely distracting, for someone who actually goes to Mass to pray.
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written by frkloster, August 22, 2014
There is another option. The sign of peace can be moved in front of the Mass, or before the opening sign of the cross. Then when the priest says the "pax vobiscum" before the Agnus Dei; he can skip the sign of peace, that clearly has become anthropomorphic, and proceed with the Mass.
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written by Stanley Anderson, August 22, 2014
In my share of this article on Facebook, I added the comment, "Now if the Circular Letter would have included something about the sharing of the sign of applause at the end of Mass..."

(the note by Jim S above about the parishioners sitting adds what seems to be a nice physical "corrective" to abuses. But of course I suppose people WILL find a way...heck, my distaste for, and internal thoughts during, the activity probably displays an abuse in the opposite direction. That horse is definitely hard to ride for very long without falling off on one side or 'tuther...)
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written by Richard Pearl, August 22, 2014
If we were to express Catholicism in one sentence it would be, "Jesus is the Lamb of God."

Imagine the Hebrews in Egypt preparing for the 10th plague. They were instructed to take an unblemished white lamb, slit its throat, and pour the blood into a cup. It was the blood on the doorposts that saved them from death. The innocent, crying lamb was slain. It was not a happy moment, agreed?

Now, replace the lamb with Jesus. Add to that, His mother watched it happen, not a pretty picture.

To me, the SoP before saying, "Lamb of God who takes away sins of the world...", is inappropriate to say the least.

I'm sorry, but when I'm thinking about "The Lamb of God," I don't feel much like shaking hands.

-Rick
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written by James McInnis, August 22, 2014
Attn: Grump
If I were devilish and of higher intelligence than yourself, I would do my best to make you think you think you chose to attend a church 'at random' instead of seeing it as my perfect choice for you. That you found it,"...such a turnoff that I never went back," gladdens my heart. Further, I truly hope you extend your boycott to all other Catholic churches lest you find one where you can see the so-called Light.

With a tip of the hat to C.S.Lewis and the spirit of the Screwtape Letters.
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written by Dave, August 22, 2014
The indiscipline at the Sign of Peace in the Roman Rite is but emblematic at the doctrinal indiscipline in the Church. Grump points to this. (I'm sorry your experience was so bad, Grump.) Until the Church wants to tackle the real issues -- self-proclaimed public leaders (elected or otherwise) who publicly, vocally, and constantly dissent from Church teaching in matters of faith and morals -- it appears that we are only talking about how to re-arrange the logs in a raging fire. There is no structural flaw in the Roman Rite's presentation of the Sign of Peace, for all the reasons Fr. Murray indicates. Can we question whether there is a flaw in the Novus Ordo, such that the transcendent aspects of the Mass -- the most important aspects -- are muted or obliterated in it, whereas the immanent, non-transcendent matters are elevating far beyond their significance? The Holy See let the genie out of the bottle with the changes to the Mass, and now it's anyone's guess whether it can be further reformed (seeing how much fuss Benedict's reform of the Novus Ordo occasioned, a reform which, by the way, has led to a quieter, more dignified Mass in those parishes that want it that way).
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written by Rosemary, August 22, 2014
You make some good points, grump. I will only make three points that I have gleaned from my own experience: that if you get some solid Catholic friends, they will clue you in to the parishes where reverence is observed; attend daily Mass as a starter because it is shorter, there are fewer distractions, and those who come tend to be reverent; and last, (and hardest) try to realize that God will not judge you by how others behave at Mass (or anywhere else). If the priest, the music, and the parishioners appear lax and/or irreverent, remember that Our Dear Lord is there. Keep Him company, and you may end up making an example for others to follow.
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written by Seanachie, August 22, 2014
Father, no disrespect intended, but this issue seems to me to be a case of "much to do about nothing." People vary in the way they express the "sign of peace"...some shake hands, youngsters knuckle bump, some kiss, others nod, one woman does not like shaking hands and has made that clear (no one shakes her hand, but warmly verbally express, "peace be with you"). The point is, Catholics do not need to be told by Church hierarchy how to express peace (at Mass or elsewhere). I'm still trying to determine how "consubstantial with the Father" is a clarification or improvement over "one in being with the father" in the Creed. Seems to me this is all a case of too many people with too much time on their hands...time that could be more efficiently and effectively expended on other vital Church issues.
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written by JDI, August 22, 2014
I find the "sign of peace" very distracting in my parish especially at one of the Masses when children from the "Children's Choir" take off and run to their parents to "greet" them while hippie "peace-signs" are being flashed all around by "boomers". It even continues during the "Lamb of God" or Sanctus. Hard to maintain a spirit of reverence during this debacle. They should take it out completely, all arguments to the better notwithstanding.
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written by Helen, August 22, 2014
I agree that at the moment God has become present in the Holy Eucharist He should be the total focus of our attention. It is not proper, in my view, or necessary to have a sign of peace. I believe that should be a given and takes away from what has just happened which is so Holy that we do not seem to be able to get our minds around it. The Eucharst is the most important and Holiest moment of the whole Mass. That is the reason we are there. It is not about us! It is about Him!!!!


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written by Helen, August 22, 2014
I agree that it was a turn off and it was not appreciated nor did I ever take part as I felt it was offensive to Our Lord who was being ignored at a most Holy moment.
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written by Dan, August 22, 2014
I attend Mass at either of two adjacent parishes, both liberal. At both before Mass the cantor gives direction to the congregants to "greet each other." Thus we are treated to the "sign of peace" twice, once before Mass and then again during Mass.

I second DJR's comments about the Vatican's "concern" with liturgical abuse. The Vatican has done virtually nothing to try to correct the disaster that the liturgy has become in most parishes. Personally the sign of peace does not bother me as much as it does others who, like me, are traditional in matters related to the liturgy. The banal music is a far greater problem in my opinion.
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written by Bill Hocter, August 22, 2014
Thank You for an interesting article. I had always assumed (wrongly it turns out) that the point of the Sign of Peace was the Matthean tradition mentioned above. As a husband, and father of 10 I've often found it to be a good time to make up with some family member I've offended or who offended me. With this many people to deal with, there's always someone with their nose out of joint.

This explanation for the ritual also clarifies for me what seemed odd and standoffish behavior from some otherwise very nice people in my parish, who perhaps would just make cursory hand waves when they were standing 3 feet away from me. I would think to myself, "This is really lame. Jesus calls us to be ready to lay down our lives for each other and these clowns won't even shake my hand!"

Now that I understand what is happening, I’ll have fewer angry thoughts to confess. I still prefer the Matthean reasoning but will of course yield in docility. But then if things always had to be to my liking, I probably wouldn’t be Catholic!
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written by Patti Day, August 23, 2014
The evil one will distract us from our worship of Christ wherever and whenever he can. The sign of peace as it is practiced in many parishes today is one huge distraction. Why would we want to aid the evil one to do his work?
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written by Chris in Maryland, August 25, 2014
The problem with "the sign of peace" and the recent letter is that apparently it says what it shouldn't be...but it seems it doesn't say what it is/should be.

Result = more mush @ Mass.

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