A Letter on Divine Worship

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 a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.