“May Christ plant a kiss on me.”

— St. Ambrose.

Every Romeo wants to kiss his Juliet. If she is a little shy, he may try to cajole or trick her with sweet and gentle words. Shakespeare’s tragic Romeo tells his Juliet that his intentions are pure as a prayer. His lips are like ‘two blushing pilgrims’, which seek to touch the relics of a saint. And since saints also have lips, perhaps their kiss will be as holy as the kisses of saints. So, they may kiss without sinning, or, at most, just a ‘gentle sin’ ‘Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer’ she retorts. But alas ‘For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.’

Pope Paul VI, drawing from the font of patristic liturgical ‘ressourcement’, restored the Kiss of Peace within the celebration of the post-conciliar Novus Ordo.[1] Along with the presentation of the gifts of bread and wine by the laity to the priest, and the ‘hearty prayers of the people’ (Justin Martyr, First Apology 65) the restoration of the Kiss of Peace was a welcome signal that the bishops and theologians were contemplating upon the spirituality of the Christians in those early centuries. This article concerns primarily the liturgical Holy Kiss.

The kiss as a liturgical expression of reverence and love has ancient origin. The New Testament recounts the Holy Kiss in Romans 16:16, I Peter 5:14, I Cor 16:20 and 2 Cor 13:12. St. Peter wrote about greeting with “the kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14). Pope Benedict XVI expressed this in his post-Synodal Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007):

In ancient times the kiss as a sign of greeting was used to show reverence for temples and images of gods. It seems that the table was likewise honored before the family meal in places where every meal was considered sacred.

The phrase ‘kissing hands’ is still part of the language of monarchy, loyalty and welcome. Medieval monarchs would accept the surrender of enemies or the expression of loyalty of a subject with an osculum, a kiss bestowed on the vassal by the lord. In the recent coronation of King Charles III, his heir the Prince of Wales knelt before the newly crowned king and, with his hands inside his father’s, swore loyalty ‘as your liege man of life and limb’ He then kissed his father to seal his oath. The veneration of the altar by a kiss, the veneration of the cross on Good Friday by a kiss, all stand testimony to the intensity of the kiss as a religious expression.

The opening verse of the Song of Songs gave rise to much controversial speculation among early Christians. ‘Let me kiss him with the kiss of my mouth’ (Song of Songs 1:1.) Origen, the master of allegorical exegesis, called the canticle a wedding hymn or epiphalium in which the bridegroom is God and the bride may be either the Church or the Christian soul. Thus, the kiss is domesticated into the chaste kiss of a married couple. Not so with Rupert of Deutz, (c.1070–1129)[2] in his exegesis of Matthew, (De gloria et honore filii hominis). He wrote how both Christ the Bridegroom and Rupert his bride equally desire to kiss each other. The kiss is on the lips, delightful and sensuous: “I was not satisfied unless I might seize him with my hands, and I might kiss affectionately him whom I had embraced. (“Non satis hoc mihi erat, nisi in manibus apprehenderem, amplexumque deoscularer.”) The language is undeniably erotic. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) also, in his Sermons on the Song of Songs, writes that the biblical kiss is a mystical one (spirituale osculum) from the mouth of Christ.

Patristic evidence of the liturgical holy kiss

St. Justin Martyr, the first to mention the Holy Kiss in terms of the synapse of the Christians, tells us that it was exchanged at the end of the prayers: “Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine…” (First Apology, 65).[3]

In the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, men did not kiss women, and the catechumens did not exchange the Kiss: “After the catechumens have finished praying, they do not give the kiss of peace, for their kiss is not yet pure. But the faithful shall greet one another with a kiss, men with men, and women with women. Men must not greet women with a kiss.”

The Apostolic Constitutions (380) informs us that the deacon announced the holy kiss after the prayers of the faithful, the clergy then kiss each other, then the laymen kiss the other men, and the women kiss the women. Tertullian (155-240 AD) was the first to use the term “kiss of peace”. He wrote of the liturgical kiss as the ‘signaculum orationis’, a seal or consummation set on prayers. “What prayer is complete when divorced from the Holy Kiss?”[4]

St. Cyril of Jerusalem included the kiss in the liturgy of Good Friday as the manner to reverence the True Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) wrote that our true happy destiny was to rest in the embrace of Christ and to kiss Him, thinking “only of the things that are to be, so that you may be able to come to the fruition of the eternal kingdom and to the embrace and kiss of the Lord” (Letter 82,4).

St. Augustine, referring to the appearance of Christ to the disciples after his Resurrection, declares that when Jesus ‘breathed on them’, it can be read as a holy kiss of peace. And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn 20:22). Just as the Father kissed Adam in Genesis 2:7. with that first breath, so also Jesus breathed a new life into the assembled disciples:

After his resurrection, when he first appeared to his disciples, he said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” About this giving, then, it was said, “The Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified.” “And he breathed upon their face.” The One who first gave life to man by breathing and raised him up from the mire and by breathing gave a soul to his members is the same One who breathed upon their face that they might rise up from the slime and renounce filthy works (Sermon 32,6).

In his interpretation of the raising of the son of the Shunammite woman, Caesarius of Arles puts the concept thus, “Truly, in a way, He put His mouth on theirs when he breathed upon them and gave them the Spirit.” Just as Elisha’s body heat draws life back into the corpse of the dead boy (2 Kgs 4:32), the kiss of the Risen Jesus brings life into the Church. The man of God kissed the dead boy with the breath of life, as Christ had kissed the disciples with his breath. “We assert with confidence that holy Elisha was an image of our Savior.” (Sermon 128,1)

The different placements of the kiss of peace within the liturgy

The greeting which Latin Catholics now exchange during the Communion rite has known many configurations. Placing it within the Communion Rite has precedent in Rome and Latin North Africa. There is also ample evidence for its placement at the end of Mass and before the Offertory. In the Novus Ordo, it has been placed after the prayer for peace, Dominus Jesus Christus, qui dixisti Apostolis tuis: pacem relinquo vobis, pacem meam do vobis: but before the Breaking of the Bread, the fermentum, and the Agnus Dei. This is not the order in which these elements were situated in most records of the Mass in medieval times. In the pre-Vatican II high Mass, the priest intoned ‘Pax Domini’ before the Agnus Dei. Then following the ‘dona nobis pacem’, the presider exchanged peace with the deacon.

Tertullian thinks that there was no better time to offer the kiss of peace than after the prayers were prayed, since the kiss is like the consummation or a seal on the prayers. Tertullian’s insight is still active today in the celebration of the Novus Ordo within the neo-catechumenate movement. In the Ambrosian Rite, after the offering of the gifts of bread and wine, a deacon greets the congregation with Pacem habete, to which the people respond Ad te, Domine. The Kiss of Peace takes place at that time.

Placing the Kiss of Peace immediately after the Lord’s Prayer and prior to receiving Holy Communion was brought into Roman liturgy from Latin Africa sometime around the time of Gregory the Great (circa 600 AD). It has remained in that general place since then.

St. Augustine of Hippo (circa 414 AD) in an Easter sermon wrote that the kiss happens in much the same moment as it does today:

When the Sacrifice is finished, we say the Lord’s Prayer, which you have received and recited. After this, the “Peace be with you” is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.[5]

There are several tales from the Early Church which appear to indicate that it was customary to give the Kiss of Peace on the lips before receiving Holy Communion. One of the more interesting accounts is the legend of St. Mary of Egypt by Sophronios, Bishop of Jerusalem, in which the priest Zosimus, wandering out in the desert during Lent, encounters an old woman clothed only with her hair. The person turned out to be the ascetic hermit Mary of Egypt. She asked Zosimus to return next year on Holy Thursday with Holy Communion. This he did as she bade him. At the River Jordan, exactly as the year before, the woman arrived by walking across the water. She asked Zosimus to say the Creed and Our Father.

He began, she finished the prayer and according to the custom of that time gave him the kiss of peace on the lips. Having partaken of the Holy Mysteries, she raised her hands to heaven and sighed with tears in her eyes, exclaiming: “Now let Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to Thy word; for my eyes have seen Thy salvation.”

By the 13th century William Durand[6] places the Kiss of Peace after the co-mingling of the consecrated bread and wine. “The people kiss each other because they show gratitude for having been found worthy, through His death, of the grace of their Lord and reconciliation with the angels” (Durand, Rationale bk. 4, 6).

The fraction of the bread is a type for the tearing apart of the body of Christ on the cross. So also, the co-mingling of the fermentum in the chalice symbolized the re-integration of the body and soul of Jesus in the resurrection (Durand, Rationale, bk 4, 53, p. 461). The pattern of the Mass follows the pattern of the Paschal Triduum, first the human death and then the resurrection. “By sharing the pax, the priest denotes the peace given after Christ’s resurrection and our participation in its joy.” (Honorius of Auton [1106 to 1135] Gemma Anima 1.83).

Kissing the sacred species

William Durand, like so many medieval theologians, writes that the priest’s personal love for Christ in the species of bread and wine should be so intense that he would long to kiss the host, the chalice, and the paten. “To signify Charity, the priest kisses the paten, which designates the heart being open to the abundance of charity.” (Durand, Rationale bk. 4, 12. On the Kiss of Peace, p. 466.) The kiss is seen as reciprocal, that Christ also kisses the priest. These powerful visual images are meant to capture the intense affection for the Body of Christ that a priest should feel at that moment of the fraction and fermentum.

“To designate these things, when the priest has completed the comingling of the Body and Blood, and finished the prayer, in some churches, he receives the peace from the Eucharist, or from the Body of the Lord itself; or, according to others, from the sepulcher itself, that is, from the chalice or from the altar; and he offers a kiss on the mouth of the deacon.[7]

Six hundred years before Durand, St. John Chrysostom (Sermon 30) referred to the Pauline concept of the human body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, comparing the lips of the Christian to the doors of the church building. Since the Christian is soon to open their lips to receive the body of the Lord, when Christians kiss each other’s lips, they are kissing the doors through which Christ will soon enter the Church. Antiochene theologian Theoderet of Cyr (395-458) connects the tradition of kissing the consecrated bread to the spousal kiss of Christ the Bridegroom and us Christians, his bride. “One should consider how during the sacred mysteries we take the limbs of the Spouse, kiss them, embrace them and apply them to our eyes.”[8]

A custom had arisen in Syria of touching the five senses with the consecrated bread: “Then, after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, come forward only for the cup of the Blood. Do not stretch out your hands but bow low as if making an act of obeisance and a profound act of veneration. Say ‘Amen’. and sanctify yourself by partaking of Christ’s Blood also. While the moisture is still on your lips, touch them with your hands and sanctify your eyes, your forehead, and all your other sensory organs.”

The degeneration of the Holy Kiss into a substitute blessing in place of Holy Communion

The reception of Holy Communion by the laity declined over the centuries, and this had its effect on the way the Kiss was celebrated. Remember that the primitive Church, or indeed the Church of the early 4th century was still composed of small urban communities gathered around an episcopos. That all changed radically as the Church benefited from the terms of the Constantinian Settlement. Christian communities appeared in small towns and villages, with greater numbers of people and a greater need for clergy and for resources.

By the 13th century, the decline in reception of the Eucharist by the laity was such that the clergy no longer even invited the laity to participate. Durand attempts to explain this development which had happened long before his time.

But after a while, because this instruction could not be worthily observed, a third instruction followed: that any Christian would receive the Eucharist at least three times per year, or nowadays, at least once at Easter; with the discovery of this remedy – namely, in place of receiving communion every day – each day, the kiss of peace could be given for the ministry of unity’ (Durand, William. Rationale IV. On the Kiss of peace 3).

The priests sometimes told people to receive only on Sundays, and then later again, only a few times a year. Over time, the situation deteriorated to where the people sometimes replaced reception of Holy Communion with a blessing or with the exchange of the Kiss of Peace.

The minister, perhaps the sub-deacon or the deacon is kissed by the priest in place of being given Holy Communion. The priest speaks to him as Christ did to the disciples at the last Supper. But the admonition is not to distribute the Body and Blood of Christ, but rather, to distribute the Holy Kiss.

In some places, the priest giving the kiss to the minister says: “Take the bond of peace and love, so that you will be bound to the most holy ministry,” as if he says: take from this all of you and distribute it among yourselves. (Durand, William. Rationale, On the Kiss of Peace. 3)

Durand is clear that the tradition had grown up that a kiss was in some way the same value as the consecrated bread and wine. Not only had the practice of receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord declined, but dubious practices had arisen in the vacuum. Many priests distributed a kiss as if it were the sacrament. Durand complains that blessed bread has replaced Holy Communion on Sundays and a blessing has replaced Holy Communion on weekdays.

And in place of communion, which used to be the custom every Sunday, blessed bread was given on Sundays, as a substitute for holy communion, which is called eulogia. But in the place of daily communion, during Lent, a prayer over the people is said at the end of Mass, which is preceded by the words: “Bow your heads before God.” (Durand, William. Rationale, On the Kiss of Peace. 3)

 Johannes Emminghaus (The Eucharist: Essence, Form, Celebration, 1997) writes that, because those not about to receive Communion were likely to leave before the distribution, a ritual blessing took place in many churches to create some element of order during the final part of the Mass. “But to prevent people simply straggling out of the church, those departing were given a parting blessing; this, in turn, soon began to be regarded as a substitute for Communion. Even Augustine knows of this blessing” (letter 149 cited by Hemminghaus, p. 19).

One of the more curious practices which arose in the late Middle Ages was the kissing of the pax board, sometimes referred to as Osculatorium Pacis or the Pax-Brede. This disk, usually heavily decorated and with an image of the Lamb of God embossed on it, was passed from person to person for kissing in place of actual eating and drinking of the consecrated species. This practice continues today in High Mass of the Extraordinary Form and in some celebrations of the Anglican Eucharist.

Because of the gravity of Eucharistic reception, few would regularly receive the Host. And yet, the kiss of peace as mediated through the pax board and the reception of blessed and non-consecrated bread at the conclusion of Mass was available to all those attending Mass[9]

The present placing of the Kiss of Peace, the Pax Christi, in my opinion, works well to prepare our hearts for the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood a few moments later. For the priest, the kiss forces him to recall his role as father of the faithful, whose kiss and breaking of the bread, reaffirm his position of leader of the assembly for the sake of God’s Holy People, so that they may all the better be united in ‘oneness, charity, peace and reverence’.


[1] Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) directed that the Universal Prayers of the Mass be restored: “Especially on Sundays and feasts of obligation there is to be restored, after the Gospel and the homily, ‘the common prayer’ or ‘the prayer of the faithful’ SC. 53

[2] Rupert of Deutz (1075-1129) was a liturgical exegete of the 12th century. His principal work was Liber de divinis officiis.

[3] Ἀλλήλους φιλήματι ἀσπαζόμεθα παυσάμενοι τῶν ευχῶν’

[4] “Quare oratio cum divortio santo osculi integra?

[5] Post ipsam dicitur, “Pax Vobiscum”: et osculantur se Christiani in osculo sancto. Pacis signum est: sicut ostendunt labia, fiat in conscientia. Id est, quomodo labia tua ad labia fratris fui accedunt, sic cor tuum a corde eius non recedat.

[6] Guillaume Durand also known as William Durantus, (1230-1296), was a French canonist and liturgical exegete. His commentary on the liturgy Rationale divinorum officiorum survives as a testimony of Mass of the Middle Ages.

[7] Durand, Rationale, bk. 4,1. On the Kiss of Peace

[8] Theodoret of Cyr, Comm. On Song of Songs. I, 1. Migne PG 81, col. 27 ff.

[9] Virginia Reinburg, “Liturgy and Laity in Late Medieval and Reformation France,” The Sixteenth Century Journal, 23.3 (Autumn 1992): 529

Image: Farewell of Saints Peter and Paul, showing the Apostles giving each other the holy kiss before their martyrdom. (Alonzo Rodriguez, 16th century, Museo Regionale di Messina).

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Father Tim Kelly is a priest of the Diocese of Tyler in Texas. Ordained in 1999, he has spent most of his ministry in parishes in "Deep East Texas."  He spent three years studying Patristics in Rome and two years teaching at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston. Fr. Kelly’s interest is in the history of theology -- the forces which shape how the Catholic Church expresses herself in any particular moment of history.

Share via
Copy link