Every Catholic website worth its salt eventually reaches a point when it must weigh in on the never-ending debate over the Sign of Peace. Where Peter Is has now arrived at this point.

I’m writing about this topic because yesterday, I saw a Tweet by Lizzie Reezay, a young woman with a popular YouTube channel who is a fairly recent convert to Catholicism. She wrote,

Why are Trads against the sign of peace? Is it because they’re all introverts?

The Sign of Peace, that part of the Mass following the Lord’s Prayer (in the Roman Rite), when the priest or deacon invites the faithful to give each other a sign of peace–typically in the form of the people shaking hands with those around them while saying “Peace” or “Peace be with you”–is often a source of contention for those who prefer the older form of the Mass.  As could have been predicted, this Tweet received critical responses including:

  • It’s because it’s an innovation that turns the Mass from worship of God and the offering of sacrifice in atonement for our sins into an anthropocentric communal activit (sic) that is for each other and the community rather than God.”
  • Because it isn’t in TLM. Many of the new things they introduced into the Novus Ordo Trads suspect as being Protestant inventions and influences.”
  • It’s a novelty added in the 60s and anything no appropriate at the foot of the cross is not appropriate at mass. Glad handing with your neighbor whilst Jesus is on the altar is just inappropriate. Mass is about worshipping God, not about us and community building”
  • Because it’s Protestant…”
  • It wasn’t in the mass until recently. It breaks the focus off of Jesus and puts it on us as we fumble to greet each other. It breaks the continuity of the mass. I think many can feel the shift in the room when it happens.”
  • Because we aren’t Protestants or Evangelicals. We’re catholics.”

Most of these complaints are, in fact, historically inaccurate. The Sign of Peace (or, more traditionally, the “Kiss of Peace”) is not an innovation, is not Protestant, and is not a recent development. The origins of the Sign of Peace are biblical. St. Paul refers to greeting  one another with a “holy kiss” multiple times in his encyclicals, and St. Peter asks the faithful to greet one another with a “loving kiss”:

  • “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.” (Rom 16:16)
  • “All the brothers greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (1 Cor 16:20)
  • “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones greet you.” (2 Cor 13:12)
  • “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.” (1 Thes 5:26)
  • “Greet one another with a loving kiss. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.” (1 Peter 5:14)

I suppose one could make the argument that these references are not explicitly about greeting one another during Mass, but there is evidence that these epistles were read aloud in the liturgy. Therefore, many scholars suggest that by closing his letters with the instruction to greet one another with a holy kiss, this then would have been carried out by the faithful. Regardless of whether that’s true, some of the earliest documents of the ancient Church do explicitly place it in the liturgy. St. Justin Martyr describes it in his First Apology (Ch 65), which was written between AD 155 and 157:

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 mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.

I include the second sentence to provide context for its placement in the liturgy: it quite clearly takes place after the prayer of the faithful and before the offertory (more on that later). Another early reference to the Kiss is in the Liturgy of the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions, a document believed to date from the 4th century Church in Antioch. This document provides one of the earliest full liturgical texts we have, and also describes the Kiss, and in greater detail:

And let the bishop salute the church, and say, The peace of God be with you all. And let the people answer, And with your spirit; and let the deacon say to all, Salute one another with the holy kiss. And let the clergy salute the bishop, the men of the laity salute the men, the women the women. And let the children stand at the reading-desk; and let another deacon stand by them, that they may not be disorderly. And let other deacons walk about and watch the men and women, that no tumult may be made, and that no one nod, or whisper, or slumber; and let the deacons stand at the doors of the men, and the sub-deacons at those of the women, that no one go out, nor a door be opened, although it be for one of the faithful, at the time of the oblation. But let one of the sub-deacons bring water to wash the hands of the priests, which is a symbol of the purity of those souls that are devoted to God. (XI)

I highlighted the words of the bishop and deacon prior to the Kiss because they are so similar to what we hear in the Roman Rite today. I’m not entirely sure why the children go to “stand at the reading-desk,” but I do find it amusing that one of the deacons is assigned to make sure they behave. This suggests that perhaps the Sign of Peace, even in the early Church, got a little unruly from time to time.

Note that in this account, as in the liturgy described by Justin Martyr, the Kiss precedes the Eucharistic Prayer (in the excerpt above, the priests’ hands are washed following the Kiss). This continues to be the practice in the Eastern Churches. Yet there is also strong historical precedent for the placement of the Sign of Peace after the consecration, as is the practice in the West. St. Augustine, in his Sermon 227 (dated AD 414-415), places the Kiss after the consecration and the Lord’s Prayer, just as we practice it today in the Ordinary Form:

After the consecration is accomplished, we say the Lord’s prayer, which you have received and given back. After that comes the greeting, Peace be with you, and Christians kiss one another with a holy kiss. It’s a sign of peace; what is indicated by the lips should happen in the conscience; that is, just as your lips approach the lips of your brothers or sisters, so your heart should not be withdrawn from theirs.

In my research, I came across a few commentaries that suggested the “holy kiss” described by Augustine was a mouth-to-mouth kiss. Determining whether that’s actually true is above my pay grade, but I’ll let you use your imagination.

The placement of the Sign of Peace is often a point of contention for those who believe it disrupts the Mass. Many argue that its placement after the consecration and the “disruption” or even “chaos” it causes distracts from the prayerful, pious environment that the moment in the liturgy requires. As I have already mentioned, in the East, it occurs prior to the offertory, in line with the descriptions of Justin Martyr and the Apostolic Constitutions above. But the placement after the Eucharistic Prayer has ancient roots in the Latin Church, and to move it to another part of the Mass would be a novelty.

The debate over moving the Sign of Peace in the Roman Liturgy is not new. In a 2010 blog post about the Sign of Peace, Msgr. Charles Pope summed up the history of papal support for the placement of the Sign of Peace after the consecration:

In the Roman Rite, as early as the 6th Century it was moved to the place it is today. Pope Innocent I defended a practice of moving it after the Canon as a way that people could assent to what had happened. … [W]hen Gregory the Great placed the Our Father after the Canon he also moved the sign of peace after the Our Father and it fit nicely according to commentators of the day since it echoed well the words “as we forgive those who trespass against us…” It has remained in this location ever since that time.

The Catholic Encyclopedia confirms this and summarizes Pope Innocent’s theological justification:

In Rome, however, the kiss of peace was more closely united to the Communion, and it must have followed shortly after the Pater Noster as it does at present. Thus Pope Innocent I in his letter to Decentius (A.D. 416) blames the practice of those who give the Pax before the Consecration and urges that it was meant as a token that “the people give their assent to all things already performed in the mysteries”.

Much more recently, the Vatican formerly took up the question of moving the Sign of Peace to earlier in the Mass. CNS reported in 2014:

In 2005, members of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist adopted a formal proposition questioning whether the sign of peace might be better placed elsewhere in the Mass, for example at the end of the prayer of the faithful and before the offering of the gifts.

In the end, the decision was made by the Vatican not to make a change:

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.

While this is the prevailing tradition, there are a few noteworthy exceptions. For example, in the Milanese Ambrosian Rite liturgy, the Kiss of Peace has taken place at the offertory since ancient times. More recently, an indult (exception) was permitted for the liturgies of the Neocatechumenal Way movement, allowing the Sign of Peace before the offertory, as confirmed by a 2005 letter from then-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), Cardinal Francis Arinze.

With all this history, why are many Catholics under the impression that the Sign of Peace was not part of the traditional Latin Mass? Well, for one thing, it isn’t used in the simpler and more common form, the “Low Mass.” And while it is part of the “High Mass,” it takes place only among those in the sanctuary, and is highly ritualized. This is what it looks like:

Naturally, with the fuller and more active participation from the congregation found in the Mass of St. Paul VI, the faithful participate in the Sign of Peace once again. And depending upon the makeup of the congregation, this will take many forms. Especially in the United States, with our diversity of cultural backgrounds and traditions, the Sign of Peace is bound to be a little “chaotic,” to say the least.

Regarding whether it’s a distraction, I can only speak from my own experience. Every community is different. Personally, I can think of no other part of the liturgy that speaks so clearly and concretely to us about our humanity and our life as a Church: our goodness, our unpredictability, our imperfection, and our care for one another.

Part of me wonders if the complaints about the “disruption” caused by the Sign of Peace are due to the fact that it’s one area where little kids are given the opportunity to “fully participate” in the Mass from a very young age. Throw 2- to 5-year-olds into the mix of anything and chaos will reign.

My parish has many young families, and I have 4 kids myself. Any Catholic parent knows that young children behave unpredictably during the Sign of Peace; little ones sometimes initially refuse to shake anyone’s hand, then as the “Lamb of God” begins, they make it clear that they now intend to shake everyone’s hand, and they’ll throw a tantrum if they can’t. Slightly older kids will try to climb over, behind, and through everyone and everything — attempting to offer the Sign of Peace to as many people as possible. They’ll hang over the back of the pew, hand outstretched until that random teenager finally notices them and shakes their hand.

Kids will step on each other and knock the little ones down, which, of course, leads to the other kid shouting or crying. Parents are shushing, correcting, consoling while all this is going on. Sure, it can be aggravating. Yet during all of this, the faithful of all ages are extending signs of peace to one another before receiving our Lord. 

Sure, sometimes it’s chaotic – but it’s a holy chaos. We aren’t porcelain statues, we’re complicated and emotional people, and our children are our best reminders of that fact. 

The old adage would seem to apply here: “If You Don’t Hear Crying, the Church is Dying.”

Image: Adobe Stock.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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