The priest says aloud with hands extended, “Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you; look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will.”
The priest continues with hands together, “Who live and reign for ever and ever.” The people respond, “Amen.” Then extending and joining his hands, the priest says to the people, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” The people reply, “And with your spirit.” Then the deacon or priest may ask the community to share a sign of peace: “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.”
The wording for the prayer associated with the sign of peace comes from the Germanic world of the eleventh century. It becomes part of the liturgy among the Italians and is mandated in the Missal of Pius V and now in the Roman Missal of Paul VI. Except for the historic African Mass, the Roman Rite stands apart from other liturgies that place the sign or kiss of peace at the beginning of Mass. The Roman Rite places it at the end in the Communion rite, after the Our Father.
There has continued to be some discussion about placement. Liturgists are still divided as to whether it should come at the beginning as part of the penitential rite or during the offertory or after the Lord’s Prayer. The third is the traditional location and where a fragment is retained in the Tridentine Mass. This places the focus upon worthiness for Holy Communion. That is where we find it today. The gesture of a handshake is mitigated during the pandemic and many insert a bow of the head or a wave of the hand.
There is a contemporary expression about how a love letter might be “sealed with a kiss.” In a sense, that is what the sign of peace does in terms of the Eucharist. The story of Christ is a love story and the Mass is the marriage banquet of the Lamb. The Church is his bride and our unity with one another is in the Lord. Too often the sign of peace is misinterpreted as merely a relationship of fellowship with congregants; but, the whole point of it is as an intimate union with Christ. Pope Innocent I interprets it as a seal or guarantee of everything promised in the liturgy. We see something of this in the customary overture: “you may kiss the bride” at the end of a nuptial service. Pope Gregory the Great would move the sign of peace from the very end of the Mass to just after the canon. It then quickly shifts to its current placement after the Our Father. Historically, the kiss of peace is often shared just prior to receiving Holy Communion, including outside of Mass in sick calls (as far back as the 800’s AD). The Cistercians would mandate that even for private Mass the server should always receive both the “pax” (peace) and Holy Communion. Pope Eugene IV in 1437 AD revokes this practice as dangerous. The kiss is traditionally shared by those in close proximity, not with everyone gathered. At one point in history the kiss of peace becomes so important that many would share it but not take the sacrament. A Roman-German pontifical for the liturgy in the tenth century would speak of an important evolution in the gesture. It is stipulated that the kiss of peace would start at the altar, then to any priests, next to the deacons and finally would be extended to the congregants. There would continue to be some variation. After 1100 AD the practice in lower Italy has the celebrant first kiss the altar, the book, and the host before it is extended to the deacon. The French only did the host. The English of the thirteenth century stop the practice as “unseemly.” The kiss (according to the old rule) is only given from men to men and women to women.
[Eventually there was a substitution of a pax-board (osculatorium), a plaque popularized in England that symbolized the altar. It was made from wood, ivory or ornate metal. It was set upon the altar and then extended to those in the pews. It began to be used in 1248 AD and quickly spread to the continent. A subdeacon took it to those outside the sanctuary. Its use came to an end due to discontent about rank and the order of reception.]
Sensibilities would change about the kiss of peace and while the words are retained, the practice generally disappears until Vatican II. Today, while a kiss might be shared in certain parts of the world, a handshake or small bow or other gesture is often substituted given heightened propriety and a cultural shift against romanticism in its regard.
We must be at peace with one another and with the Lord so as to be worthy of the Eucharist. While the overture of the Sign of Peace exists in the pre-conciliar liturgy, the reformed ritual from Vatican II extends it as part of a recovery of an older form that is better in line with Matthew 5:23-24:
“Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
The priest or deacon may invite the congregation to extend to one another some sign of Christ’s peace. This peace means unity or oneness in Jesus Christ. It is an expression of a profound solidarity. That is really why scandal and a crisis about Eucharistic decorum has warranted discussion by the USCCB. Should those who are in egregious sin, teaching heresy or promoting public dissent be given Holy Communion? Politicians and celebrities are frequently the ones that make this problematical. Many ordinary Catholics may be in irregular unions or living in sin but the priest would not withhold the Eucharist for fear of violating confidentiality and the seal of confession. Nevertheless, the sign of peace should signify true unity with Christ and his Church. It is a precondition for reception. This remains a matter worthy of reflection and discussion. Should a person living in an irregular union or in a sinful lifestyle present himself for the sacrament? If a person enables or promotes abuse, prejudice, racism or the death of persons as in euthanasia and abortion, should he or she be given the sacrament? Unless seriously remote, believers are forbidden to cooperate in evil acts. How far can we compromise our integrity until the tension snaps the strands of faith and morals? Is our claim to Catholicity a core dedication to the truth or only an affiliation due to habit or fellowship or nostalgia?
The sacrament that is instituted for our salvation can come to our judgment and condemnation before God. I suspect that many deny that such a conviction is possible. Too many today, both in and out of the pews, incoherently deny that one’s unity with Jesus can be so severed. This lack of due diligence allows for a great deception where the spiritually gullible follow a counterfeit Christ that feigns saving everyone when he can save no one. Both top-notch theologians and on-and-off pew-sitters suggest that all might be saved even though the Scriptures clearly teach about the frightful prospect of hellfire and the loss of heaven. Good people frequently struggle with the heresy of universalism. But ours is no Pollyanna faith. Hardened hearts, sinful acts of commission or omission, can and do result in the terrible prospect of perdition. A heretical mentality of indifference explains why many fail to pray for the dead. Everyone is presumed as in heaven. An understandable compassion would have a decent person hesitate to tell anyone that his or her child or spouse or mother might be in hell. You would likely be labeled as mean-spirited, intolerant and wrongly judgmental. In truth, we leave judgment to God but as Catholics we are called to appreciate that Jesus is both the Divine Mercy and the Divine Judgment. The priest who hesitates to give Holy Communion to an egregious public sinner or one who has rejected the genuine Lordship of Jesus Christ may be struggling in conscience with not compounding the sin and guilt of the communicant. Nevertheless, critics are quick to attack the priest.