By Fr. Aaron Johanneck, STL
Christ came to bring us the peace for which we all long. He tells the Apostles at the Last Supper, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Christ won this peace for us through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. After He rose from the dead He greeted His disciples with the words, “Peace be with you.”
The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of peace. In the Holy Mass we are united to the sacrifice of Christ through which we are reconciled to God. This is the source of true peace. Through the Rite of Peace during the Mass, which occurs after the Lord’s Prayer and before the reception of Holy Communion, the Church, “entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 82). Here we entreat Christ to grant us the peace that only He can give, and we exchange His peace with those around us.
The Sign of Peace is not a social exchange. It is a sacred ritual gesture that signifies the peace of Christ which flows from the sacrifice made present on the altar. In the past, the offering of this sign began with the priest kissing the altar. He then offered peace to the deacon, who in turn offered it to the subdeacon, and so on down the line of ministers in a ritualized “embrace.” Other liturgical rites of the Catholic Church retain similar practices. In this way peace is “passed” from the altar of Christ’s sacrifice, through the sacred ministers, to the faithful.
Today the Sign of Peace is offered by everyone to those around them. The common practice with which we are familiar is to shake hands while saying, “Peace be with you.” However, because the handshake is a gesture also used in other social settings there is risk that it can be treated and interpreted in the same manner as in those other settings. It is important to remember that the Sign of Peace is offered at a very holy point in the Mass, just after the Eucharistic Prayer and just before Holy Communion.
Because of concerns that were raised about misunderstandings of this sign which can distract the faithful from remaining prayerfully focused on the Eucharist they are about to receive, the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome reviewed the current practice “in order to safeguard the sacred sense of the Eucharistic celebration and the sense of mystery at the moment of receiving Holy Communion.” The Congregation gave some practical guidelines to help ensure that the Sign of Peace is better understood and “to moderate excessive expressions that give rise to disarray in the liturgical assembly before Communion.”
Among these guidelines, the Congregation described certain abuses that must be avoided so as not to distract the faithful from the holiness of the moment and obscure the true meaning of the gesture. The guidelines direct that there should be no “song of peace” at this time, which is not called for in the rite. They also state that the faithful should not move from their places in order to exchange peace with those who are not in their immediate vicinity. Instead, “it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the Sign of Peace only to those who are nearest” (GIRM 82).
Our exchange of peace during Holy Mass is an offering of the peace that we can receive only from Christ as a gift that flows from His sacrifice made present on the altar. We exchange this peace with holy reverence so as to stay focused on the holiness of the moment when Christ is about to share with us the peace that comes from worthily receiving His Sacred Body and Blood in Holy Communion.