How the sign of peace disturbs me

'The peace challenges what I like most about the Catholic Mass – namely, the privacy of prayer' (CNS)

Isn’t ironic that the bit of the Mass where we exchange a “sign of peace” is the least peaceful bit of all? Everyone gets up, shakes hands, says hello, gives hugs and sometimes kisses. I’ve even witnessed a full-blown snog. It breaks up the Mass and, when conveyed with zealotry, transforms it into something it’s really not supposed to be: part hippie love fest, part election campaign (there’s always one fellow who dashes through the pews, clasping hands like he’s chasing votes). I don’t like it. Sometimes I don’t do it at all – which can cause great offence that I instantly regret.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to kneel it out during a church service in Kent. When the time came for the peace, I got to my knees and started praying. I heard the “peace be with you” fluttering around my head, and opened one eye to see if the flesh-pressing was up. Unfortunately, I caught the gaze of a nice old man in front. He might’ve thought I was confused, or foreign, or both, and so extended a hand to me. “Peace be with you!” he boomed. It had been so long since I’d replied, that I forgot the words. So I answered: “You too!” Something about the way I said it communicated disdain. The poor man withdrew his hand, looking deeply upset. In another triumph for Catholic guilt, I left Mass feeling wretched.

But I’m not alone in not liking the peace. In lots of places in the world it occurs only once on a Sunday. It became common in England post-Vatican II as a way of, I guess, democratising Catholicism and making it more parish-focused. It has strong antecedents. In the early Church a peace was widely practiced (although sometimes only among those about to receive Communion) and it typically took the form of a kiss. An osculatorium could be passed around: a beautiful carved board that everyone could put their lips to. Later, the Church limited the practice to the clergy. It was revived in the 20th century and the Vatican wasn’t entirely comfortable with the results. Benedict XVI, worried by how much time the peace takes up and how absurdly emotional it can get, considered moving it to another point in the service – such as before the presentation of gifts at the altar. Last month, the Vatican announced that it would stay in its present position but that suggestions would be offered on how to “moderate excesses”. Expect some hyper-liberal congregations to draw a comparison to a visitation by the Spanish Inquisition.

For me, the peace challenges what I like most about the Catholic Mass – namely, the privacy of prayer. When I first attended a Mass I was struck by the wonderful anonymity. It was in stark contrast to the Evangelical faith I was raised in as a child. No one tried to force their personality on me, no one asked me to testify in front of anyone else. Rather, I was asked to quietly, privately test my own conscience in prayer. The only bit of the service that disappointed was the moment when, in the middle of all this peaceful contemplation, we were suddenly forced to acknowledge each other and embrace.
It feels unnatural.

I know that Christianity is about challenging your own prejudices and forcing you to put others first. But I’m still not convinced that this minute of choreographed friendliness is always the best way to do it. A friend of mine who works for the Church knew of two instances where it really was unsuitable.

In one parish there was a girl with Tourette’s syndrome, who would respond to “Peace be with you” with a string of unprintably foul language that made the rest of the Mass an awkward experience. Another woman he encountered was a notorious groper and she would use an embrace as an opportunity to cop a feel. Of course, very few have such issues and most people make do with a manly handshake. But spare a thought for those members of the congregation who don’t wish to get to know you better.

Not that I’m against congregants being friends. In my old Evangelical church we had no equivalent of the Sign of Peace, but we did all have coffee afterwards (attendance, of course, was voluntary). To this day, I find it odd that many Catholic churches make a big show of sociability slap bang in the middle of the service – and then completely ignore each other thereafter. Would it be too much to ask that the Sign of the Peace was, at the very least, toned down in favour of a bigger effort at being nice in the moments after the Mass? A gentle nod before Communion and a bear hug at the end? If nothing else, it’s important to remind people that Mass isn’t a celebration of the community at all. It’s the community come together to receive the sacraments and worship God. There’s plenty of chance to exchange a sign of peace in the pub afterwards.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (5/9/14)


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