Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Sign of Peace

The 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist, raised the subject of the present position and form of the "sign of peace" at Mass. Since then, the subject has been studied by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Episcopal Conferences around the world. As a result, the Congregation recently released a Circular Letter in the hope that it "may become an occasion for a new and more intense Eucharistic catechesis between the priests and the communities, in order to help the people of God to grow in a more profound understanding of this important moment of the celebration, that is clearly oriented to communicate the sentiments and the attitudes of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the Risen One, Giver of Peace for the church and for the world, and that, through the Sacramental Communion with his Body and his Blood, makes us become one with Him and in Him."

The "sign of peace" is, of course, the contemporary equivalent in the Paul VI Mass of the traditional Pax or "Kiss of Peace, that used to be exchanged among the clergy at Solemn Masses after the Agnus Dei. Done only at Solemn Masses and exchanged only among the clergy, the rite had become almost unknown among ordinary faithful until its restoration in 1969.

In several non-Roman Rites - for example, the Ambrosian (Milan), the Mozarabic (Toledo) - and in the liturgies of the Eastern Churches, the Kiss of Peace" occurs earlier in the Mass, at the "Offertory" (in the spirit of Matthew 5:23-24, about being reconciled with one's brothers and sisters before offering one's gift at the altar). With the restoration of the "sign of peace" to the entire congregation in the contemporary Roman Rite, some have suggested moving it to that alternative position. This Circular Letter acknowledges that discussion but decides "to retain the rite of peace in its traditional place in the Roman liturgy and not to introduce structural changes in the Roman Missal."

It seems to me that good arguments can be made for either position, but I am sympathetic to the letter's concern to show fidelity to the long-standing tradition of its placement in the Roman Rite, as well as to the practical desire not to introduce any additional element of liturgical change or experimentation at this time.

In the decades since the restoration of the rite in modernized form, most of the debate and controversy concerning it have been about its impact - perceived possibly as disruptive - in the celebration of Mass, especially coming as it does just before the reception of Holy Communion. Thus the Circular Letter acknowledges and warns against certain common abuses. Specifically it mentions: the introduction of a "song of peace" (something that has never been an official part of the Roman Rite but which I have occasionally experienced at Masses in Spanish), also people leaving their places and moving around the church to offer the peace (something one sometimes still sees), and the priest himself leaving the altar to do so (something that used to be quite common and is still seen but is now much less commonly encountered than was the case until relatively recently), and finally the rite becoming a vehicle for congratulations, condolences, and holiday greetings on special occasions. Such abuses, the letter reminds us, should be "definitively" avoided.

So, actually, other than settling the debate about whether to move the rite elsewhere in the Mass and warning against some common misuses of the rite, there is not much new in the letter. It is, however, an invitation to pay more attention not only to how we do the "sign of peace" (from a ritual standpoint), but also to its ultimate meaning in relationship to the larger meaning and significance of the Eucharistic celebration. For what it may be worth, my own view has long been that many liturgical abuses stem from a common failure, for whatever reason, to appreciate that larger meaning and significance, with the result that lesser elements - precisely because they have a sort of pop culture feel - acquire disproportionate significance and increased popular appeal. 

In our post-modern society, in which traditional social and communal bonds have atrophied, it is understandable that people look for experiential substitutes for community wherever they can find them. The Mass itself - and the "sign of peace" in particular - express the powerfully new kind of community that is being realized among God's People. To experience that new community, as we are really meant to experience it, requires commitment and effort, of course. In reality, we often fall short. If, in fact, our main experience of this new kind of community remains largely at the level of ritual, it is easy to see how that ritual may be hijacked by well-meaning but ultimately misguided efforts to invest it with greater subjective reality - even if that means drawing on the superficial emotionalism endemic in our popular culture in place of the authentic spirit of the liturgy.

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