Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Celebrating the Sign of Peace
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Feb. 5, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
The Sign of Peace has been a part of the celebration of the Eucharist at least from as early as the fourth century. In medieval times it became limited to the clergy, but was restored again in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Since that time there has been somewhat of a challenge to see the Sign of Peace as something integral and complementary to the liturgy, rather than as an awkward intrusion into the liturgy. Once restored, the Sign of Peace became so popular that some people wanted to offer the gesture to literally everyone in the church. Some priests would also wander the aisles of the church extending the Peace to as many as they could possibly reach.
The challenge for any community is to keep the Sign of Peace in perspective. It must be seen as a part of the liturgy, and not as a “time-out” from the liturgy, allowing worshipers to have a moment to be personable with one another.
The United States bishops saw these difficulties, and in 1977 wrote that “neither the people nor the ministers need try exhaust the sign by attempting to give the greeting personally to everyone in the congregation or even to a great number of those present.... Unless the Sign of Peace is clearly tailored to a specific occasion, such as a marriage, ordination, or some small intimate group, the more elaborate and individual exchange of peace by the celebrant has a tendency to appear clumsy. It can also accentuate too much the role of the celebrant or ministers, which runs counter to a true understanding of the presence of Christ in the entire assembly.”
The newly revised Roman Missal describes the Sign of Peace as the rite “by which the Church asks for 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.”
Then the new norms add some precautions so that this rite does not overshadow the rest of the liturgy: “The priest may give the Sign of Peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the Sign of Peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary.”
The new norms may seem restrictive to some, but they are really meant to preserve the unity, flow and rhythm of the whole rite of the Mass. The rhythm and flow is disrupted when the Sign of Peace becomes an occasion for the priest, deacon or other members of the assembly to “work the crowd” like eager politicians. The Sign of Peace is a rite, a ritual. It is meant to suggest something, in a prayerful and powerful way. It is not meant to be an exchange of greetings to as many people as possible.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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