Parts of the Mass: The Sign of Peace

This Liturgy Lines column may provide helpful background or follow up to Part 13 of Archbishop Mark Coleridge’s series on the Mass at https://brisbanecatholic.org.au/beliefs-and-works/mass/.

The exchange of peace has been part of the Roman liturgy since earliest times. Originally it occurred before the Presentation of Gifts in response to Jesus' exhortation in Matthew 5:23-24: "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."

In the late fourth century the Sign of Peace moved to its present location immediately after the Our Father. This position links it with the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer that we be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us” and with the reception of Eucharist which follows.

In the Middle Ages the gesture came to be limited to the clergy alone and was eventually replaced by the priest’s kissing of the altar.

The 1969 Missal of Paul VI issued after the Second Vatican Council restored the Sign of Peace to the Mass. This was in line with the renewed emphasis on the communal aspect of liturgical worship, and also embodied the reminder from the Council that Christ is present in the assembly.

In 2005 members of the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist investigated a proposal that the Sign of Peace might be better placed elsewhere in the Mass because having it just before Communion causes problems if it is not conducted appropriately. A long and extensive process of consultation revealed that the great majority of bishops conferences preferred the present practice so no change was made.

Interestingly, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) calls this part of the Mass the Rite of Peace while the Missal uses the term Sign of Peace. The General Instruction describes the Rite of Peace as a sign of conversion and peace-making, leading us to the Holy Communion of the Body of Christ, the Church. It then explains how the sign is expressed:
"In the dioceses of Australia the most common form of the gesture of peace is the handshake, although different practices according to region and culture are not excluded. However, it is appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner." (GIRM 82)

An appropriate form of words to use during the exchange of peace is "The peace of the Lord be with you always", to which the reply is "Amen".

The Sign of Peace needs to be kept in proportion and not occupy more time than other more important elements of the celebration. The Sign of Peace is about imparting to others the blessing of Christ’s peace not shaking hands and saying Hello to as many people as possible in the available time: hospitality is practised as people arrive for Mass, not when it is almost over!

Elizabeth Harrington