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The Sign of Peace - 7th September 2014
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 not conducted appropriately.
After nine years of study and consultation, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has issued a circular letter stating that the great majority of bishops conferences around the world preferred the present place and form for the Sign of Peace and so there would be no change to current practice.
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.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains that in the Rite of Peace “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”. It is a sign of conversion and peace-making, leading us to the holy communion of the Body of Christ, the Church.
The General Instruction adds:
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.
While the Sign of Peace is being given, it is permissible to say 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 become more elaborate or occupy more time than other more important elements of the celebration. The Sign of Peace is not a time for 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!
The Sign of Peace is a symbolic gesture, so we do it deliberately and sincerely with just those around us. We are imparting to others the blessing of Christ’s peace.