The Sign of Peace and Anarchy

I always enjoy reading Bernard Salt’s column in The Weekend Australian. Bernard has established a reputation as a trend forecaster for business and government. His sense of humour makes the otherwise dull subject of demographics rather fascinating.

One of his recent articles, “Peace be with you anyway”, both amused and puzzled me. In it Bernard decried the shift in the 1970s from dances that involved performing a prescribed sequence of moves, like the Pride of Erin, to what he called the “freestyle form” of modern dancing. I agree. He went on however to liken this “anarchy on the dance floor” to the changes that occurred in the Mass around the same time. “Out went the order of a service said in Latin”, he wrote.

There was certainly a big change in the way Mass was celebrated with the implementation in the 1970s of the Missal of Paul VI which reflected the renewal of worship called for by the second Vatican Council. But it was hardly “anarchy”! The texts for Mass were still set down in the Missal and, although dispensing with the detailed rubrics of the Tridentine Mass, it still contained rubrics in the body of the Missal and a set of instructions to be followed in the front.

With the benefit of hindsight, some of the (usually well-intentioned) innovations of the time can certainly be assessed today as not entirely appropriate, but blaming the revised Missal is like saying that changing the speed limit from the 60mph to 100kph in the 1960s is the cause of highway crashes!

Bernard found particular problem with the Sign of Peace – which in fact was not something new but the reintroduction of an ancient practice that had got lost somewhere along the way. I chucked at his description of it as “wantonly freestyle inter-personal relations” that women found easier to take on board than men.

Yes, it was difficult, because it was symbolic of a cosmic shift – from a “God and me” to an “all of us as the Body of Christ” understanding of worship. It also embodied the reminder from the Council that Christ is present in the assembly. Sharing the sign of peace graciously with those around us acknowledges this and is one way for us to be “present” to those with whom we worship.

The Sign of Peace is not a time for shaking hands and saying Hello to as many people as possible in the available time: true hospitality must be 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; hence it takes the form of an embrace or clasping of hands rather than a handshake.

Liturgy is about rehearsing the Christian life. Plucking up the courage to share the sign of peace with fellow worshippers, especially strangers, is training for our ministry of reconciliation out in the real world where sharing peace with those with whom we live, work and interact is often even harder that Bernard Salt finds it to be at Mass!


Elizabeth Harrington