Let me know if this sounds familiar: you’re at Mass, and the guy in the pew in front of you has been sniffling and coughing and blowing his nose for the last half-hour. Now, it’s right before Communion and the deacon proclaims, “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” Except you didn’t hear the last few words the deacon said because the guy in front of you let loose with an enormous sneeze, which he directed right into both of his hands. Then the guy spins around, says, “Peace be with you,” and holds out his right hand for you to shake.
Eww, kind of awkward, huh?
Or how about this scenario: the deacon speaks, and immediately half the congregation starts hugging, kissing, walking around, chatting, making plans for later in the day, discussing the results of last night’s ballgame, and calling out, “Yoo hoo! Love ya, honey!” to someone 150 feet away. It takes a full five minutes for everyone to return to their places so that Mass can resume.
There is a part of Mass that for many decades has caused a great deal of discord. This part of Mass is ironically named “the Sign of Peace.”
Many Catholics absolutely detest the Sign of Peace. Some think it disrupts the flow of Mass and creates a frivolous atmosphere right at the most sacred moment, when we are about to receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus in the Eucharist. Others are not comfortable touching other people, and dread the moment when everyone around them reaches out a hand to shake. And still others are convinced that every cold and flu they’ve endured over the last 40 years was contracted at Mass during the Sign of Peace.
It’s a shame this Sign of Peace gesture causes so much strife and anxiety—the exact opposite of peace.
Most people don’t know why we do the Sign of Peace at Mass. Here is one explanation I discovered at a popular Catholic website: “The sign of peace in the Roman Rite, significantly placed before Eucharistic communion, is a particularly expressive gesture which the faithful are invited to make as a manifestation of the People of God’s acceptance of all that has been accomplished in the celebration.”
You may not be aware, but the Sign of Peace was a major topic of discussion just this last year at the Vatican. The bishops actually contemplated moving it to a different part of the Mass, but finally decided to leave it where it is, right after the praying of the Our Father. However, they did note ways the rite could be performed with greater dignity. This includes: no moving from your pew, no socializing, and the priest should never leave the altar and start shaking hands with the congregation.
If you are not particularly fond of the Sign of Peace (or if you downright hate it), then the Lord is calling you to do what all Christians must do at various times in their lives: stomp your feet and make a big stink until you get your way. No wait, my mistake. That’s not it. The Lord calls us to cheerfully endure something we find uncomfortable. The Lord wants us to bear our burdens joyfully. It may not be easy, but if we stop complaining so much about the Sign of Peace, we just might discover it is a profound moment that adds to the sacredness of Mass.
Of course, if Typhoid Tommy spins around and holds out a germ-infested hand, it’s perfectly okay to hold up both of your hands in the “surrender” pose, and exaggerate a bit by saying, “Bad cold. I don’t wanna infect you. But peace be with you!”