The Catholic liturgical tradition regards the Sign of Peace at Mass as a disciplined and restrained public gesture, and not an affectionate gesture of intimacy and friendship. In fact, the peace sign is designed for people who, for the most part, do not even know each other’s names.
This derives from the fact that the liturgical assembly is not (and is not meant to be) a gathering of friends and intimates. In my view, it is a mistake to view those gathered in worship as friends and “friends who haven’t yet met.”
While the liturgical assembly includes spouses, family members and friends, for the most part it does not. It is generally a mixed gathering of neighbors, fellow citizens and persons who are (and will remain) strangers to each other.
Indeed, the Eucharistic gathering is more like a town meeting than a community of intimates. It is a public rather than an intimate grouping.
Saying this goes against the strong emphasis on small-group intimacy and interpersonal relationships popular in liturgical spirituality today. Many pastors and people appear to have absorbed from the culture at large a bias toward intimacy and against publicness. Indeed, our culture sets such store on privacy and intimacy that the small group is regarded today as the only humanly authentic social grouping. This explains why many parishes have, over the years, been busy attempting to turn liturgical assemblies into intimate gatherings of family and friends, and why they think anything less is intolerable and inauthentic.
By contrast, I believe that the Church needs to redeem publicness and challenge assumptions about intimacy that have their origin more in modern group therapy theory than in the Gospel.
Accordingly, I would hold that the Sign of Peace should not be regarded primarily as an intimate gesture, but as a public sign expressing fellow citizenship in Christ. It should retain its traditional role as a sign shared between people of goodwill, whether they know each other or not. The peace sign is not designed to turn people into friends, but to express the graciousness of all kinds and degrees of relationships in the public world.
What about the practice of spouses, relatives, and friends – people who know each other well – kissing and hugging each other during the Sign of Peace? The practice is probably here to stay, and pastors would be foolish to lose much sleep over it.
Yet, it should be kept in mind that when we gather for the Eucharist we come together as sons and daughters of God who are all equally related by baptism. For the moment, the stranger and the marginal person are as close to us as spouse and children.
Certainly, the Eucharist does not abrogate spousal and familial relationships, but it does set before us an order of things beyond all human degrees of relationship.
This is why the Sign of Peace is not meaningless when shared between strangers and only meaningful when exchanged between intimates. Indeed, the peace sign is never more meaningful then when shared between strangers, or those separated by human barriers of various kinds. The Sign of Peace declares: “We may be strangers at the human level, but not in God’s scheme of things.”
The Sign of Peace before Communion is an eschatological sign, by which I mean a sign of the way things will be in the Kingdom of God, in which the present world of division, racism, hostility and suspicion will have passed away.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.