Circular Letter on the Sign of Peace at Mass.

Pray Tell recently received a copy of the newly issued (July 12th) Circular Letter on the Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass. After the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in 2005, the question was raised about whether the sign of peace should be maintained “in its present form” and location.
Pope Benedict at the time requested that the “pertinent Congregations” study the question. The Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments studied the question and consulted Episcopal Conferences from around the world. According to Antonio Cardinal Cañizares Llovera in his introduction to the Circular Letter, the results of the consultation were as follows:
A great majority of them [Episcopal Conferences] pronounced favorably in maintaining the “rite” and the “sign” of peace in its present form and time, as it is presently found in the Ordinary of the Mass, considering it as a characteristic of the Roman rite and therefore not convenient for the faithful, at this time, to introduce structural changes during the Eucharistic celebration.
After consultations with “both Supreme Pontiffs, Benedict XVI and Francis” a Circular Letter was issued. According to Cardinal Cañizares, it is hoped that this Circular Letter
will become an opportunity for all the Episcopal Conferences to reflect on this question and to present and study the proposed adaptations for the “sign of peace” in respect of the different cultures and sensibilities of the different peoples around the world.
The Circular Letter makes it clear what this means:
It may be advisable that, on the occasion of the publication of the translation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal in their own country, or when new editions of the same Missal are undertaken in the future, Conferences of Bishops should consider whether it might not be fitting to change the manner of giving peace which had been established earlier. For example, following these years of experience, in those places where familiar and profane gestures of greeting were previously chosen, they could be replaced with other more appropriate gestures.
The following section discusses liturgical abuses to be avoided. The Circular Letter mentions four specifically:
– The introduction of a “song for peace”, which is non-existent in the Roman Rite.
– The movement of the faithful from their places to exchange the sign of peace amongst themselves.
– The departure of the priest form the altar in order to give the sign of peace to some of the faithful.
– That in certain circumstances, such as at the Solemnity of Easter or of Christmas, or during ritual celebrations such as Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Sacred Ordinations, Religious Professions, and Funerals, the exchange of peace being the occasion for expressing congratulations, best wishes or condolences among those present.
So it appears that the status quo will be maintained; however, many of us have become accustomed to the “liturgical abuses” outlined in the Circular Letter. I must admit, I find it a bit surprising that Pope Francis would consider some of these “abuses.” He strikes me as the kind of priest and bishop who would depart from the altar to give the sign of peace to some of the faithful. While some of the Circular Letter sounds like Pope Francis, such as section 7 which mentions the social consequences of worship, the remaining document lacks the positivity that has become the hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy.
The failure of the Circular Letter to mention consultation with liturgists or theologians is also troubling. It appears to be little more than a survey of bishops around the world. However, the fact that bishops were consulted and taken seriously is a good thing. Perhaps we are beginning to see the fruits of Pope Francis’ call for greater collegiality within the Church.

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  1. Peter Shore says:

    The author — by use of scare quotes, and declaring that this things have become customary — obviously doesn’t consider them abuses. I’m interested to know if, through reprinting this article, the Association of Catholic Priests is signalling the same opinion.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Of course none of the four are “abuses”, and the latter expression is an invention of conservatives who have had great success in keeping us dancing to their tune, with dire effects on the liturgy. The greatest “abuse” of the liturgy is to kill it. The Vatican have spent nine years discussing these triviality, a sure sign that they are indeed “the bureaucracy of the void”. They are offering no help to us to bring back living, vibrant worship.

  3. Peter Clifton says:

    But, whether or not ‘abuses’ is an appropriate term (it does seem a bit strong!), most of the practices proscribed are rather messy and not consistent with the quiet decorum which should precede communion.
    It may be a cultural thing: there is quite a contrast between the sometimes jolly, sometimes sheepish exchange of the peace in England and Wales with the rather more solemn exchange which is usual in France.
    I had the impression from another website that the letter is quite a lengthy document.
    Can anyone provide a link to the text?

    1. Association of Catholic Priests says:

      The letter in fact is just four pages long, with an opening cover page. For reasons best known to themselves it has not been widely published by bishops’ conferences. The Spanish Bishops are the only ones to have published it so far.
      I include a link to their letter, in Spanish. Rito_de_la_Paz.pdf

  4. – “The departure of the priest from the altar in order to give the sign of peace to some of the faithful.” is not approved. That is the crucial remark for as the number of priests steadily diminishes and only some of the faithful are left, at least that comment is spot on. When are we going to wake up and smell the coffee?

  5. The sign of peace is optional but I could count on one finger the number of times that it has been omitted at Masses I’ve attended in the last 10years.
    I don’t like it and would prefer if it was ditched completely – preferably along with the Responsorial Psalm – but I digress!

  6. Mary Vallely says:

    We don’t do the sign of peace very often in our parish. It usually only happens at funerals etc; and I must admit that I am in favour of such a gesture. (BTW what are the ‘profane’ gestures mentioned above?? Can’t imagine anyone being profane, rude or abusive at mass here.)
    The sign of peace is the only time during mass when people actually engage with each other and acknowledge one another as equal and beloved members of the body of Christ. At no other time do members of the congregation face one another.
    I often think a person living on her/his own can come to mass, face the altar and leave the church without receiving as much as a smile or a nod from another human being. There is something seriously amiss with that picture, surely?
    Our congregations are not particularly lively in their verbal responses. We are altogether too passive compared to many of our Protestant brethren.
    Recently we had a priest here from S. Africa for a few weeks and he was amazingly joy-filled. Even at daily mass he asked us to greet one another with the sign of peace. The responses of the people afterwards were audibly louder and more committed or so I felt. Joy has a habit of getting under one’s skin, doesn’t it. 🙂
    I have to say that after most Sunday masses here in Armagh the celebrant goes to the front of the church to shake hands with the people and that is a very good and worthwhile gesture but that is the priest engaging with the people, not the people engaging with each other. I do wish sometimes that there was more spontaneity in our liturgies, a spontaneous ‘yes’ coming from the Holy Spirit within each one of us instead of what can often appear to be a dead, uninspiring, liturgically correct liturgy with no heart.
    I love the interaction with my fellow congregationalists and if we don’t sing (and we don’t!) can we not at least nod, smile and acknowledge Christ in each other?

  7. Nuala O'Driscoll says:

    Peter Clifton @3.
    ‘not consistent with the quiet decorum which should precede communion’..indeed! Far from quiet decorum Jesus of Nazareth lived his life surrounded as he was by all sorts of riff raff on the fringes of society. Mary Valley @7 is far more consistent with the spirit of the Gospel.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    The “profane gestures” are an incorrect translation of “gesti profani” from the same people who brought us the new translation of the liturgy.

  9. That this needs to be a subject of serious discussion at all is just the latest symptom of the sickness of clericalism at the heart of the institutional church. Have our bishops and the powers that be in the Vatican really nothing better to talk about. Centralisation at its worst.

  10. Bernard Cotter says:

    An elderly widow, whose children have scattered to the four corners of the earth, loves the Sign of Peace at Mass: it is the only moment in the whole week when she touches another human being. Why is this Rite ever omitted?

  11. Bernard @11, that’s because the Christians aren’t visiting the sick as the Lord asked them to. It speaks of the crisis in authentic Christian living that nobody would be bothered to visit her during the week.

  12. Bob Hayes says:

    Bernard (no. 11), the loneliness of the elderly widow whom you describe, surely amounts to a damning indictment of the rest of the parish who appear – from your account – to have collectively abandoned love of neighbour. The situation you describe is truly sad, not only for the poor widow but also for the souls of those who have forgotten Christ’s commandment.

  13. Shaun #12 acknowledges that there is a crisis in authentic Christian living. There is also a crisis in authentic Christian worship which is done in an authentic Christian community. The debate about the sign of peace suggests that some people believe that real community has no place in church.

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