What gestures are appropriate during the sign of peace?

This sacred gesture is our God-inspired and God-empowered sign of unity

Q. For the sign of peace at Mass I think many people would prefer a simple bow to a handshake (less germ transmission). What do you think?

A. Someone has said that whenever we gather to meet our God in the Eucharist, we first meet our neighbor.

St. Paul knew this. Perhaps that is why he concludes his letter to the Romans with greetings to an honor roll of his co-workers and fellow disciples. And, as prelude to the prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine, Paul bids those who have received his words to receive each other into a sacred “koinonia,” a holy fellowship: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16).

The early Christians followed Paul’s invitation to this sacred gesture as the celebration of the Eucharist evolved. Around the year 150, a philosopher-turned-Christian named Justin wrote his “First Apology,” a kind of open letter to the Roman emperor and Roman senate defending the Christian faith. In his description of the Eucharist in conjunction with Christian initiation, Justin says, “When we finish praying [the intercessions] we greet one another with a kiss.” In antiquity, men exchanged the kiss of peace with men, and women with women.

Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) moved the kiss of peace to its present position after the Lord’s Prayer, so that it serves as immediate preparation for receiving Communion. With the passing of the centuries the kiss of peace ceased to be exchanged among the faithful.

Before Vatican II

In the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the celebrant, with his back to the people, said “Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum” (“The peace of the Lord be with you always.”) while making three signs of the cross with the host over the chalice. The servers replied: “Et cum spiritu tuo” (“And with your Spirit.”)

The “St. Andrew Daily Missal” (1958) explains: “The kiss of peace is no longer exchanged among the faithful, but its meaning remains unaffected: as Holy Communion unites us to Christ, so are we united to our fellows.”

At “high” or “solemn” Masses, the celebrant would give the kiss of peace — a very stylized and minimal embrace — to the deacon, who would give it to the subdeacon, who in turn would give it to the clergy in the sanctuary.

The sign of peace was restored to the laity by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. But perhaps, like so many changes at that time, often it was not well explained. When it was restored to the entire assembly, the sign of peace generated some opposition, and negative feelings about it have never completely faded away in some places.

A sign of grace

Some believe the sign of peace has become too boisterous and thus is harmful to the reverence that should be expected at the Eucharist.

This sacred gesture is not a “hi, how are ya?” moment, but our God-inspired and God-empowered sign of unity as we prepare to share God’s holy gifts at the holy table. And that means ridding our hearts of whatever it is that separates us from God and from our sisters and brothers. Then our greeting of peace will truly be an outward sign of inner grace.

This gesture is different from our introducing ourselves and welcoming each other before the liturgy begins. Here, right before we receive Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, we extend peace from on high throughout the assembly, so that we may be renewed in a spirit of love and unity.

“Let us offer each other the sign of peace.” “Sign” is a richly ambiguous word: it invites husbands and wives to exchange a genuine kiss; close friends, a hug or embrace; strangers, a polite but sincere handshake. The priest gives the deacon and other ministers the sign of peace; since the priest and deacon cannot conveniently share it with all present, sharing it with the ministers is really a vicarious gesture in which the assembly shares: part receive for the whole.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states: “The Priest may give the Sign of Peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so that the celebration is not disrupted. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, wedding, or when civic leaders are present), the Priest may offer the Sign of Peace to a small number of the faithful near the sanctuary” (no. 154).

Blessing each other

What should be avoided is giving the false impression that the peace of Christ must come from the priest to the deacon to ministers to people in the pew. All the members of the assembly, holy and priestly, can and must share the sign of peace quite apart from any clerical authorization to do so. The sign of peace is not a gift from the celebrant but a blessing from one baptized worshiper to another. Peace is Christ’s gift to the liturgical assembly, and every member of the assembly is empowered and commissioned to share it.

Does the sign of peace need to be a handshake?

The U.S. bishops have not prescribed a particular gesture for the sign of peace, perhaps due to the diverse ethnic groups and customs in our country. Some people fear that shaking hands spreads germs and so, for health reasons, dislike this gesture. I have heard a suggestion that we place our folded hands between the hands of those around us in church, and then they would place their folded hands between ours. Of course this gesture doubles the possibly germ-laden hands that come in contact in a handshake. Some people would prefer a simple bow.

When serious outbreaks of flu have required our bishop to suspend exchanging the sign of peace, I have made a deep bow from the waist (or several bows) to the members of the assembly instead. This gesture evokes the spirit of respect and reverence that Asian people express in bowing to each other. Any parish would be free to suggest a bow in place of a handshake.

Whether a handshake, bow or some other gesture is used, it should be done in a personal, reverent way that expresses and deepens our unity in Jesus Christ, the source of our peace.