OCT. 2003 (ZENIT).
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Is it OK for the priest to come down during the peace offering to shake
hands with the congregation? I hear this is wrong and I'd really like to
know if it is or not since it makes me uneasy about our doing something
inappropriate. — I.S., San Ysidro, California
A: The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), with approved
adaptations for the United States, refers to this question in No. 154:
"The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains
within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the
dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special
occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic
leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of
the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord with the
decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a sign that
For the moment the above exceptions, which are quite reasonable, apply
only within the United States as almost no other episcopal conference has
submitted a translation for the Holy See's approval.
The reason the GIRM dwells on this point is to put the kiss of peace into
its proper context as a brief, and relatively unimportant rite in
preparation for Communion; in fact, few realize that it is actually
optional. It is the forthcoming Communion, not the priest, nor the good
feelings we harbor toward our neighbors, that is the reason and source of
the peace we desire for our fellows and the peace we receive from them. As
GIRM 82 says, in the Rite of Peace: "the Church asks for peace and unity
for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to
each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before
communicating in the Sacrament."
So, when the celebrant walks down the aisle shaking hands, the gesture,
despite his good intentions, tends to inordinately draw attention to his
person, as if he, and not the Lord, were the source of the peace that only
Christ can give. Sometimes we priests can forget that being a "Pontifex"
means being a bridge, and a bridge serves its purpose only when we walk
over it, not when we admire it from a distance.
The gestures of the faithful, while respecting local custom, they should
avoid excess exuberance and ebullience, again according to GIRM 82: "as to
the sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by
Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the
peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of
peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner."
At the same time when this rite is done well it can be very effective
spiritually. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, for example, has written of the
powerful impression caused by witnessing this gesture at a Catholic Mass
as he struggled to leave behind radical atheism and find, first belief in
God, and eventually, acceptance of the Catholic faith. ZE03102822