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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Sign of Peace

What a divisive topic.

I was just over reading Et-Tu, Jen, who happens to have a post on the Sign of Peace.

When I first went to church a couple of years ago, I was completely caught off guard by this practice. I was sitting there, minding my own business, when the priest said:

Let us offer each other the sign of peace.

And suddenly people started interacting with one another. "What?!" I thought, "This is chaos! Offer who the sign of peace? The people in front of me? The people behind me? Ack! I just made eye contact with that guy a couple rows up! Do I have to now shake his hand as well?" And though these days I'm not quite as shocked as the first time I experienced it, to a socially awkward person like myself this whole process just seems like anarchy, rife with opportunities for me to do something inappropriate and/or offensive.

Go and read the rest. It's hilarious!

Even among the hilarity, though, she has a point. Some people turn this part of the Mass into a complete free-for-all, running around the aisles, greeting everyone they know, etc. Actually, though my parish tends to be pretty low key, thus it is easy to spot visitors from other churches that enjoy the free-fer-all social hour during Mass. While everyone else has completed the Sign of Peace among those around them, the visitors are still socializing, and may have poured themselves a drink by that point and gotten out the cards for a friendly hand at poker before they realize that their chatting is out of place.

When I was a little girl, I loved this part of the Mass; mostly because I could be sociable while saying something proscribed, that being, "Peace be with you." I was a very shy child, but I could do this because it was brief and simple and without fuss.

Admittedly, though, my perspective has changed since I have come back to the Church, especially considering that I am single and I don't live near my family, thus I am usually at Mass alone. Back when I hadn't found my way "home" yet, I went into a church near my house that had the practice of "greeting one's neighbor" before Mass. That always annoyed me - it was superficial.

"Good morning, my name is ________, what's yours?"

I always felt like maybe this was supposed to be a lesson in rudimentary language skills, and was always tempted to say, "Buenas Dias! Me llamo es ________. Como se llama? Mucho Gusto!"

(No, this was not a Spanish-speaking parish. Insert your own language lessons here).

I never "met" anyone that way. I never felt more included, for, if anything, I felt more excluded from lack of any meaningful contact with someone else. And it was clear most of the people engaging in this forced social act were uncomfortable with it as well. The rest of the Mass was fine, and even the Sign of Peace itself was reverent and simple, which is why I did still attend that parish whenever I bothered to go to Mass. Somehow I knew that no place was perfect, and I'd seen the dissident barely-Catholic "Mass" in other places, so I was willing to put up with some discomfort.

Fast forward to current times. I love my church, I'm involved, and I've come to know many people there. It is definitely home to me. But I still go to Mass alone, which really, I don't mind.

Then enter the dreaded Sign of Peace. I don't really have a problem with the placement in the Mass, because there is scripture to back it up. I'm paraphrasing, but Jesus ordered, "If you remember you have something against your brother, leave your offering, make peace with your brother and return to offer your sacrifice."

When we approach Communion, we are offering ourselves as a sacrifice, and we cannot do this while holding on to some kind of a grudge.

I can't tell you how many times I have been irritated by someone near me, for whatever reason, but when I have to extend my hand to them and offer Peace, that irritation melts away, so I won't complain about the placement. Many people will disagree with me; that's all well and good, and it is a practice that does not have to be included in the Mass.

But let me tell you why I dislike it, and my reasons are purely personal.

I've heard/seen some people suggest that we shouldn't complain about this small act of offering someone Peace during Mass because we as Catholics often come across as unfriendly, from the perspective of people who don't understand why we approach worship with quiet reverence, wheras their experience is one of entertainment and social interaction. I say that during Mass is not the time to worry about social interaction; we are there to worship God, not the children, clothing, smile, vocal abilities, what-have-you of the people around us. There is no meaningful interaction there; just clearing spiritual air is what it's supposed to be.

I never felt more "welcome" in an unfamiliar parish because of an overly-enthusiastic "Peace be with you!" or even a "Have a nice day!" during Mass. Especially considering that typically that person who shook my hand so happily never even looked at me again. Mass isn't the time to be social.

The argument, then, that we should not do away with the social interaction of the Sign of Peace falls short of any actual effect, as far as I'm concerned and I don't find it to be a valid argument from someone seeking to improve our image.

In my parish, the Sign is here to stay, and I'm fine with it; as I said, it's really done simply and realistically, but I do still have a complaint, arising from my status as a single.

As Jennifer F. pointed out in her post, If, however, any of the people within this radius are part of a group, it is customary to offer the sign of peace to everyone within the group, up to a maximum of ten people.

Well said! And very good observation.

I would suggest that if any customs be changed, this should be the first.

Attending Mass alone is not a problem, for as we know, we are not really alone; we are in the company of the angels and the saints, as well as our brothers and sisters in Christ. But I dread the Sign of Peace, especially if I am not near any other Singles.

All too often, I am surrounded by large families (God bless them!), or groups of people related in some way, who like to converse and congratulate each other on being related and having cute kids or what-have-you. So there I stand, feeling like an idiot, looking around as the groups around me all have their backs to me, and finally, maybe someone notices that I'm there and reaches out to offer me Peace, too.

If there is another Single person nearby, we've normally noticed each other prior, in that solidarity Singles tend to have in these moments, and so we might have an oasis of social "Peace" in the midst of being ignored by the rest of the self-congratulatory crowd.

Oddly, though, we're the ones who feel stupid as we stand there, even though we can't even make EYE CONTACT with anyone and initiate reaching out to extend the offer of Peace.

I ask you...why are WE the ones to feel stupid and uncomfortable when by all rights, it should be the other way around?

What this has taught me, though, is an important lesson; when I go to Mass and I am with a group and in reach of another Single, I try to remember to reach out to them first, because I know what it's like to be outside of a group. It's not always possible and it makes sense to grasp the nearest hands. But really, we should do a better job of realizing who is around us and making an effort to extend our hands to them before we do so to those with whom we are attending the Mass.

I don't necessarily think the practice needs to go; but I do think all of us could do a great deal to improve our "image" by simply realizing this isn't time for a party and that those who may be alone at Mass could use a friendly hand and a friendly smile, too.


Anonymous said...

I was in a parish while traveling and was ACCOSTED verbally for not wandering all over the building and greeting everyone. It was suggested that it might have been because of the racial mixture of the congregation. This was outrageous. I greeted those closest to me, and was following what I understood to be the proper orderly instruction we have on not turning this into an hour of hugfest.

owenswain said...

Yes, but what I really do not like is when we are asked (or I have to do the asking as a Commentator)just before the official opening of the Mass with the sign of the cross to "meet and greet those around you." No, I really don't like it and it's hard to tell the difference between that and offering the sign of peace.

Once a month we attend a different church were there is no meeting and greeting beforehand and were the sign of the peace is not a pew jumping ho down. I like that.

O ::thrive luminousmiseries ||

Melody K said...

I am fine with the sign of peace, after the Our Father, as long as we can just greet those within easy arm-reach, and call it good. I sometimes make a peace sign with my fingers toward those who look my direction but are farther away. I like your comment about using that moment to lose the petty irritations one might have with others. But like you, I dislike it when we have to do a greeting before Mass. I have to remember if I'm at Mass with my Dad, that he doesn't like sign-of-peacing period, end of story. I think his favorite kind of Mass, if he could have it, would be a 6:00 a.m. Tridentine "low" Mass, with no music.

Anonymous said...

Being a nurse, with a clean hand fettish (no joke)--it disturbs my psyche to shake hands with others--did you wash your hands after you went to the bathroom? Did you just sneeze into your hand? A bit hot and sweaty today?

Okay Tara--you can do this--you can do this--ohhh (shudder). BTW I do always shake hands with those around me and I'm beginning to develop a desensitation to contaminated hands.

Terry Nelson said...

I laugh when people errupt and some look like they are going to jump the pew. What I dislike the most is when people walk across the aisle to pray the Our Father while pulling my arm to get me closer - half way in the aisle.

At my neighborhood parish, we greet each other before Mass and then again at the sign of peace, with much fan fare, hugs and handshakes. It's warm and special. ;)

Single and glad of it.

Anonymous said...

i try to size up the area around my position, and when the time comes for the sign of peace, i really try to reach out to the single or the young couple or the family with small kids or the elderly ... and then i greet those i'm with
now that is in the ideal - sometimes i cant control the activity 'cause someone else has initiated contact before i can head the other way
then after mass, i try to at least get a farewell greeting exchanged with those i interacted with during the sign of peace - have a great day, i tell them ... see you next week, i say
oh well ... so much for social expansionism

Odysseus said...

It's easy to be labeled as a "grumpy trad" by complaining about the sign of peace. But the reality is that the problem with the sign of peace is similar to the other problems that occur during a New Order mass and not during the Old.

The sign of peace is certainly well-intentioned. No one sat in a dark basement, tweedling their Snidley Whiplash mustache while planning on ruining the Catholic mass by adding the sign of peace to the new rite. (Well, I did, but I'm always doing goofy stuff like that. It's harmless.)

But the "freedom" of that moment invites all the abuses described in previous comments and more. The Old mass is a more tightly run ship and, because of that, it is harder to abuse (though, like any human-operated process, at too can be abused).

The same goes with communion in the hand (oh, boy, did I open another can of worms?). Can someone reverently receive the Lord this way? Of course! I have seen it done. Is it easily abused? Go here

to see some ways it is abused.

But it is hard to abuse receiving the Lord on the tongue.

Sometimes I think it is not so much the prescribed rite of the New Order that is so problematic, but simply that it is filled with so many options (like those at the sign of peace), that they become more important than the only real point to our being there: receiving the Lord's body and blood.

Cathy_of_Alex said...

These comments made me laugh.

I see a way to abolish the SOP forever: claim that singles are discriminated against!

I'm am growing to dislike it. It's too much of a free-for-all/lovefest thingie. I do it when it's called for but I also attend some parishes that don't do it at all. I prefer not to do it.

Adoro: You nailed it for the phoniness it really is. It does not make one whooptydoo of difference if I made eye contact and shake hands with my brother in the pew. Does this mean we have now reached some kind of greater cosmic understanding? Does this mean we are going to go to lunch afterwards? No. But, people that love it, will claim that it brings us all closer together blah, blah, blah. I don't feel any closer to my fellow parishioners by shaking their hands.

If a handshake is all it takes for you to be closer to your fellow man, then you need deeper friendships.

I think if you need to make peace with your brother, you should do it before you go to Mass.

Cathy said...

I don't mind it, I guess, but it's not done in my parish anyway.
But when I'm at another parish (the airport chapel, for instance) I'll do it.
But there were some non-parishioners (fer'ners, we call 'em) at Mass the other day, and they turned around and tried to "Peace" with an old man who always comes in about halfway thru the Novus Ordo for the subsequent Tridentine Mass.
He looked at them like they had lobsters crawling out of their ears.
They insisted, and in the end, he reluctantly extended his hand for about .3 seconds, offering it up, I suppose.
And do you know what I thought? "Oooh, it's like my mother, but a guy!"

Odysseus said...

-I think if you need to make peace with your brother, you should do it before you go to Mass.-

Well said.

Fr. V said...

This is yet another reason I am thankful to be a priest because I too would, as we go to the moment, start thinking about, "Okay, who do I turn to first?" Then waiting for person in front of you to turn around, people stretching over pews long after the moment. I accepted it - but I HATED it. That's why I became a priest - so I wouldn't have to worry about it. ;>)

We never did it in my home parish. That was back when there was a question about the translation that made it sound optional and I never quite got used to it - seeing it - EVEN THOUGH ISN'T - as an interuption.

I was interested in this:

"As Jennifer F. pointed out in her post, If, however, any of the people within this radius are part of a group, it is customary to offer the sign of peace to everyone within the group, up to a maximum of ten people."

In our diocese we had a meeting and they emphasized the point that this is a symbolic action and since we are all the body of Christ, we must needs only shake ONE hand - with that we are reconciled with the whole body.

A man asked what he should do if he were at mass with his daughters and wife. They responded to shake hands with only one person because at the mass they were not daughters, father, husband and wife, but fellow Christians.

Seems an awkward symbol we can't seem to get right. I guess we just keep trying.

Anyway - now I turn to my deacon, my MC, and we are done with it. I like it like that!

Anonymous said...

Being a nurse, with a clean hand fettish (no joke)--it disturbs my psyche to shake hands with others--did you wash your hands after you went to the bathroom? Did you just sneeze into your hand? A bit hot and sweaty today?

Tara, I have discovered that a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket before the sign of peace works wonderfully.

"Jesus said to his Apostles" *Squirt* "I leave you peace, my peace I give you" *rub, rub, rub* "Look not on our sins but on the faith of your church... *rub, rub, rub*

"Now let us offer each other a sign of peace." *extend sanitized hand*

Adoro, I have never thought about the marital status of those around me. They are members of the body of Christ, just like I am, and I shake hands with all of them.

Adoro said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I knew that there would be a lot on this one - this topic always generates discussion!

Tony, God bless you - I wish there were more people like you.

Actually married couples who are not with big families (maybe because they have left the nest) are more accomodating. They're probably looking at me and thinking, "Oh, she's about my 2nd daughter's age...why isn't she married like my daughter is? How sad...."

OK, I'm kidding about that last part. I hope people aren't thinking that....