A ‘sign of peace’? (Some thoughts on the “handshaking kerfuffle”)

In one of the comment threads on the blog yesterday, when the subject of the Novus Ordo Mass came up, I happened to mention how I disliked the “handshaking kerfuffle” (my words) that take place at the ‘sign of peace’. This was immediately pounced upon by one of our regular commenters as a sign of snobbery on my part, as though contact with the hands of another, a stranger, (whose hands might be “clammy”, “unclean”, “boney”, and a list of other fanciful adjectives) were distasteful to me. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was very hurtful, for although I have many faults, anyone who knows me at all could verify that I am hopelessly affectionate, and not in the least bit “snobby”.

Piety and reverence should be paramount when one goes to meet Our Blessed Lord at Mass, where, for once, our whole attention should be directed towards God. The reason I dislike the ‘obligatory’ handshaking ritual (‘obligatory’, because to refuse to shake hands with those outstretched hands held out to you would be unkind and rude) is because I see it as an unnecessary distraction and disturbance. It turns away one’s thoughts and focus on the Consecration of the Bread and Wine now transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus truly present on the altar; away from the words of the beautiful Eucharistic prayer and the ‘Our Father’ that we have just heard; and aims them instead towards every Tom, Dick and Harry standing around you…….. who are most likely equally pulled away from their thoughts and prayers to perform the “hand shaking business”! I called it a ‘kerfuffle’ because that is exactly what it all too often becomes! Officially of course it is called ‘the sign of peace’ but isn’t it, in reality, quite the opposite? Tranquility and calm are suddenly broken by noise, exclamations and shifting around in the benches, that sometimes continue well into the Agnus Dei!

Holy Mass, the “source and summit” of our lives as Catholics, is where we go to adore God in the re-presentation of His redeeming Sacrifice on Calvary, renew our Faith and thanksgiving for all His many blessings, beg forgiveness of our sins, and listen to the biblical readings of the day. When one goes to Mass one should try to leave all worldly thoughts behind. Wandering minds and distracting thoughts can often be challenging enough as they are without this call away from prayer and composure to shake hands with our neighbours. Greeting friends, handshaking, hugging, kissing and chatting can all be done outside the Church when Mass is over, after the priest’s dismissal of the congregation with the words: “Go, the Mass is finished.” (“Ite, missa est.”)  I see no need nor reason for this interruption at one of the most prayerful parts during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

But, as the old proverb goes: “As to tastes, nothing is written”, so it would be interesting to hear if there are differing opinions, and the reasons for them.

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28 Responses to A ‘sign of peace’? (Some thoughts on the “handshaking kerfuffle”)

  1. Pastorius says:

    An extremely thoughtful article, which has examined the issue in honest depth. I too think the handshaking could be better done outside, where the ‘automatic’ nature of the gesture is avoided, and social issues begin, though the rotten UK weather may intervene! I said I found some hands clammy, and I’m sorry I do; my remark was about me only.

    Don’t be hurt by issues that were raised; I don’t believe that was someone’s intention. I was the target of ‘snobby’ attitudes, not you, so don’t think about it. Not liking clammy hands became a class issue and *nostalgie de la boue*, possibly lightheartedly.


  2. Once upon a time the “sign of peace” besides the kisses of peace between the clerics was that a pacificale (a crucifix on a cushion or cloth) was presented to the faithful to be reverenced by kissing the feet of the Lord. The exchange of “Pax Domini… – Et cum spiritu tuo” was aimed to 1 Cor 11, 26-29 to be in peace with God and His law and the awareness of the Final Jugdement.

    Nowadays it is a very weak sign of community of the faithful, which is according to P. J.A. Jungmann SJ’s Missarum sollemnia a prerequisite to celebrate the mass and not to be established in the mass.

    If the celebrant invites to give the sign, I handshake my neighbor to the left and right, front and back period. I dislike the crawling over each others to reach everybody in the same pew, and I extremely dislike the church marathon some concelebrants and deacons seem to love, who have problems to be back in the presbyterium when the communion distribution starts. Not very much seem to have read Redemptionis Sacramentum 71-72.


  3. I agree that handshaking can be distracting. In my parish, our pastor has rightly, IMO, encouraged a slight nod to our immediate neighbour instead of extending the hand. He was trying to stop excessive demonstrations of the sign of peace which had some parishioners waving peace signs in the general direction of the congregation. Once a month I attend a Latin Mass where there is no sign of peace and the Mass flows more smoothly, there is no sense of interruption of the sacred and we are focused on the altar, not on the person in the pew behind us.


  4. afmm says:

    When I have the misfortune of having to attend a non TLM I gently wave a kleenex packet of tissues. It works.


  5. sixupman says:

    Not only is it disruptive, some exponents even wandering about shaking hands all over the place, I also relate it to the Communion in the Hand issue – which does not effect me.

    The GIRM stipulates the manner which the Celebrant handles the host, both pre and post Consecration. We have also The Lavabo ritual. Are these to no purpose, what is exactly the point of them? If there is not point to them, well and good – but such does not demonstrate a belief in Transubstantiation which is an absolute pre-requisite of Catholicism, but does incline to the Protestant understanding of The Eucharist. I have heard priests preach as much, where the Mass is not The Sacrifice, but a meal, but a dialogue between celebrant and congregation, …. .


  6. kathleen says:

    @Pastorius, Marcus der mit dem C, 8kidsandabusiness, afmm and sixupman:
    Thank you very much for your comments, all pretty well confirming my opinion that this ‘hand shaking kerfuffle’ could well be done away with!

    Pastorius, it was Toad who implied I was “snobby” by not enjoying this practice, not you! 😉

    Yes sixupman, I quite agree that Holy Mass is, above all, a Sacrifice, a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, on the Cross at Calvary, through which mankind has been redeemed. The whole Mass is centred around this sublime mystery. And you are right that this awe-inspiring truth is not preached out loud and clear often enough.


  7. toadspittle says:

    Toad is sorry to have hurt Kathleen. He’s a bit playfully brutal at times. But his bite is worse than his bark.

    However, he’s also a little surprised to hear from afmm that …
    “When I have the misfortune of having to attend a non TLM I gently wave a kleenex packet of tissues. It works.”

    …He didn`t realise that attending any kind of Mass can be considered a misfortune. But we live and learn, do we not?
    His advice would be – rather than to “…gently wave a packet of Kleenex,” just wear a gas mask.

    There’s certainly a whiff of something very odd on this particular post.


  8. toadspittle says:

    .My goodnes, Toad has got this in a mess!
    Silly old fellow! Heavy, as well as horney handed.
    Just ignore the first two lines.

    (Editor’s note: “Comment has been corrected for you Toad.”)


  9. Pastorius says:

    Yes K on snobbism. I thought you felt T did imply that. I was certain he did not speak against you, and I wanted to say that. I can take robust debate. As they meaninglessly say, I’m big enough and ugly enough, though I’m small and perfectly formed, like some online insults!
    Interesting too, that those who posted here share your view. Not a poll, but maybe reveals a feeling that many are unhappy with this practice. T finds the handshaking the best part of the Mass, and I respect that. And how can one protest against a friendly gesture? Very difficult. I must say I had no contact with the church for a very long time, returned and felt that I had come to an Anglican service. Guitars, handshakes and a humdrum atmosphere. Hmmm. Made me rather unsure, and that feeling still surfaces.


  10. pelerin says:

    How I agree with those who say that the obligatory handshake is disrupting. And not only disrupting. For those of us who suffer from arthritis it can be downright painful! I embarrassed someone on one occasion when I let out a very audible ‘ouch’ as she gripped my hand in a vice like clench. It actually took me several months before I could use the hand normally again without pain. I dread the ‘kiss of peace’ and have tried sitting apart but there is always someone who will walk over to you to offer it. And as I found out on that occasion it is not always the men who grip hard!

    I do not wish to be unfriendly but would be much relieved if the handshaking were to be discontinued.


  11. toadspittle says:

    Wow. Who wudda thunk it?

    Toad had, until now, foolishly imagined that the act of “Giving the Sign of Peace,” to a fellow-human being was among the least contentious topics imaginable on a Catholic website..

    He must doubtless think again.

    And he must consider suggesting to his friends, neighbours, and fellow attendees at Santo Tomas that we all wear smart pink rubber gloves to Mass.

    Useful and hygenic for taking communion in the hand, as well.


  12. sixupman says:

    Together with a sides[person] collecting them afterwards for disposal?


  13. kathleen says:

    @ Pastorius
    Sorry, on re-reading through the comments I realise I rather misunderstood your meaning first time round. 😉
    Whether Toad was originally referring to you or me, he is forgiven!

    @ Toad
    IMO, from the general agreement among the commenters here, the dislike for the “sign of piece’ handshaking has nothing to do with hygiene. It’s all about its disruptive nature at an important moment of the Mass.


  14. kathleen says:

    Marcus der mit dem C @ 12:22
    Thank you for that fascinating piece of information about the ‘pacificale’! Personally, I knew nothing about this before.


  15. Mimi says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Kathleen’s remark that “I see no need nor reason for this interruption at one of the most prayerful parts during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”.

    Why, having ignored our neighbours up to that point, must we be distracted just then?

    If there must be a sign of peace, wouldn’t it be better at the beginning of Mass?

    Priest: “The Lord be with you.”
    All: “And with your spirit.”
    Priest: “Let us offer each other the sign of peace.”

    Then, having looked our neighbours in the eye and acknowledged their existence, we can settle down to confess our unworthiness together, listen to God’s word together, and offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass together, as a community.

    Really, doesn’t that make more sense?


  16. toadspittle says:

    “Why, having ignored our neighbours up to that point, must we be distracted just then?”

    It must be said the Mimi paints a somewhat dismal picture of Mass in a British(?) Catholic church.

    Why ignore our neighbours at all?
    They don’t ignore us.

    (But I’m beginnning to realise from these exchanges, that Mass – at least in a Spanish church (at least in ours) is also a very social event – generally followed by Vermuts all round at the bar, and a good gossip.)


  17. kathleen says:

    Good idea Mimi! It could all be done before Mass…. or afterwards.

    Seems like Mass is just a ‘social event’ for Toad!
    And if that attitude is predominant, it probably goes some way to explaining the whole problem of falling attendance at Mass in the West. 😦


  18. toadspittle says:

    I suspect, if it were not for the “social” aspects of Mass, there would be even fewer people attending, Kathleen, and not only in Spain.

    And, for Toad, it isn’t just a social event, If you read his post carefully you will observe the little word “also” skulking in there.
    As well as fearlessly shaking hands with all and sundry, he also lights candles, stays awake during the sermon, sings hymns and meditates a lot.
    Mostly on his sins.
    Doesn’t say The Creed though, because that would be a lie, and so a sin.

    And Toad does not lie. (Unless, naturally, it suits him to do so.)


  19. kathleen says:

    Actually, it’s the happy-clappy, social club, liberal parishes that are the ones shuffling the chairs on the Titanic, by all the reports we hear! Whereas the more traditional parishes, that are more orientated towards a beautiful liturgy and teaching the Faith in its fullness, that are the ones that are flourishing.

    Glad to hear our Toad doesn’t lie……. eh, usually. 😆

    Hopefully, through our prayers for him, he will one day be able to say the Creed with sincerity!


  20. I’m in the boat with you on this one as well Kathleen. Our churches have been doing this nonsense since the sixties. (Why do you copy the worst of us, instead of the good?)The only possibly acceptable time is before the invocation (I hope our terminology works for you) when the announcements and such are made. But even then, why should I be obligated to, and in truth, as often as not, it’s not the “Sharing of the Peace” but Good Morning anyway, at least in churches I’ve been in. Very much of a distraction at any other time in the service/mass.


  21. Pastorius says:

    K, is it fair to blame one person for ‘falling attendance at Mass in the West’?


  22. afmm says:

    Kudos, Kathleen.

    Toad, it would be hard to receive Holy Communion on the Tongue with a gas mask.


  23. afmm says:

    Using a gas mask would also distract attention from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, just as
    all that glad handing does.


  24. toadspittle says:

    On the one hand…“…it probably goes some way to explaining the whole problem of falling attendance at Mass in the West.”…and on the other… “Whereas the more traditional parishes….(…)….are the ones that are flourishing.”

    Then everything’s hunky-dory, isn’t it, Kathleen? What are we all worrying about? We can all have our Pie in the Sky, and eat it, too!
    (Incidentally, I looked for an on line Cathecism (can’t even spell it any more!) but there seem to be several versions. Would you kindly suggest one?)

    Goodness, Affm takes things literally, doesn’t she? Bless her! Gas masks, indeed!


  25. kathleen says:

    Hi NEO! Nice to see you here again. Sorry for the tardy reply; every time I come to the computer, I get called away before I’ve had time to finish! (I’ve been helping organise a Halloween party for the children in our family too. :-))

    You ask: “Why do you copy the worst of us, instead of the good?”

    Great question! A lot of Catholics have been asking that same question since these upheavals in the Church started….. in the aftermath of Vatican II. Trouble is, most of us were too young (or were not yet even born) to have known anything else, in those days! At least many understandings of the Council, and the right remedies for some of the abuses, seem to be gradually put to rights now by our Holy Father, Benedict XVI.


  26. Pastorius says:

    And there’s that old prophecy (of Nostradamus?)

    The time will come and the time will pass
    When agnostics are seen at Mass.


  27. toadspittle says:

    Well Toad was at one today. No sign of Nostradamus, though.
    Then up to the cemetary. In the lashing rain. Very appropriate.


  28. spotter says:

    My first experiences of Mass were in Catholic high school, and The Sign of the Peace was simply a ritual I got used to. Over the years, I watched it blossom for awkward handshakes with our neighbors to, in Senior year, desperately to communicate our love to everybody within hugging distance after four years of bonding, discernment, spiritual retreats, and Kairos.
    That summer after high school, the first time I entered a church of my own volition, I was devastated to find that the congregation did not have the love to offer each other The Sign of the Peace.
    Just my two cents. I guess in the end, this just shows the breadth of the Catholic Church.


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