Liturgical Heritage and the Sign of Peace

Sign-of-PeaceIn a comment at the Catholic Herald online, Father Aidan Nichols reminds us that that the liturgy does not belong to us but the Church and that we must guard and defend the Church’s precious liturgical heritage at all costs:

After looking into the question for some eight years, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has come up with a clarification about the Sign of Peace at Mass, which says that there should be no changes, but abuses should be avoided. You can read all about it here.

This is something of a massive non-story, as it tells us nothing new. Things, I suppose, in most Churches, will carry on exactly as before. They could, conceivably, have chosen to move the sign of peace to the position it occupies in many Catholic oriental liturgies, but decided not to. They re-iterate what everyone should already know, namely that he sign of peace is not meant to be an occasion for secular glad-handing; it should not be an occasion where the priests leaves the altar in order to “work the crowd”; it isn’t a crowd, it is a congregation; it is not a secular gathering, it is the Mass.

At bottom what lies behind this question is the major matter of maintaining clear blue water between liturgy, the action of Christ in head and members, and other human activities. The Congregation is rightly concerned to maintain the dignity of liturgy, and to avoid all those activities which undercut its true meaning. (Leaving the altar to greet people at the peace absolutely undercuts, indeed contradicts, the meaning of the Sign of Peace, as it entails leaving the altar and ignoring Christ Himself who is on that altar, and who must be the only focus of the celebration.) Moreover, once more, the Congregation is calling all of us – and the clergy must take the lead here – to guard against the loss of reverence, and the loss of transcendence in our liturgical celebrations.

Whenever I mention these matters to people I sometimes notice their eyes glaze over. They simply do not ‘get’ why liturgy matters. Surely there are more important things, they ask? Actually, no. There are no more important things. Liturgy is central. It is the reason why the Church exists: to carry out the command of the Lord, in the way He wants it to be carried out, as He commanded us to do at the Last Supper. We must guard and defend the Church’s precious liturgical heritage at all costs. The chief threats to it are secularisation – that is not a dig at the National Secular Society, but rather at those Catholics who wish to make the Mass more or less indistinguishable form any other human activity, by chipping away at its sacral character. The other threat is theological and historical ignorance, and those who want to leave out elements of liturgy on the grounds of being ‘up to date’, unaware (at least one supposes they are unaware) that liturgy is a language, and the omission of certain elements may make the elements that remain incoherent. The final and perhaps most insidious threat comes from those who wish perhaps to change the theology of the Church and make it into a different sort of church altogether. If one changes the Mass sufficiently, one changes the belief that sustains it, and which it in turn sustains.

The price of theological coherence is eternal vigilance. This decree from the Congregation is in a sense a non-story, but, goodness, in another sense, it is very important. It represents a ‘no broken windows’ approach. I suppose that the priest leaving the altar to greet Mrs Jones in the front row is hardly a big thing, but from such tiny things big things grow. A priest not bothering to wear a chasuble is hardly a Lutheran, but he has made a small step in that direction. And so on.

But at the same time, let a warning note be sounded. The Congregation for Divine Worship speaks, we listen. Let us never make the mistake of some who think they own the liturgy. We do not. The Church does. Neither should private judgement sway us and a fetishisation of the liturgy take hold of us. Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia.

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10 Responses to Liturgical Heritage and the Sign of Peace

  1. sixupman says:

    Recently in Malta and the opportunity for a well attended daily Mass at the village church [basilica in fact], was none of the nonsense encountered in UK diocesan churches. There a mere acknowledgement to one’s neighbour, with a nod of the head. I decided not to hear the English Mass, at the adjacent chapel, on Sundays. But the experience reinforced my view of the passing of Latin.

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  2. toadspittle says:

    …And fancy having to touch the hand of the skinhed dude in the accompanying link!
    Ugg!!! surely sums it up. (Or even, possibly, Faugh!!!)
    I mean, really.
    Rubber gloves all round, please.

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  3. John says:

    Indeed there is a time and a place for hand clasping, hugging, muted joviality, and outpourings of general Bon Ami, and that place is not in the context of The Eucharist, where the pain and suffering of Our Lord’s once and for all Sacrifice is brought before us and his presence made real in the consecrated elements.

    In the Eucharist the only one we should be communicating (communing with) is our Lord. We should be with him; our eyes fixed upon him, our minds contemplating his sacrifice, his suffering, his love, and the wonder of what is to come in the reception of his body and blood, as we come to be renewed through him at the Communion. Nothing more nothing less. What else is needed, what else is the Eucharist about?

    For me as an Anglican, the early morning 8 am spoken Eucharist was the most wonderful of experiences full of peace, devotion, beauty, quietness of the soul, a time when I felt there was only myself and my Lord at the Altar Rail.

    Many years ago my priest decided to introduce active displays of the Peace, resulting and what can only be described at best as being an extremely rude and impertinent interruption of not only the very sacred link – established through prayer and contemplation – between me and an individual and my Lord; and expressed in the uniqueness of the Eucharistic setting, and at worst, a desertion of his presence as the priest and clergy began rushing up and down the Nave in order to grasp every hand, lest some parishioners should feel left out. It was akin to being woken from a beautiful dream because the neighbours itinerate dog had started to bark at 3 am. Then of course there was the hugging (shudder)..

    For me this special time was forever tainted after this and was perhaps the initial “nudge” that was the stimulant of my first serious glances towards Rome, who I believed would never allow such distortions and denigrations to the sacred service.

    Why is the simple Liturgical form “The Peace of the Lord be always with you “not sufficient? For those who pray earnestly and think about their words, they will have more meaning than the person in the pew who may “simulate” a smile and hug their neighbour because they have to be seen to do so.

    The words of the peace in the liturgical setting are words that surely have a sacred and therefor more meaningful power than a physical action between two human beings (albeit they “may” be said with love). Dare I say that foolish would be the man or woman who uttered these words in the liturgical and sacred setting of the Eucharist without earnestly meaning them !
    By all means, engage in more florid displays of human togetherness, but please do it in the porch after the service, where, I hasten to add, any keen observer of human nature will see who really wants to be “friends” with their pew neighbour, by the numbers who slip quietly away.

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  4. annem040359 says:

    In truth, we are the Church, the body of Christ made visable.

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  5. John says:

    I agree with you annemo, but when we are in God’s presence we are seeking to strengthen that reality, and in the Eucharist we are attempting to draw close as possible to the Lord, and through him, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and should that communion with him alone not fill our minds and senses to the degree to which all else becomes secondary. In the setting of the Eucharist, each one of us as individuals are never more perfectly one body than at any other time, without the need for any other demonstration other than that which is expressed in the perfection of the liturgical setting

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  6. toadspittle says:

    “By all means, engage in more florid displays of human togetherness, but please do it in the porch after the service,”
    I would suggest we should frown darkly on allowing it even to be carried out there, John.
    It gets my dogs all unnecessarily excited.
    And it makes such a nasty mess.

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  7. mmvc says:

    ‘…when we are in God’s presence we are seeking to strengthen that reality, and in the Eucharist we are attempting to draw close as possible to the Lord, and through him, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and should that communion with him alone not fill our minds and senses to the degree to which all else becomes secondary. In the setting of the Eucharist, each one of us as individuals are never more perfectly one body than at any other time, without the need for any other demonstration other than that which is expressed in the perfection of the liturgical setting’

    Couldn’t agree more with you, John, and certainly couldn’t have expressed it so well!

    No distracting ‘liturgical’ handshakes, hugs and kisses or ‘high fives’ at Ss PP&P 😉

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  8. This sign of peace is optional and I am always happy when, especially at a daily Mass, the priest chooses not to have this option. Not an issue, of course, in the extraordinary form of the Holy Sacrifice/

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  9. Well, having just taken the momentous step out of Anglican “priesthood” and into full communion with the Catholic Church, this issue is not about to make me regret the move but:

    In CofE liturgy the Peace occupies quite another moment – the transition between Word and Sacrament, that is, just before the Offertory. This calls to mind easily the dominical: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” I know from pastoral experience that this moment could often present a challenge to the conscience of congregation members not at peace with one another and I would make use of this both in generally preaching and in particular pastoral situations. It sometimes had to be said: “You should think twice about sharing the sacramental elements with that person whom you are avoiding at the Peace.” This usually made sense and the liturgical Peace had been pastorally helpful. In the Roman rite, now, I do seem to be being invited to turn my attention from Jesus in the sacrament at quite a different liturgical moment.

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  10. mmvc says:

    Welcome home, Stewart, and thanks for commenting on CP&S!

    I think the priests who are aware of the ‘divided attention’ issue of the sign of peace in the Novus Ordo, are probably the ones who opt out of it altogether. However, as Magdalene Prodigal pointed out, this is not an issue in the Traditional Latin Mass.

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