At the request of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a requisite inquiry into the timely appropriateness of the Latin Rite’s gesture of peace shared amongst the people during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass commenced almost a decade ago. The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (“the Congregation”), under the papal authority of a new Holy Father, Francis, disseminated publicly this year their conclusions on the placement of the gesture. In its Circular Letter on the Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass, the Congregation, although reiterating authoritative instruction on the avoidance of gestural abuses, decided that the gesture shall remain in the current liturgical place.
It is indeed born of a sound theology that amongst the faithful there is some sign of peace during the Mass, which in the current Novus Ordo Missae (contemporary Ordinary Mass) occurs prior to the breaking of the consecrated body and soon before Catholics of good conscience are invited to consume the actual flesh and blood of God. Further, the gesture also correlates with doctrinal teaching on communal worship and Christian fraternity.
Benedict XVI’s request for study of the topic, however, brings papal credence to the idea that the placement of the gesture is thoroughly and unreasonably anachronistic. Quoth Benedict XVI 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis:
Taking into account ancient and venerable customs and the wishes expressed by the Synod Fathers, I have asked the competent curial offices to study the possibility of moving the sign of peace to another place, such as before the presentation of the gifts at the altar.
Indeed, it is the place of the peace gesture in the Novus Ordo Missae that is the problem.
Rather than reminding the faithful that they are sharing in a solemn sacrifice and preparing to participate communally in worship (lex orandi), and in the Supper of the Lord, receiving His very body and blood as did the apostles on the night that they were told He was to become the Passover Paschal Lamb, the gesture of peace in its current place obliterates the reverence of the moment.
As Saint John Paul II reminded the faithful in his encyclical letter Ecclesia De Eucharistia: “Every priest who celebrates Holy Mass, together with the Christian community which takes part in it, is led back in spirit to that place and that hour.” By “that hour,” John Paul II meant “the hour of his Cross and glorification.”
If at “that hour” Mary and John on Calvary looked up to the cross, smiled, hugged, and shook hands, this column would have nary any authority; but, alas, the Gospel of John says Mary and John did nothing of the sort.
The mind and soul are to be fixed upon the transsubstantiatio (“transubstantiation”) occurring on the altar; thus one is to be focused in soul, mind, and body, solely upon God.
The anachronistic confraternal peace gesture takes the soul, mind, and body away from the necessary contemplative prayer, thought, and internal preparation in which one should be engaged immediately prior to the receipt of Holy Communion. In a few short liturgical seconds, one is re-directed from the rightful focus on Christ and the Father (the latter most directly through the recitation of Jesus’ own Pater Noster [“Our Father”]), and onto the people by way of the peace gesture. The liturgy then swiftly reverts focus back onto the Lord with the chanting of the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”), which repeats twice the request of the faithful for the Lord to “have mercy on us,” which is surely aidful in, and companion to, a proper examination of conscience and soul in preparation for unworthy receipt of Holy Communion. One need not have considerable knowledge of the liturgy to see that the peace gesture just does not fit.
The move from focus on the Eucharist and onto the people is troublesome, for as John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia De Eucharistia: “[T]he Eucharist, which is in an outstanding way the sacrament of the paschal mystery, stands at the centre of the Church’s life” (original emphasis).
More akin to evangelical Protestants’ understanding of worship, the gesture of peace in its current place maims the Catholic teaching of the sacrificial purpose of the Mass. Evangelical Protestants and so-called charismatic Catholics similarly view worship as celebratory fun full of pomp, whistles, vocal affirmation, clapping, and music that mirrors that which is played at dance parties. The Catholic Mass, however, is not a celebration, nor it is a weekend party filled with bread, wine, and good company. Catholics gather to venerate the Eucharistic sacrifice upon the altar.
For those Catholics who participate exclusively in the Novus Ordo, or in conjunction with the forma extraordinaria Missae (Tridentine Latin Mass), some solemnity-crushing modern liturgical abuses are avoidable. The peace gesture, however, can sometimes be difficult to avoid. Those Catholics leery of the placement of the peace gesture may feel as though they will be assessed as inconsiderate if they do not greet those around them. The trepidation of those who hold this opinion is valid, for the vast majority of Catholics at the Novus Ordo will likely see the non-peace-gesturer as individualistic and uncouth, rather than theologically upright—this, simply because they have no knowledge of the liturgical difference of opinion on the rightful place of the gesture. In the words of the Congregation’s instructional 2004 Redemtionis Sacramentum: “[A]buses are often based on ignorance, in that they involve a rejection of those elements whose deeper meaning is not understood and whose antiquity is not recognized.”
Thankfully, the Roman Missal has allowed consecrating priests to omit the gesture of peace among the people. The Vatican’s Circular Letter reaffirmed that the gesture is indeed optional, meaning that those who choose not to participate in the gesture when invited and those who intellectually disagree with its placement in the Mass are in no way challenging Church hierarchy on liturgical instruction….
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