How do you handle the “sign of peace” at Mass? Do you shake hands, wave a two-finger peace sign, or chat with friends? For some, the sign of peace (also called the kiss of peace) can seem more a distraction than a moment of peace.
Now that we have had to cancel Masses and limit social contact because of CVID-19, the sign of peace is on hold. However, questions on the topic remain.
In 2014, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued “Pacem relinquo vobis: Circular Letter on the Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass.” In it, the congregation listed things to avoid at this time of the Mass. These included: “a song of peace,” people moving “from their places to exchange the sign of peace amongst themselves,” and the priest “leaving the altar in order to give the sign of peace to some of the faithful.”
Not a 70s addition
The Vatican letter would seem to support the views of some people who feel the sign of peace should not be part of Mass at all. Many believe it was added in the 1970s, after the Mass changes following the Second Vatican Council. Some may even feel the sign of peace was equivalent to the contemporary addition of what came to be called “the guitar Mass.”
However, the sign of peace at Mass is very ancient. It echoes the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn. 14:27).
The reason we may not know this long history is because, for centuries before Vatican II, the sign of peace had become almost invisible. This was especially true if you attended “low Masses.”
This misconception is why, in September 2014, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship issued their own explanation of the Vatican’s letter. In it, they explained the history of the sign (kiss) of peace:
“The New Testament has several references to Christians exchanging a ‘holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26 and 1 Pt 5:14). Among early Christians, the kiss of peace was seen as a seal placed on prayer. This gesture became a stable element of the liturgies of the early Christian world … At Rome, it may have initially occurred after the Prayer of the Faithful which concluded the Liturgy of the Word. In such a position, the kiss of peace was viewed as a sign of mutual love before offering sacrifice (the Liturgy of the Eucharist).”
Fr. Edward McNamara, a Legionary of Christ who writes for Zenit News, noted (1/30/18) that the sign of peace “is mentioned in ancient sources such as the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’ (late 4th century) and the sermons of St. Augustine (died 430 A.D.). At first, the kiss of peace was considered as an important, and even obligatory, preparation for those about to receive Communion but was later extended to all.”
St. Justin Martyr
The Catholic Encyclopedia says that “the kiss of peace” dates to at least St. Justin Martyr, who died in 165 A.D. In Justin’s letter on the Mass, he wrote, “When we have completed the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss, whereupon there is brought to the president bread and a cup of wine.”
When the kiss of peace takes place at Mass has varied. As we can see from St. Justin, it came before the offertory then. By the 4th century, it seems to have come after the prayers of the faithful. Not long after, in various churches around the Mediterranean, it was exchanged after the Eucharistic Prayer.
The U.S. bishops noted in 2014 that, “In some liturgical texts from the early Middle Ages, the priest was directed to kiss the altar, … (symbolically receiving the gift of peace from the risen Christ on the altar), and then to exchange a sign of peace with his assistants who extended it to the members of the congregation. When the reception of holy Communion greatly declined, the sign of peace may have been considered by some as a ‘substitute’ for the sacrament. Gradually, the gesture was limited to the clergy alone.”
What we hear today before the sign of peace — “Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your apostles, ‘My peace I give you …’” — dates to the 11th century. “(It) was prescribed by the Roman Missal of St. Pius V (1570)… its present location (in the Mass) is consistently encountered in liturgical texts of the Roman rite throughout the Middle Ages and beyond,” the bishops added.
Fr. McNamara explained that placing the sign of peace where it is today — before the breaking of the bread — probably dates to Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604). Gregory is also the pope who helped give us “Gregorian chant.”
Some customs arose around the kiss of peace. For example, in many churches, men and women were placed on opposite sides so that only men and only women exchanged the kiss of peace. (And yes, it was an actual kiss, not a handshake.)
The peace board
In England, around the 12th or 13th century, the custom of kissing a pax-board or pax-brede developed. The priest kissed the altar where the consecrated host was present and then kissed the pax-board (peace board). This board was then shared among the clergy — in a strict hierarchical order — and finally by the assembly at the altar rail.
The U.S. bishops noted that this sort of “stylized expressions of peace” continued even after the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
“But,” they added, “by the modern era, prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Rite of Peace had come to be retained only as a highly formal embrace among the bishop or priest, deacon, and subdeacon in the celebration of a solemn high Mass. Its absence from the more frequently celebrated low mass would explain why many today mistakenly regard the rite of peace as a post-Vatican II innovation.”
Sacrament of peace
Today, we understand the importance of the sign of peace at many levels. When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote about the Eucharist in 2007 (Sacramentum Caritatis), he specifically mentioned the importance of the sign of peace.
“By its nature the Eucharist is the sacrament of peace,” the pope wrote. “At Mass this dimension of the Eucharistic mystery finds specific expression in the sign of peace. Certainly this sign has great value. In our times, fraught with fear and conflict, this gesture has become particularly eloquent, as the church has become increasingly conscious of her responsibility to pray insistently for the gift of peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family” (n. 49).
Sources: Sacramentim Caritatis at vatican.va; Catholic Encyclopedia; Zenit.org; Adoremus.org; newadvent.org; and Pacem relinquo vobis at usccb.org.