The rules for the Sign of Peace in the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Eucharistic rite were left to the individual “conference of bishops to decide in accord with the customs and mentality of the people.”
In that rite, it occurs after the Eucharistic Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer and before the Fraction (the breaking of the bread). To keep it simple, in understanding the Liturgy of the Eucharist as having primarily a fourfold shape, it comes between “Giving Thanks” and “Breaking”. Ie. Take – Give Thanks – SIGN OF PEACE – Break – Share.
Placing it at this point seems to, one might think almost irreverently, ignore the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ on the altar, turning instead to one another. There is no denying the presence of Christ in our neighbour – but is this the time to affirm this? There is no denying the reconciling power of the Eucharist – but is between consecrating and receiving the right time for that?
For many The Sign of Peace becomes a time to introduce oneself, to greet friends and acquaintances, and to move around.
During the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI regulations limited the movement at least of the priest: “The Priest may give the Sign of Peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary.” Some conferences of bishops stretched this regulation. I think there is immediately an issue with many contemporary church buildings – these often do not have a separate “sanctuary”.
Anglican and other rites (eg. the Ambrosian used by RCs in the Diocese of Milan) regularly place The Sign of Peace as a hinge between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. At this point it still can degenerate into a getting-to-know-you time, anticipating the coffee hour, the fellowship time that normally follows the service. But this positioning prior to the Preparation of the Gifts and the Eucharistic Prayer still means that the flow of the Liturgy of the Eucharist has a stronger focus towards receiving communion together. Pope Benedict wanted exploration into changing the Roman Rite and moving the Sign of Peace to this point.
In July, the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments issued a Circular Letter on the Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass. (H/t Pray Tell Blog). In essence, if I am following the reporting correctly, nothing changes from the situation at the end of Pope Benedict’s papacy.
Four “abuses” are mentioned specifically:
– The introduction of a “song for peace”, which is non-existent in the Roman Rite.
– The movement of the faithful from their places to exchange the sign of peace amongst themselves.
– The departure of the priest from the altar in order to give the sign of peace to some of the faithful.
– That in certain circumstances, such as at the Solemnity of Easter or of Christmas, or during ritual celebrations such as Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Sacred Ordinations, Religious Professions, and Funerals, the exchange of peace being the occasion for expressing congratulations, best wishes or condolences among those present.
There is some surprise that Pope Francis would consider some of these as “abuses.”; there is some enthusiasm that the world’s bishops were consulted. I notice the shift from “sanctuary” to “from the altar”. It would not surprise me to discover Pope Francis on occasion leaving the sanctuary/altar to offer the Sign of Peace. He seems that sort of person. I have thought from the start that in his papacy I would be surprised to see energy expended in reworking the rules and rites and translations legacy of Pope Benedict. But I do think that his style of living with liturgical rules sets a different focus – he refocuses that the rules are not there for their own sake, they are there for worship, for community, and for our relationship with God.
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