In a July letter, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) warned against “abuses” such as “the movement of the faithful from their places to exchange the sign of peace” during Mass. The CDWDS also criticized “the departure of priests from the altar” to greet parishioners and the practice of expressing congratulations during the sign of peace, as sometimes happens on feast days. The document, signed by CDWDS prefect Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera and approved by Pope Francis, was sent to bishops conferences around the world.
They should ignore it.
In our time, when a wide variety of styles exists in Catholic liturgy and confusion sometimes arises over primary and secondary meanings of our rites, such a letter might have helped to “hold the center” by calling people to reflect on the essential meaning of the sign of peace. Instead, it meandered down sadly predictable pathways, criticizing alleged abuses and insisting on the advisability of occasionally suppressing the exchange of peace altogether (something neither Benedict XVI nor Francis has advocated).
What prompted reconsideration of the sign of peace was a discussion that took place during the 2007 synod on the Eucharist, presided over by Pope Benedict. During that meeting, some bishops suggested moving the sign of peace from its current place in the Communion rite to before the presentation of the gifts, where the Orthodox and Ambrosian rites and the Episcopal Church have it. Benedict, who favored this alternative, asked the CDWDS to study the question.
Were experts consulted, historical and theological sources reviewed, wide-ranging practices evaluated? No. A poll was sent to bishops conferences in 2008. Their verdict? Moving the sign of peace would be “inconvenient.” One might have thought the whole thing had fizzled. Yet, six years later, the CDWDS letter was published. The text itself has barely anything to say about its original purpose—the question of the placement of the sign of peace. Instead, the letter is padded with “didactic instructions” that bishops are supposed to use in catechizing the faithful. The list of “abuses” to be “definitively avoided” are well-known, well-accepted practices: singing songs, or moving around to offer peace to more people, or adding impromptu words to the exchange, such as expressions of consolation to the bereaved at a funeral. To average Catholics, the letter came across as a slap on the wrist for being “too sociable” during Mass.
This approach is not only wrongheaded. It also distracts us from a more important agenda. The central challenge for the post–Vatican II era, as liturgical theologian Andrea Grillo has pointed out, is not eliminating abuses. It is deepening use of the postconciliar rites. Reading the letter, one might imagine that the sign of peace is floundering in the church today. In fact, it’s one of the most successful rites we have. This is shown by how thoroughly it has been inculturated: with hand clasps and smiling exchanges in North America; with lively songs in the Caribbean; with bowing in Thailand; with monastic practices such as those of the Jerusalem community, whose members rush forth from their contemplative position in choir to share the peace joyfully with as many as they can; and more. Those are hardly abuses. Rather, they are ways of inculturating the sign of peace, of enabling its rich and meaningful use.
One lone paragraph in the letter sounds a different note, and it comes near the end. It raises concerns that Pope Francis has articulated elsewhere. If he didn’t write it himself, he certainly inspired it. Here, the conceptual frame of the discussion widens to include the world. The focus shifts from what we may not do to what we must do for the sake of God’s kingdom:
Today, a serious obligation for Catholics in building a more just and peaceful world is accompanied by a deeper understanding of the Christian message of peace, and this depends largely on the seriousness with which our particular churches welcome and invoke the gift of peace and express it in the liturgical celebration. Productive steps forward in this matter must be insisted upon and urged, because the quality of our Eucharistic participation depends upon it, as well as the efficacy of our being joined with those who are ambassadors and builders of peace, as expressed in the Beatitudes.
Would that the whole letter had taken this passage as its keynote.