Passing the Peace

After studying the matter, no one would doubt the historical and theological bases of passing the peace at some point during the Celebration of the Eucharist. Moreover, there is ceremonial latitude in the way that this is done.

However, the raucous ways that this sacred moment is implemented in many (most?) congregations resemble a reckless circus rather than a holy greeting. The community spirit of awesome worship, prayer and reverence is crucified recklessly on an altar of Woodstock theater as clergy may easily be heard to remark: "Nice hat, Gloria!" "Hey, good to see ya; quite a game last night!" Nowhere among liturgical precedents will one find the intention of clergy prancing up and down aisles with vestments flapping like butterflies in heat or some extraverted congregants leaping at others merely enduring the assaults. No one anticipated that a diocesan bishop would have to reprimand a priest for being too amorous!

The Eucharist: a banquet, a celebration, holy worship of a faithful community - but neither a beer party in someone's back yard nor a moment in group therapy!




ZENIT - The World Seen From Rome

Date: 2003-10-28

Can Priest Go Down Aisle at the Kiss of Peace?

ROME, OCT. 28, 2003 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Is it OK for the priest to come down during the peace offering to shake hands with the congregation? I hear this is wrong and I'd really like to know if it is or not since it makes me uneasy about our doing something inappropriate. -- I.S., San Ysidro, California

A: The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), with approved adaptations for the United States, refers to this question in No. 154: "The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord with the decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a sign that expresses peace."

For the moment the above exceptions, which are quite reasonable, apply only within the United States as almost no other episcopal conference has submitted a translation for the Holy See's approval.

The reason the GIRM dwells on this point is to put the kiss of peace into its proper context as a brief, and relatively unimportant rite in preparation for Communion; in fact, few realize that it is actually optional. It is the forthcoming Communion, not the priest, nor the good feelings we harbor toward our neighbors, that is the reason and source of the peace we desire for our fellows and the peace we receive from them. As GIRM 82 says, in the Rite of Peace: "the Church asks for peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament."

So, when the celebrant walks down the aisle shaking hands, the gesture, despite his good intentions, tends to inordinately draw attention to his person, as if he, and not the Lord, were the source of the peace that only Christ can give. Sometimes we priests can forget that being a "Pontifex" means being a bridge, and a bridge serves its purpose only when we walk over it, not when we admire it from a distance.

The gestures of the faithful, while respecting local custom, they should avoid excess exuberance and ebullience, again according to GIRM 82: "as to the sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner."

At the same time when this rite is done well it can be very effective spiritually. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, for example, has written of the powerful impression caused by witnessing this gesture at a Catholic Mass as he struggled to leave behind radical atheism and find, first belief in God, and eventually, acceptance of the Catholic faith.

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from Malloy, Celebrating the Eucharist (Church Publishing, 2007) 


Beyond the greeting between the presider and assembly, the Prayer Book does not give specific words or gestures for the assembly's exchange of the Peace. The Peace is more than a casual hello but it is not an act of personal affection. It is a gesture of mutual acceptance and forgiveness rooted in a shared humanity and the bonds forged by baptism. The Peace expresses and instills a confidence that equality in Christ (and the equality of all people before God) is rooted in something far more basic than whether people personally know one another. Members of the assembly greet who happens to be nearby, even if people across the room are more familiar or more dear to them. Clasping the others' hands with both hands and embracing others in a way that draws them close but does not cling to them are two ways to strike a balance between impersonal distance and personal intimacy.

The Prayer Book allows the Peace to be exchanged either before the Offertory or just before Communion. The latter is the current Roman custom but it is exceedingly rare in Episcopal congregations. Because the Confession and absolution usually come at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, keeping the Peace in the usual place makes it an act of gratitude for God's unearned and undeserved forgiveness, and a pledge to embody it. Also, this reflects the biblical injunction to make peace with one's neighbors before approaching the altar. Even if the presider is the only one in the assembly who physi­cally approaches the altar at this point, it is in the name of all who have gathered and, in fact, the entire church. In most church buildings, the assembly as a whole does not physically approach the Lord's Table until receiving Communion, but in a more essen­tial way, they draw near in the person of the presider at the Offertory, as the presider approaches the Table for the Great Thanksgiving. 


The Peace stands between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It is a ritual sign that the community is reconciled and can approach the Lord's Table in good conscience. It is the Body recognizing the Body and so, as St. Paul warns, not eating and drinking judgment against itself. The core of this rite is a simple human greeting that acknowledges the dignity of the others and accepts them, no matter who they happen to be.

The Peace is a ritual act of reconciliation just as the Eucharist is a ritual meal. It need not be protracted to be genuine, nor does every person have to greet every other person. The core of this rite is the embracing of any person who happens to come near. That does not require that every person in the room greet every other person. It especially means that members of the assembly should not move about in search of those they know or to whom they are related. The point is that in the Body of Christ, such distinc­tions are irrelevant.

♦ The Peace is an integral part of the liturgy, not a break in it. What sort of formation can help the entire assembly to recognize the Peace as a ritual action in which they all participate, not a recess in the ritual?

♦ The rubrics allow that "the Ministers and People may greet one another in the name of the Lord" (BCP 360). It suggests neither words nor gestures. How might the liturgical leaders model the Peace so that it both expresses and instills a spirit of reconciliation in Christ, and an openness to the unknown other?

♦ What gesture might the presider use when greeting the people before the Peace? What should the gesture convey? Is a gesture, in fact, even necessary or helpful? 

THE PEACE (pp. 165-166) 

The people then stand for the exchange of the Peace.

1. The presider, looking at the people, opens the arms expansively, and wishes them the peace of the Lord. This gesture is not like the orans. In this gesture, the presider reaches outward, as one does toward approaching friends. The presider continues looking at the assembly until they have responded to the greeting.

2. Although the rite does not mandate, but only allows, the people to greet one another, the option is almost universally taken. The Peace is a gesture of equality and mutual respect based in a common baptism. While the presider and other ministers must take care not to isolate themselves from the rest of the assembly during the Peace, neither should they circulate widely about the room as if their greeting of Peace was "special." This delays the liturgy and is contrary to the baptismal ecclesiology of the Prayer Book. It is important that the clergy and the other vested ministers model at this time that they are members of the baptized community, not its upper caste whose greeting counts for more than anyone else's. The Peace is a symbolic gesture that need not be personal and should not be protracted. (See chapter 8, "Postures and Gestures.")

♦  It may be necessary for a signal to be established to end the Peace, such as a bell, if the community has a tendency to make it protracted. If the group respon­sible for preparing and leading the liturgy determines that the Peace has grown disproportionate to the rest of the rite or has become a social event rather than a ritual gesture, careful and sensitive catechesis should come before any heavy- handed attempts to rein it in. 

3. The people are seated after the Peace. If no signal has been given that the Peace is completed, the assembly will need a cue to sit. In general, while straightforward direc­tions are efficient, they are not graceful and put the presider in an unnecessarily control­ling role. "Please be seated" is not the best option. An offertory sentence is a better one, or the beginning of the offertory music, unless a brief announcement (see below) is to be made at this point, in which case some directive will be needed. The important thing is that there be a demarcation when the community moves from standing precisely as a community to when it is seated as a community. The Peace, like the rest of the liturgy, is a common action, not a private one, and so people should not take their seats when they decide individually that they have had enough. They should take their seats as a body.     




“DEAR ABBY” (Dec. 18, 2008)

DEAR ABBY: I take exception to your reply to "Minister's Daughter, Cayucos, Calif." (Sept. 8), who objected to the greeting and handshaking moment during church service that is dictated by the minister.

I happen to agree wholeheartedly with "Daughter's" sentiments, as do many other members of my church. We feel that the moment is manipulated, interrupts the flow of the service and creates a false bonhomie.

None of us is unfriendly, ungracious or reluctant to make others feel welcome in our church. But we would prefer to do it spontaneously -- before or after the service -- when we actually feel moved to make the gesture. -- LYN IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.

DEAR LYN: I understand your sentiments. That said, I stand by my answer. I told "Minister's Daughter" that I didn't think it was too much to ask to reach out for a moment to ensure that everyone felt included. However, I received a ton of mail on this subject and opinions were decidedly mixed. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: When I attended church with my husband and family, I never cared for the forced greeting custom. However, now that I am divorced and attend church alone, I realize that the human contact is priceless.

One Sunday, our minister said, "Turn to the people next to you and tell them they are beautiful." I turned, and the woman next to me said, "Hello. Has anyone told you that you are beautiful?" Even though it was a "forced" greeting, it touched my heart. Speaking as someone who lives alone and who never hears those words, it brightened my day. The greeting, like the church and life, is not about what you get, but about what you give to someone else. -- GREETER WITH A NEW ATTITUDE

[above item, Nolan – A gag producer! Go to the coffee hour which can provide genuine human interaction and the possibility of making some friends, but stay away from anyone who would say such peculiar and inappropriate words. They’ve probably had too much group therapy. By way of contrast, notice how “naturally” Jesus spoke.]

DEAR ABBY: We started this type of greeting years ago, and I also think more people don't like it. I hate it when people cover their face with their hand when they cough or sneeze and then offer a handshake. We all know that colds and flu are transmitted this way.

After hearing complaints, our pastor now asks that we offer a "sign of peace." I much prefer this, and I offer a smile and say, "La paix du Seigneur" (God's peace be with you). However, I never refuse a handshake if one is offered. -- ANDREE IN OTTAWA

DEAR ABBY: Before receiving disability insurance, I was a homeless man. Many times, the only thing that kept me from committing suicide was the opportunity to enter a local church for a few minutes of worship and the reminder that I was still part of the human race.

All too often, my appearance and status were enough to turn most people away. But those who truly walked in the love of God reached out to me with open arms and hearts. And they weren't afraid of catching some unknown disease that living on the streets might produce. In this fragmented society, even "lepers" need love. -- ART IN ABILENE

 [above item, Nolan – Another gag producer! Go to the coffee hour which can provide genuine human interaction and the possibility of making some friends. In the multicultural Lake Worth (FL) parish I attend, congregants make sure that everyone is invited. In more than one instance, individuals have found the family they are looking for. ]

DEAR ABBY: If the intent of this practice is to make newcomers feel like part of the group, then it is counterproductive. A better way would be for the pastor to encourage gregarious members of the congregation to greet new people after the service. If it is for those worshippers who are already well-acquainted to greet each other in a structured manner, then it is unnecessary. -- WASHINGTON STATE BOOMER

DEAR ABBY: A message to "Minister's Daughter": If you intend to go to heaven, GET USED TO IT. Everyone in heaven greets you. You may be so relieved you made it through the Pearly Gates that you'll be happy to spread a few germs. -- "GRAN" IN LAKELAND, FLA.

above item [Nolan – I’d prefer oblivion to that kind of greeting from “everyone.”]

So much of this and similar ceremonial reflects the clergy need for family, which an examining psychologist for an Episcopal diocese told me is a strong, motivating force for many needy aspirants seeking the parish ministry. Additionally, and this can be perilous, many needy clergy want to be the undisputed head/rector/father-mother of his/her “family.”