Mass in Latin is missa and in antiquity meant ‘dismissal,’ Over time a deeper meaning came to imply a ‘mission’ succinctly voicing the evangelistic nature of the Church. The Liturgy of the Eucharist, or Sacrament of Peace (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), begins with the Lord’s Prayer followed by the “Sign of Peace” rite. Few parts of the Mass cause more complaints about abuses and excesses. This essay addresses a brief history, placement, meaning, and intent of the “Sign of Peace” in the Mass.
In early first century Christianity, this practice was called the “Kiss of Peace” and is mentioned in Romans 16:16, I Corinthians 16:20, II Corinthians 13:12, I Thessalonians 5:26, and I Peter 5:14 and is called “a sign of peace.” St. Augustine (354-430), in an Easter Sermon says, “Peace be with you” must come not only from your lips, but also your conscience after the Lord’s Prayer. Now known as the “Sign of Peace,” St. Augustine indicated the gesture requires the body of Christ to demonstrate symbolically “Forgive us…as we forgive” in the Lord’s Prayer before receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. Sometime long after the Council of Trent (mid-1550‘s) this rite disappeared from the Roman Mass but was restored in 1969 with implementation of Vatican II. Traditionally, this ritual is ascribed to Matthew 5: 23 – 24: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
The “Sign of Peace” is a symbolic acknowledgement of ecclesial communion, mutual charity, and peace among the faithful and can be shown graciously by simply smiling, nodding to your neighbor, making eye contact, and saying, “Peace be with you.” People are not offended by not offering your hand, or not engaging in a hug. The original practice of “kissing” your neighbor has long been discarded.
As stated in Redemptionis Sacramentum, this exchange of peace is the Lord’s peace coming from the sacrifice of the Alter, so if not offered from the Alter by the priest, the symbolic value is reduced to signify mere human benevolence.
The Vatican congregation’s decision to maintain the placement of the sign of peace was from dialogue with the world’s bishops, beginning in 2008, in consultation with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. “If the faithful do not understand and do not show, in their ritual gestures, the true significance of the right of peace, they are weakened in the Christian concept of peace, and their fruitful participation in the Eucharist is negatively affected.”
The Vatican suggests abuses of this rite might be a “song of peace,” the faithful moving from their place, the priest leaving the Alter, use at weddings, funerals, and other occasions of congratulations or condolences. In the Roman Rite, the Sign of Peace does not connote either reconciliation or remission of sins, so we do not climb over the pews to apologize to anyone. One could view it as a prayer by the Church for the gift of peace and unity for the whole human family.
To bring full circle the meaning of missa in Latin, which evolved to mean “mission” or evangelism, we need to remember the different situations people bring with them when attending Mass. A friend who deeply desired to become Catholic stated how she felt attending Mass all alone, without her family. She described feeling like a starving, poor, little child, standing in the cold, longingly peering into an expensive pastry shop from the outside, deeply desiring to eat the “bread of life.” You never know if “your neighbor” in the pew is feeling this way when you turn, look them in the eye, smile, and say, “Peace be with you.”
About Annette Krulisky
Annette was born and raised a Baptist Protestant and sought a closeness with God and Jesus all my life. When she came into full communion with the Catholic Church and through the Sacraments, and becoming close to the Blessed Mother Mary is when Jesus finally became close and experienced Our Father’s love.