ASK FATHER: When the ‘sign of peace’ is forced on you

From a reader…


My husband and I were at a local novus ordo this past Sunday because of weather and illness we were not able to travel to our regular EF Mass.
During the sign of peace we keep our hands folded and heads down in contemplation/prayer not wishing to participate in the circus atmosphere during the sign of peace. The woman in front of us was making the rounds…the isle in front, the people in her isle etc.
When she got to us, instead of leaving us alone she had to lean towards us and say “peace of the Lord be with you” . I nodded my head in acknowledgement..never looking up. I guess this offended her because after Mass, when we were offering our thanksgiving…she came up to us again and made a comment about how she commended our reverence during Mass. I know the sign of peace is an option at the discretion of the Priest. Is it required that one participate in the sign of peace at a novus ordo?

In the General Institution of the Roman Missal [GIRM], and the rubrics of the Mass itself, it is clear that the exchange of the sign of peace is an option.

The rubrics state that, after the priest turns to the people and extends the greeting of peace, “Then, if appropriate, the deacon or the priest adds: ‘Let us offer each other the sign of peace.'” So this ritual is only to be done “if appropriate.”

When it is deemed appropriate, the rubrics go on to say, “All offer one another a sign, in keeping with local custom, that expresses peace, communion, and charity.”

That sign is not defined, though the American custom seems to be settling in as a handshake and a brief statement “peace be with you”.  In Hong Kong, people bow.

If the rite itself is optional, participation in that rite is optional as well.

It may certainly lead to some awkward moments, but we all have awkward moments.

In those cases when an unwanted sign of peace is being thrust upon one, Miss Manners might suggest to keep one’s hands tightly folded and nod in the direction of the “paxifer”.

That should be sufficient participation.

Meanwhile, let’s see that old POLL!

3rd ROUND: The congregation's "sign of peace" during (Novus Ordo) Mass

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. anilwang says:

    In all the masses I’ve been at in Toronto, the sign of peace is the bow with hands folded or in prayer hands with no one “making the rounds”. I don’t mind it. It’s fast and efficient.

    Occasionally someone tries to extend a hand but the usual response people give is to bow anyway and turn to someone else to bow. That is how I’d handle it if I were in at a parish with the hand shaking custom. The reason for the sign of peace is Matthew 5:23-24, namely to make peace with your brother before presenting your gifts at the altar for sacrifice, and not to to socialize.

  2. LarryW2LJ says:

    I go to a Novus Ordo parish. In fact, since the VII changes back in 1967, both the parishes I have belonged to have celebrated the Novus Ordo Mass. In all those 48 some years, I have to honestly say that I have never come across the situation as described above. Choosing not to shake someone’s hand, or just offering a simple head nod has never caused me, or anyone that I know of, any repercussions. Maybe it’s because I live in the Northeast where we’re not “touchy-feely” to begin with?

  3. kimberley jean says:

    Sometimes I nod and sometimes when the person is really insistent I drop to my knees and start the Angus Dei. The people who have to shake hands, gossip, hug and kiss everybody within three rows are annoying but they mean well.

  4. ncstevem says:

    When I assist at the NO Mass, I remain kneeling during the Pater Noster all the way through Holy Communion. Keep my head bowed during the hand shaky thing and most people get the hint. The few times they didn’t get the hint I ignored them when they tried to grab my hand or offer their ‘peace’.

  5. WGS says:

    Keep in mind that for you it’s your sign of peace – not that of your neighbor. Just keep your two hands firmly gripped on a missal or prayer book or hymnal. Maintain a pleasant expression and perhaps nod toward a neighbor. If you choose you might offer the word “peace” or even confound him with “pax tecum”.

  6. tgarcia2 says:

    Since most do not know the rubrics that are mentioned, the appearance of rudeness can come to mention that it is optional afterward and “clear” any misunderstandings, etc.

    I do the sign of peace, simple handshake “peace be with you” and move on.

  7. Rellis says:

    I’m not clear about the optional part. The option seems to be for the priest or deacon. IF they then opt to do it, the language seems clear to me that we must participate. [No.] In other words, the choice is made for us, whether we like it or not. [No. Just because the priest receives Communion, doesn’t mean that you have to.]

    In any event, I simply remain kneeling from after the Agnus Dei until communion time. People get the message. But I assume that in doing so, I am being venially rebellious to the rubrics.

  8. anilwang says:

    The Orthodox have their own issues, which you’ll find out soon enough after being in Orthodox culture a while. Read up on reverts from the Orthodox faith to get some ideas, but you won’t really understand until you get emotionally invested in a particular patriarchate truly try to make it work. For the record, one practical issue for English speakers is that it’s much harder to catechize your family since there are so few Orthodox resources in English. The bulk of the resources are either Catholic or Protestant. It’s hard enough to keep your family Catholic in this secular world. Do you really want to handicap your efforts that much, and add ethnic chauvinism to the mix?

    But there is no reason go that far to find the true faith. As a Catholic you can also attend the Latin Mass in a local parish near you, dedicated FSSP masses, Eastern Catholic Masses, Opus Dei masses, and even Anglican Ordinariate masses. All are likely more traditionally orthodox than a typical Novus Ordo mass.

    To abandon the Catholic faith for the Orthodox when there are so many valid Catholic options is not only apostasy, it is disingenuously foolish.

  9. SimpleCatholic says:

    Far be it from me to correct such an eminent linguist Father, but would the proper declination, because the object is a female bearer of the peace, not be Paxitrix? ;-) [I suppose, but Paxifer means something slightly different.]

  10. Allan S. says:

    It’s always challenging to find a way to get out of the way of this part of the Rite. The readings from this past Sunday have given me a new idea, though; simply mess up my hair and yell “Unclean! Unclean!” – that ought to do it.

    Some days, even taking the pew seat behind a pillar won’t work ;)

  11. Elizabeth D says:

    Just nod and say “pax tecum.” Then you are both following the liturgical books and stymieing them; in my experience if you say this they generally forget what they were going to say.

  12. Elizabeth D says:

    But what if the priest leaves the sanctuary, walks to where you are sitting 3 rows back, extends his hand and asks your name? This happened, and it would have gone better for me if I had silently nodded with my eyes lowered and otherwise refused to respond. I guess I did not think of just nodding and saying “pax tecum” at that moment. I wonder if it would have worked?

  13. jacobi says:

    Thanks Father for clearing this up, for me anyway.

    I bow with hands clasped to the people adjacent to me or anyone else who indicates from afar. I do not turn round. My local lot have long since got the message.
    Occasionally, some keen type approaches and thrusts a hand out aggressively in spite of all the signals I am sending out. Usually I shake. After all, this is Mass.

    In the pub it would be a different matter!

  14. acardnal says:

    Elizabeth D, sometimes I will place my right hand over my heart and just nod to them.

  15. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I think Rellis’ point deserves more thinking. I was going to raise the same concern. Example: the choice of penitential rite is generally optional for the celebrant, but I may not exempt myself from participation in the rite he chose; ditto for his choice of Eucharistic prayer, or even homily. Some more nuance is called for here, I think.

  16. Traductora says:

    It’s embarrassing and awful, but I just suffer through it for the sake of charity. That is, I nod and say peace be with you, but if somebody wants to grab my hand, heck – it’s pretty brief and they’d be offended if I didn’t let them grab it. So I think the duty of charity is most important at that moment. In other words, don’t encourage the effusive “kiss of peace,” but don’t embarrass people who love it. They don’t know any better and are well meaning.

    On the other hand, the Our Father “Ring Around the Rosy” (followed by the hands-up wave) has got to go, and I simply keep my hands down for that one. It’s completely inappropriate and is actually not specified or officially permitted. However, I did have somebody turn to me once and tell me she wasn’t going to give me the “handshake of peace” because I hadn’t held hands with her during the Our Father (btw, we were each at extreme opposite ends of the pew). I guess she thought I’d be devastated.

  17. Tradster says:

    The rare times we must attend an NO Mass my wife solves the sign of peace problem by simply wearing her veil. It’s like Captain Kirk ordering “shields up”. As soon as they see the veil the NO women avoid her as if she had Ebola. I benefit by standing close beside her within the force field. It’s actually funny to see, in a sad sort of way.

  18. MrsMacD says:

    Oh boy, I get to voice my frustration, this is gonna be liberating! I can’t stand it!!! I hate it.

    Okay, I really, really don’t mind the quiet nod, actually, it doesn’t detract from the reverence, except in one case where a young man sat with me, when I was alone in an almost empty church, I was thinking, “I’m taken. I’m soooo taken. So, sit somewhere else.” But usually I don’t mind.

    It’s the people who need to shake the hand of every person in the room! Arah! Go away! Leave me alone! I don’t want to be rude, I give them a floppy hand and father comes three rows back to shake my hand, I cringe, and have no respect for him because of it. Doesn’t he know that a man shouldn’t offer his hand to a lady unless she offers first?

    The devil knows I hate it. He tries to keep me from going to accessible weekday masses because of it. Jesus is worth bearing it, but Oh, it’s a penance!

    My four year old son keeps me sane. “Peace is dumb,” he stated and he refuses to shake anyone’s hand, with a glint in his eye, while smiling at the people he refuses.

    I’m thinking of rubbing something nasty on my hands, but that’s not charitable.

    I’m not obliged to go to weekday Masses but what is God worth enduring? Fire, sword, prison, death? Okay. I go. No peace for me.

  19. Here’s a technique I perfected in the seminary, when we would be standing in a circle around the altar, and there was generally one woman who was pretty insistent not only about the sign of peace, but about hand-holding during the Our Father…

    I would keep a handkerchief in my pocket; and during the Per Ipsum (i.e., right before the Our Father), I would retrieve the hankie, and wipe my nose with it. I would not be sly about it; I wanted people to see me do it. Then, I kept that handkerchief in my right hand.
    I’d keep my hands locked together — with the hankie poking out — through the Our Father; and then when someone approached me during the Sign of Peace, I would brandish the hankie and gesture, as if to say, “I’m all germy.” Having a hankie that looked like you’d used it to clean your tires didn’t hurt.

    It worked like a charm. Nooo one would insist on shaking my hand in those circumstances; and no one was offended. They were relieved.

    P.S. This works equally well when you really are afflicted with a cold; and wordlessly communicates that. That’s how I figured it out, really, before extending it to daily Mass.

  20. Simon_GNR says:

    I voted “I tolerate it” in the poll, and if someone approaches me I participate in the exchange of handshakes and “Peace be with you”, but with no great enthusiasm for it: I don’t want to cause offence by seeming to be unfriendly or impolite. Whenever the Sign of Peace for the congregation is omitted by the celebrant I breathe a silent sigh of relief. But at the NO Mass I usually attend on Saturday evenings, if I sit in the front row on what would be the Gospel side in the EF, nine times out of ten there is no-one within hand-shaking distance and I manage to avoid the exchange of peace. That Mass is never very busy and there is a tendency for people to gravitate towards the back of the church. I’m quite happy being alone in the front row, participating quietly and prayerfully in the Mass.

  21. Oh — I forgot to mention; it helps to cough a bit, too.

  22. Dick Verbo says:

    Fr Martin Fox, that is exactly what I do when I have to attend a Novus Ordo Mass. Just clasp a handkerchief and a missal, smile and nod.

    I try to remind myself how much God loves those annoying hand-shaking ladies. Bad taste is not a sin, but thinking of myself as so superior is.

  23. acardnal says:

    Great story, Fr. Martin! I guess you’re fortunate to have been ordained after attending that seminary!

  24. St. Epaphras says:

    Yes, yes! The old hankie ploy!
    It works. My pocket is seldom without a hankie. Very handy. Actually blowing the nose is also quite effective.

  25. andia says:

    I hate it. I do not believe that just because I sit near someone in church gives them any right to touch me. I tend to keep my hands in my pockets and bow..but I have had folks grab me, try to force a hand shake, sometimes even a hug or kiss. It is quite upsetting to have a stranger force you to hug or kidss them.
    I’ve started trying to sit as far from others as possible. Sometimes in the very, very front rows —sometimes I will stand at the very back. It rarely works. Thank you for confirming for me that I do not have to participate in this ritual. It is comforting to read that.

  26. MrsMacD says:

    Father Martin Fox, that reminds me of the day I had the flu and a lady tried to force me to shake her hand. I held up my bucket and mouthed, “flu.”

  27. jameeka says:

    Ever since the last WDTPRS, I researched more about the Sign of Peace in the early Church, and think if it was just done correctly and reverently, it would be wonderful ( count me as a dreader otherwise)—sadly, there is just not the vertical sense of Christ’s peace, even as He is there on the altar, at many NO liturgies.

  28. Michael_Thoma says:

    Elizabeth D says:
    17 February 2015 at 1:56 pm
    But what if the priest leaves the sanctuary, walks to where you are sitting 3 rows back, extends his hand and asks your name? This happened, and it would have gone better for me if I had silently nodded with my eyes lowered and otherwise refused to respond. I guess I did not think of just nodding and saying “pax tecum” at that moment. I wonder if it would have worked?

    If you really want him to stop, do what many Easterners do when a priest extends his hand – kiss it and ask for his blessing. That should scare him into stopping it.. or he’ll end up giving you a blessing. Win-win.

  29. Supertradmum says:

    In Malta, people nod to one another, which is very cool. I do that now. Someone in Ireland objected to me not shaking hands, and I said I was just getting over the flu, which was true.

    It helps sitting in the back, way back…

  30. Cyrillus Mariae Cheung says:

    I lived in Hong Kong, trust me, not all people will nod during the sign of peace, some of them will show you their hand, some of them will even try to give you a hug. Even priests.


  32. Stephen Matthew says:

    Don’t make a donkey of yourself and be patient and forgiving of others who are making donkeys of themselves. The sign of peace is not the proper place to make some sort of civil disobedience style protest of the rubrics of the mass or the actions of those around us. No, people don’t have a right to force you to shake hands, hug, or whatever they may want. However, to pointedly ignore them and hope they go away is not especially charitable nor likely to be understood as offering a sign of peace.

    I generally prefer a nod of the head and small hand gesture that vaguely resembles a blessing or wave. I will shake the hands of those nearest me if circumstance warrants. I have resorted to the handkerchief ruse if it sounds like someone sitting near me is passing around a case of death or something.

    I would prefer the sign of peace be reformed to either be passed from the altar to the people in the heiratic fashion of certain eastern liturgies, or take place as a sort of preparatory rite to the mass, or perhaps as part of the offertory, or even after the post-communion prayer. The present arrangement seems non-ideal. Certainly a priest could take on the pastoral practice of inviting the congregation to exchange a sign of peace before or after the mass and then omit it during the mass even under present rubrics.

  33. asperges says:

    I “mind my own business” during these episodes and do not offer a handshake, but I never refuse one if offered because it might be hurtful to that person and, frankly, bad manners. It isn’t that person’s fault that the NO has imposed this, nor my place to explain why I don’t like it.

    Having said that, I went to a NO Mass last night where the kiss of peace was not proposed. No-one seemed put out and Mass continued.

  34. Deacon Don says:

    What have we become? When I can’t even recognize the peace that flows from a risen Savior as shining from the person I am standing beside? When the Bishop says, “Peace be with you” somehow or other I don’t get it … he is seeing the peace of our Lord present in us. When the people I am standing with are determined to not see the face of Jesus in those around them, or to let anyone see it in them?

    Perhaps we should all review Matthew Kelly’s “The Problem with the Mass”

    Let’s all write a list of our “problems with the Mass”, burn them, and let them become the ashes we use today … and believe the good news.

  35. HeatherPA says:

    Why is it always ladies of a certain age? Mostly, anyway.
    These are the same ones who want to hold your newborn baby, too.
    And make comments about your family size.

  36. kimberley jean says:

    But Deacon, what does that lovely statement have to do with strangers grabbing me in the pews?

  37. MacBride says:

    Fr Z, correct me if I am wrong, but did not I read somewhere that the correct way to offer the sign of peace is to the people directly on either side of you…NOT to the pews in front and behind you, across the isle, across the church? It is a symbol..not a social hour.

    @Stephen Matthew. I have been in some NO services where a lady or gentleman comes up to the pulpit before Mass and welcomes everyone, then asks the congregation to welcome the persons around them; to me this would suffice for the sign of peace. But of course it is done in the Mass as well…uurrggh

  38. AngelGuarded says:

    I want to share my journey from hating it and avoiding it completely to peaceful tolerance. I call it the “Sign of Chaos” and I do not like it. But part of being a Christian entails sacrifice especially of self, so I have gradually gone from dropping to my knees, bowing my head, and ignoring the “paxifers” around me to what I do now which has brought me much peace. I hold my Rosary throughout Mass anyway, so I keep my hands folded, Rosary around them, I nod politely, give a huge genuine smile, and say “Peace of Christ” to all in my pew and those directly in front and behind me. Some reach their hands, see mine are occupied and withdraw theirs. The beatific smile on my face seems to do the trick. I sense no tension from others. I used to dread it, avoid it, hated it. Now I really don’t mind. This change in me came about by much prayer, exercise of patience, and grace from our Lord Jesus Christ (Ruler, Victor, Redeemer). Although after reading other commenters, I may change to “pax tecum.” :-)

  39. APX says:

    I generally take my cue from how the FSSP priests do during the Chrism Mass or other OF they attend in choir- they remain kneeling and don’t actively seek hands to shake. If someone offers them the sign of peace, they kindly receive it and don’t make a fuss about it.

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