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Why The Sign of Peace is Important

Have you ever attended Mass angry at a member of your immediate family? And then you have to offer them peace! Thankfully, the sign of peace comes toward the end of the liturgy and I have usually calmed down somewhat by that point. Still, extending a greeting and saying those words “Peace be with you” forces the issue. We need to be reconciled to approach the altar. We need to forgive and be forgiven.

With the exception of the above scenario, the sign of peace is part of Mass that I never really thought about all that much. Most weeks, I simply extend a friendly greeting to those near me, and then Mass continues. Pathway to Our Hearts: A Simple Approach to Lectio Divina With the Sermon on the Mount, a new book by Archbishop Thomas Collins, invited me to give it greater consideration.

Collins examines the Sign of Peace in the context of how it relates to Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” He writes:

Before we receive our blessed Lord himself, we say “Peace be with you.” . . . We offer the peace of Christ. And if somewhere in the church there’s someone who has made me angry, or who has done something that has hurt me, or if I have wronged someone, then I start climbing over the pews to say “Peace be with you.” Now, that might be more than is necessary, like going to confession in public. It’s sufficient and symbolic enough to turn and say to whoever is nearby, “Peace be with you; peace be with you.” . . . 

Giving the sign of peace could be a very sublime experience of what our Lord is talking about in this verse. We turn to the person, and we could be thinking, “I can’t stand you. Your personality rubs me the wrong way. Your political views are outrageous. Your taste in clothes is abominable. I would not want to go on a trip with you.” But then we say aloud: “The peace of Christ be with you.” That’s the heart of it all.

Obviously, then, the sign of peace is meant to be much more than just a polite demonstration to those near to us at Mass. As with everything else in the liturgy, it has great purpose and meaning. In the Tridentine Rite, the sign of peace is only extended among the clergy and sacred ministers. The Novus Ordo brought back the practice of the early Church of sharing the kiss of peace among the faithful at the liturgy.

In St. Augustine’s Sermon 227 he refers to this kiss of peace: “After this, the ‘Peace be with you’ is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his.”

In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI instructs, “By its nature the Eucharist is the sacrament of peace. At Mass this dimension of the Eucharistic mystery finds specific expression in the sign of peace. Certainly this sign has great value (cf. Jn 14:27). In our times, fraught with fear and conflict, this gesture has become particularly eloquent, as the Church has become increasingly conscious of her responsibility to pray insistently for the gift of peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family. Certainly there is an irrepressible desire for peace present in every heart.”

Therefore, the sign of peace we offer to those near to us is both a literal and symbolic action. We need to be at peace with those with whom we share our lives, and isn’t it true that sometimes those are the hardest people to be at peace with? During the Mass, we reach out to them and wish them a heartfelt “Peace be with you.” Peace in our world needs to start with peace in our own homes. 

The peace we extend to other members of the congregation is largely symbolic. While there are certainly exceptions, most likely we have not offended the person sitting in the pew behind or in front of us in any manner, yet, by offering peace to them, we are offering our peace to our greater community and to the world at large.

In a world in such desperate need of peace, the sign of peace is extremely important. The next time you extend your hand in friendship at Mass, I invite you to think more deeply about what that symbol means.


Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur has a Master of Arts degree in Applied Theology from Elms College. A former Senior Editor at Catholic Lane, she is also the author of The Catholic Baby Name Book and Letters to Mary from a Young Mother. She has two biological sons and two foster children. Visit her blog at http://spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com.


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  • Wayne Topp

    This is a great reflection. My only hang up is toward the end of the article when you suggest that saying “peace be with you” to the person in front of and behind us counts as making peace with the person whom we have harmed or who has harmed us. I guess in our hearts we can be making that peace, but it seems against the traditions of the church and the teachings of the Bible to make that count. (In my head, often the Church and the Bible expect the most from us and don’t allow for an easy way out.)

    I would suggest that while we have made peace in our hearts and that “counts” as far as our conscience is concerned for receiving the Eucharist, we should beg for the grace to go and face that person and truly offer our peace and forgiveness to that person particularly.

  • http://www.vatican.va Michael

    I’ve found it interesting that the Sign of Peace (given to one another) is not a requirement of the mass. Neither the GIRM nor the USCCB (to which the GIRM provides the authority to exercise its judgment in the matter) make the sharing of the sign incumbent upon the faithful, in general. It’s certainly allowed and encouraged – and there is rubric for it, but it is not considered necessary. I didn’t find this out until we moved and the church we now attend has omitted it entirely, except for the priest’s “The peace of the LORD be with you always,” our response, and the kiss of peace between him and the deacon(s).

    What I like about the article, and I’ll probably check out the book, too, is that it “returns” the Sign of Peace to its significance in the Eucharist. Through much of the 70s and 80s it seems that, along with hand-holding at the LORD’s Prayer, some congregations set up a means of “communion” with one another outside of or, at least, apart from the Eucharist. Our Communion finds its full articulation in the Eucharist and, as the author points out, the Sign of Peace is both literal and symbolic but finds, per Benedict, “specific expression in the sign of peace.”

    In the Maronite Rite, the Sign of Peace is “passed.” During the Divine Liturgy, peace flows from the altar through the priest who passes a sign from the sanctuary to individuals (servers or ushers) who, in turn, pass it to the people at the end of the pew. These then pass it to the person immediately next to them and so forth down to the end of the pew. This is done before the presentation of the gifts.

    Wayne’s is a good practice, however. Though we may have, at mass, symbolically expressed our desire for peace with each other, why not say it specifically to the affected individuals. This is always a good practice in humility.

    Thank you for the article.

    In Christ,
    Michael

  • http://spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

    Thank you both for your comments. Wayne, I think there might have been a bit of misunderstanding regarding the Sign of Peace taking the place of making peace with individuals we have harmed in some way. Archbishop Collins did not say that, and neither did I. In fact, I said it was “largely symbolic” as a sign of making peace with the world at large. Of course, we should do all we can to make peace with those we have literally hurt in some way. The Sign of Peace is a sign that we want to be at peace with everyone in the world.

    Peace be with both of you (and to all who read this!)

    Patrice

  • Wayne Topp

    Thanks for the clarification, Patrice. It really is a great article!

    Peace!

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  • tom

    Very beautiful article. I only know that I am usually uncomfortable with the sign.

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