I like the Sign of Peace portion of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Here is how it is described in the Order of the Mass:
Priest: Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live for ever and ever.
Priest: The Peace of the Lord be with you always.
All: And also with you.
Deacon or Priest: Let us offer each other a sign of peace.
[The ministers and all the people exchange an embrace, handshake, or other appropriate gesture of peace with those near them, according to local custom.]
Coming from Protestantland, and a non-sacramental, wary-of-formal-liturgy, heavy-on-teaching kind of church, I find this a wonderful moment in the liturgy. Like everything else in the liturgy, the Sign of Peace has great depth of meaning and is worth meditating on, and it might be interesting to ask what would an appropriate state of heart be at this moment in the Mass. Anyway, like many things we do at Mass, the Sign of Peace can become just another “one of those things” we do, but it shouldn’t. I also like having a moment to acknowledge with both eye and physical contact my brothers and sisters in Christ around me. It reminds that we are all in this together.
I also get the the recent request from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments stating that the Sign of Peace should be done in a respectful and solemn manner (my words) and not be used as a time for glad-handing, roaming the church, or for the priest to come down from the altar and work the crowd. In other words, some parishes needs to “tone it down” a bit.
I don’t see a lot of this in my church, but one thing has always bothered me from the first time I attended Mass there and was a curious, no-longer-protesting, Protestant seeking the true Church, and wanting to really know what Catholics did at Mass. First, let me back up a bit. I have increasingly become convinced of the importance (radical importance) of seeing all believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, that I should not ignore (or shun) any, and that no matter who they are, no matter what social class or education level or economic strata or ethnicity, no matter how “other” they may seem to me, I should always be willing and ready to reach out to them because they are my brothers and sisters. I fail at this all the time. It’s a significant black spot in my life, but I still believe it is the right way to behave. Thus, though I believe it is good to see friends at church, and to great them affectionately, etc., I also believe the Mass should not be about seeing one’s friends.
Now, at the Sign of Peace, I always see several folks in my parish wander the sanctuary, making beelines for their friends (who just may be on the other side of the church) and giving them big hugs. As they do this, which is somewhat disruptive, they also pass by everyone else to get to their friends and then again back to their seats. This is not a particularly big issue for me, and I really do like seeing the affection for each other, but it seems that a more appropriate behavior for the Mass (and for what the Mass is about) is that one would greet whomever God has brought within close range. Give the Sign of Peace to your brothers and sisters who you may not know, but whom God has brought near. If you are to walk away from your seat to give the Sign of Peace, then seek out the person who is still sitting because they are elderly or cannot get up easily.
Of course, the recent and gentle “corrective” that’s getting more press than it deserves is, at least for us in the U.S., nothing new. Here is what our bishops say in “The General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (pp. 35-36):
The Rite of Peace
82. There follows the Rite of Peace, by which the Church entreats 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.
As for the actual sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conference of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the sigh of peace only to those who are nearest.
So… stay put. Give the Sign of Peace to those who are nearest to you. Then, after Mass, visit with you friends, and even give them big, affectionate hugs.
Anyway, we shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. We should just recognize the true nature of the Sign of Peace, not take it for granted, nor treat it lightly, have propriety in our actions, and love each other as authentically and with as much empathy and compassion as possible.