Sep 15, 2014

Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass

Online Edition
September 2014
Vol. XX, No. 6

Understanding the Holy See’s Circular Letter on the
Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass

by Secretariat of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship

On Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a circular letter titled Pacem relinquo vobis, [“Peace I leave with you”] on “The Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass” (Prot. n. 414/14). The Circular Letter, published in the August edition of Adoremus Bulletin, mentioned additional guidelines, which are still expected. The following explanatory note from the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship was published in the July-August 2014 BCDW Newsletter (pp. 29-31), and appears here with permission of the Secretariat.


The Circular Letter on the Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass, issued on June 8, 2014 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, provides advice to Conferences of Bishops throughout the world on the placement and proper expression of the Sign of Peace at Mass. Pope Benedict XVI opened the issue to study by the pertinent Congregations of the Holy See in his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis. The Congregation, in turn, surveyed Episcopal Conferences on the question in 2008.

This new Circular Letter is the result of consultations within the Congregation, with Conferences of Bishops, and with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. The Holy See’s decision, as expressed in the letter, is to maintain the Rite of Peace in its present place just prior to the distribution of Holy Communion, thus avoiding any structural changes to the Order of Mass at this time. Additional guidelines to aid in the development of “liturgical catecheses on the meaning of the rite of peace” (no. 6d) are pending. A study of the history and theology of the Rite of Peace helps place the Circular Letter in context.

“Greet One Another with a Holy Kiss”: A Brief History of the Rite of Peace

The New Testament has several references to Christians exchanging a “holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26 and 1 Pt 5:14). Among early Christians (e.g., Tertullian), the kiss of peace was seen as a seal placed on prayer. This gesture became a stable element of the liturgies of the early Christian world, including in the city of Rome. At Rome, it may have initially occurred after the Prayer of the Faithful which concluded the Lit-urgy of the Word. In such a position, the kiss of peace was viewed as a sign of mutual love before offering sacrifice (Mt 5:23-24). The Eastern liturgical families retained this placement and adopted this perspective.

For reasons not entirely clear to liturgical scholars, the exchange of peace in the Roman Rite developed along different lines and with a different theological emphasis. In North Africa, Saint Augustine was already familiar with the practice of exchanging peace after the Eucharistic Prayer. In a letter written in the year 416, Pope Saint Innocent I, responding to a list of liturgical queries from Bishop Decentius of Gubbio, writes that in the Roman liturgy, the only proper moment for the exchange of peace is after the Eucharistic Prayer and before Communion. Instead of the emphasis on reconciliation as found in the Eastern liturgies, St. Innocent justifies this placement as an expression of the assembly’s consent to what the priest has just prayed in the Eucharistic Prayer, and the community’s “seal” on the priest’s sacred actions — an embodied extension of the Great Amen (cf. Epistola 25 Decentio Augubino 1, 4).

In some liturgical texts from the early Middle Ages, the priest was directed to kiss the altar, and in some places even the host or the chalice (symbolically receiving the gift of peace from the risen Christ on the altar), and then to exchange a sign of peace with his assistants who extended it to the members of the congregation. When the reception of Holy Communion greatly declined, the sign of peace may have been considered by some as a “substitute” for the sacrament. Gradually, the gesture was limited to the clergy alone. In Frankish lands, the exchange was introduced by a prayer for peace said by the priest. The formula Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles dates from the eleventh century and was prescribed by the Roman Missal of St. Pius V (1570). Although the manner in which peace was expressed evolved and became increasingly stylized over the course of the centuries, its present location is consistently encountered in liturgical texts of the Roman Rite throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

In medieval England, a particular manner of sharing a gesture of peace developed and eventually spread to the continent. After kissing the altar on which the consecrated host was present, the presiding bishop or priest would then kiss an osculatorium: a plaque, often richly ornamented, which came to be called a pax-board or pax-brede in Middle English. This pax-board was then shared among the other liturgical ministers and the assembly, often following strict sequence based on social rank. On an experiential level, those participating may have perceived the rite more as the veneration of a holy object than as a symbol of communal and sacramental unity.

Such stylized expressions of peace were still to be found in the liturgical books following the Council of Trent, but by the modern era prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Rite of Peace had come to be retained only as a highly formal embrace among the bishop or priest, deacon, and subdeacon in the celebration of a Solemn High Mass. Its absence from the more frequently celebrated Low Mass would explain why many today mistakenly regard the Rite of Peace as a post-Vatican II innovation.
A Theological Approach to the Rite of Peace

Some beautiful theological reflections are contained within the Circular Letter. In the Roman Rite, the exchange of peace is to be understood and experienced “in the Eucharistic contemplation of the Paschal mystery as the ‘Paschal kiss’ of the Risen Christ present on the altar” (no. 2). Christ is our peace (Eph 2:14), and for the Christian, an exchange of true peace is only possible in the spirit of the crucified and risen Christ (nos. 1 and 8). The letter continues, “An exchange of peace appropriately carried out among the participants at Mass enriches the meaning of the rite itself and gives fuller expression to it” (no. 6a).

Finally, an important connection is drawn between how our faith is reflected and formed in our worship as a community (lex orandi) and the content of what we believe (lex credendi); this connection must, in turn, influence how we live our lives once the liturgy has ended (lex vivendi). “Today, a serious obligation for Catholics in building a more just and peaceful world is accompanied by a deeper understanding of the Christian meaning of peace and this depends largely on the seriousness with which our particular Churches welcome and invoke the gift of peace and express it in the liturgical celebration” (no. 7).

The Circular Letter challenges liturgical ministers and teachers to devote renewed attention to the existing rubrics regarding the exchange of peace in both the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) and the Order of Mass, and to facilitate deeper catechesis on the origin and meaning of the Sign of Peace in the Roman Rite.

Placement of the Rite of Peace

By articulating this rich tradition and theology within the Roman Rite, the Circular Letter explains the decision of the Congregation to maintain the Rite of Peace in its present location. Following the Lord’s Prayer and just prior to the distribution of Holy Communion, it is by no means an arbitrary or haphazard placement. Instead, “[t]he rites which prepare for Communion constitute a well expressed unity in which each ritual element has its own significance and which contributes to the overall ritual sequence of sacramental participation in the mystery being celebrated. The sign of peace, therefore, is placed between the Lord’s Prayer, to which is joined the embolism which prepares for the gesture of peace, and the breaking of the bread, in the course of which the Lamb of God is implored to give us his peace” (no. 2).

In terms of practical action, the Holy See invited Conferences of Bishops to review current practices with an eye towards sobriety of expression and the avoidance of excessive, distracting gestures in order to “safeguard the sacred sense of the Eucharistic celebration and the sense of mystery at the moment of receiving Holy Communion” (no. 3). The Congregation encourages catechesis concerning the true nature, spirit, and expression of this rite, centered on peace rooted in Christ made present on the altar.

The Circular Letter cited several practices to be avoided, namely;

-the introduction of a “song of peace” not called for in the Roman Rite;
-the excessive movement of the faithful from their places to exchange a sign of peace;
-the departure of the priest from the sanctuary to share the sign of peace with some of the faithful; and
-the use of the Rite of Peace as a kind of “receiving line” of a social nature, to express congratulations, best wishes, or even condolences in a sometimes purely secular way.

These points are consistent with the restraint expressed in the 2002 GIRM, currently in force (see no. 154). The letter also underscores the fact that the rubrics of the exchange of peace already allow for its omission when significant pastoral circumstances warrant it (see no. 6a; see also the Nov. 2006 issue of the Newsletter).

The Sign of Peace in the United States

By itself, the Circular Letter is an administrative action, and it does not mandate changes to the existing adaptation in the GIRM approved for the dioceses of the United States. It is important to recall that the Holy See has granted permission, as an adaptation for this country, that “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 small number of the faithful near the sanctuary” (GIRM, no. 154). This adaptation was reaffirmed by the Congregation in 2010, as the Roman Missal, Third Edition was being prepared for implementation.  As the Circular Letter itself states (no. 6b), the intention of the observations contained in the letter is to encourage deeper reflection and to guide Conferences of Bishops in future editions or revisions of the Roman Missal.

Furthermore, both the GIRM (nos. 82 and 154) and the Circular Letter (no. 6b), affirm the right of each Conference of Bishops to specify, if so desired, the manner of exchanging peace between the members of the assembly. No “official” ex- pression of peace has ever been stipulated for the dioceses of the United States. Perhaps the most common form for the exchange of peace in this country is shaking hands, but the diocesan bishop may encourage other forms as well for cultural or other pastoral reasons. In fact, the GIRM even suggests a short, optional dialogue: “While the Sign of Peace is being given, it is permissible to say, ‘The peace of the Lord be with you always,’ to which the reply is ‘Amen’” (no. 154).

Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy


The Editors