A: The pause in the public celebration of the Mass affords pastors and laity the chance to consider how the liturgy is celebrated, and even how it ought to be celebrated when the Church reassembles in public. One particular aspect of the Mass that has received and will continue to receive attention is the exchange of the Sign of Peace. This ritual exchange was one of the first of the Mass’s elements to be dropped as the pandemic approached; it will be similarly considered as the pandemic passes (we pray!) and the Mass returns to a normative form.
First, ought the ritual exchange of peace be reinstated at Mass? If the spread of COVID-19 (or similar) ceases to be a problem, and if the rites of the Church (and not the preferences of individual members) continue to be normative, and if the exchange can take place according to the tradition and the mind of the Church, then, yes, it ought to be reinstated, for the gesture is rich in spiritual meaning.
Some traditions, particularly in the East, consider the exchange of peace as a gesture of reconciliation with one’s neighbor before entering into the sacrifice at the altar, as Jesus’ own words teach: “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” (Matthew 5:25). To sacramentalize this aspect of the exchange, these same traditions place the sign at the end of the Liturgy of the Word, just prior to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
For the greater part of the Roman Tradition, the exchange of peace is less one of fraternal reconciliation and more a reception of peace from Christ himself. In its 2014 circular letter on “The Ritual Expression of the Gift of Peace at Mass,” the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments invokes the Council of Trent on this point (the exchange of peace does exist in the Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form): the exchange’s “point of reference is found in the Eucharistic contemplation of the Paschal mystery as the ‘Paschal kiss’ of the Risen Christ upon the altar.” Scripturally, Christ’s expression of peace surrounds his Paschal Mystery: in Holy Thursday’s upper room, he says to his apostles, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27); behind the locked doors on Easter Sunday, “Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19).
To symbolize this dimension of the sign of peace, some practices began with the priest kissing the altar (or even the host or chalice) before passing the “Paschal kiss” along to other participants. The context of the ritual exchange of peace in the Roman Missal makes the same point: with the Paschal Christ upon the altar, the priest prays in the embolism following the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days…;” then the Mass’s participants exchange a sign of peace; followed by the acclamation to the Lamb of God that he “grant us peace.” Consequently, in our current practice, the ritual exchange of peace is an encounter first with the Paschal Christ in our presence, and secondly as an expression of “ecclesial communion and mutual charity” (General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), 82).
If, then, there is worship to be offered and grace to be had by this sign, then how ought it be reintroduced and practiced in the most effective way? Pope Benedict XVI noted in 2007 that many bishops, even while they acknowledged the tradition and the value of the exchange, were concerned that its expression was a distraction from Christ rather than a means to encounter him. The Holy Father wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis, “during the  Synod of Bishops there was discussion about the appropriateness of greater restraint in this gesture, which can be exaggerated and cause a certain distraction in the assembly just before the reception of Communion” (49). On the contrary, rather than frivolity, exaggeration, and distraction, the exchange ought to be marked by the “noble simplicity,” seriousness, and sobriety common to the Roman Rite tradition (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 34). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal goes so far to suggest a manner by which the sign of peace can be rightly offered between members of the assembly: “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” (154). In the Order of Mass itself, the rubric indicates simply that “all offer one another a sign, in keeping with local customs, that expresses peace, communion, and charity;” nowhere is a handshake prescribed (128). Thus, turning to one’s neighbor and exchanging the dialogue above could suffice. (For more information, see the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship Newsletter from July-August 2014.)