The Greeting of Peace
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
As many of you know, my postgraduate study was in liturgy and I try to keep up in the field by receiving various publications and journals.
Recently, the latest copy of Worship (from the Benedictines in Collegeville, US) arrived and in a regular column called ‘The Amen Corner’ there was an article by my friend and colleague Fr Paul Turner with the title: ‘Between Consultation and Faithfulness: Questions That Won’t Go Away.’
In the opening paragraphs he makes mention of a venerable letter from Decentius, the Bishop of Gubbio, sent to Pope Innocent I on 19 March 416 in which he sought advice from the Pope on a number of liturgical questions.
The first of these concerned the Greeting of Peace and where it should be placed in the liturgy.
The Roman tradition had always been that it was placed after the Lord’s Prayer and before the reception of Holy Communion. This is attested to by many early Roman Church documents and even by St Augustine in one of his sermons where the custom had also been adopted by the Church of Hippo in North Africa.
It would seem that some of the clergy in Gubbio wanted to place the Greeting of Peace at the offertory and before the Eucharistic Prayer, which was, and is still, the custom in the churches of the East.
What intrigued Fr Paul Turner was, and to quote: “Why – after 1600 years – are we still hearing differences about the sign of peace? ... People argue over when the peace should take place, whether it should take place, and, if it takes place, how should it be done?”
The extension of the Greeting of Peace to all who participate in a Eucharistic liturgy was one of the reforms that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, but is one reform that had not really been properly understood and which still sits, I think, uneasily with many people in the assembly.
The practice of Christians greeting each other with a Holy Kiss is very ancient and St Paul mentions it four times at the conclusion of his letters and St Peter in one of his letters.
Ritually, it found its way into the very earliest Eucharistic celebrations and it would seem that this exchange, either during the liturgy or at the end of it, had profound meaning to the Christian community.
Clearly then, it was not some casual greeting or awkward exchange.
The most recent edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains its purpose and meaning: "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.”
What does it mean to express ecclesial communion and mutual charity?
Firstly, the exchange is a gesture. Unlike the Tridentine Rite where at High Mass the clergy in the sanctuary said “Pax tecum” (peace be with you) there are not meant to be any words uttered in the reformed rite. The gesture is a sign that requires no words.
|In the Greeting of Peace we are united by the common bond of Baptism. Photo: Alfred Boudib.|
In the Australian adaptations to the Missal authorised by the Bishops it states that the gesture is to be a hand clasp to those immediately around you.
The ecclesial communion expressed here is that often those we greet in this manner are not necessarily known to us personally, but are united to us by the common bond of Baptism.
The other meaning relates to mutual charity. It is a desire to intend to live in harmony and love with other members of the Christian community.
Sadly, this solemn moment before the reception of Holy Communion often becomes in some congregations a ‘break out’ moment where general chatter and free movement erupts in the assembly.
I am convinced this occurs because there has been inadequate catechesis on this part of the rite and some are clearly embarrassed and default to casual conversation.
In the Maronite rite that I sometimes attend this Greeting of Peace has somewhat more decorum and while it is placed following the ancient Eastern liturgical tradition before the Eucharistic Prayer, it is a very ordered yet a moving and meaningful exchange.
Given the fact that life in the Church and in parishes can be fractious at times as we discern what is the best way to live the life of the Gospel, and our own personal lives can also periodically be a source of disquiet, this moment in the liturgy provides a privileged opportunity to restore ourselves grounded in the peace that only Christ can give.
It might well be worthwhile for clergy and liturgy committees in our parishes to revisit the Greeting of Peace with a view to inviting a revised practice with appropriate liturgical formation.
Signs and gestures are important means of communicating that which otherwise cannot be expressed in words.
Our liturgy is a treasure trove of such signs that lead us to the mystery of God expressed in the person of Christ to whom we are united in the Eucharist as a visible expression of His Body.
Let us not lose that moment, which can express such a profound understanding of who we are in Christ.
With my prayers,
Very Rev Peter G Williams
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