Appropriate behavior for sign of peace

Question: Whenever our pastor is away from the parish, he enlists the help of a retired priest in town to celebrate the daily and Sunday liturgies. Recently at the daily Mass, the fill-in priest began the practice of shaking the hands of the 15 to 20 people present. Two days later this was replaced by an embrace for all the women. Not everyone is OK with this performance. 

— Name and city withheld, Nebraska

Answer: As I have stated in this column many times before, priests, ministers and people should stick to the official prescriptions of the liturgy. This is not a matter of legalism, but of maintaining good order in the liturgical assembly and of avoiding novel elements that are disturbing to the people and counter to the authentic meaning of the various parts of the liturgy.

As you state in your letter (which I shortened, as I often do), the 2004 Vatican instruction on the Eucharist (Redemptionis Sacramentum) states (quoting the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal): “It is appropriate that ‘each one give the sign of peace in a sober manner.’ ‘The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration’” (No. 72).

The sign of peace is not meant to be an extended time-out from the orderly flow of the liturgy, but to be a brief and “sober” gesture that prepares the whole congregation for Communion, helping each person to recognize that he or she is part of the Body of Christ. Too often the sign of peace becomes disorderly as people talk out loud and move around the pews. The sign of peace is best done by offering the gesture of peace quietly to one or two people in the same pew.

The requirement that the priest remain in the sanctuary during the sign of peace is not meant to be clericalist or to suggest that the priest is better than everyone else, but to make the point that the priest is not the source of the peace of the Mass (Christ is), and to avoid the kind of disturbance that inevitably occurs when the priest walks up and down the aisle shaking hands, touching babies on the head and generally waving. I doubt that in your situation all the women present welcomed the embrace. Greetings of a more effusive kind belong after Mass at the front door. 

Ashes to ashes 

Question: As a somewhat liberal older Catholic, I don’t feel comfortable that the traditional formula for Ash Wednesday is still used (“Remember, man, that you are to dust, and to dust you will return”). I am told that this may be replaced by another formula. Please enlighten me.

— Name and address withheld

Answer: There is, indeed, a second formula that may be used nowadays (“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”). Both of these formulas are present together in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. In no sense are they in competition; rather each brings out a different aspect of the imposition of ashes. The one you mention brings out the darker side of the liturgy of Ash Wednesday: that we shall all return to the grave and that all human achievements will pass away. The second formula brings out a complementary truth: that all are called to a conversion of faith — which has its basis in the Resurrection. Placed in the context of the whole liturgy, the formula you mention is undergirded by hope and faith in God’s promises. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.