In Defense of a Liturgical Abuse

In her comment on my last post (which was embarrassingly long ago), Rachel said the following:

If you understand that hugging everyone in the dorm loudly is a liturgical abuse, but are not complaining and making the best of it, good for you. But don’t ever try to perpetuate such a thing. The sign of peace in your dorm has been re-purposed – it is supposed to be a dignified sign of unity and charity, but it has turned into an exchange of physical affection which is inappropriate and distracting.

Now, as the discerning reader might guess from the highly controversial title I’ve chosen for this post, I’m going to try to argue for the perpetuation of this “inappropriate and distracting” practice, which I have thus far only encountered in the setting of the dorm mass. However irreverent the practice may seem, it nonetheless reflects the realization of Christian communion in a way that other iterations of the Sign of Peace simply do not.

Not too long ago, I had heard of suggestions that the sign of peace ought to be, if not omitted, then moved to the beginning of the service, and for a time I supported these suggestions. However, it eventually struck me that the fact that the sign of peace was where it was ought to mean something, and indeed does: the presence of Christ and the contemplation thereof draws us into closer communion with each other, and that contemplation ought to lead us to more dramatic action than a handshake. It is not without reason that the early Christians were told to greet each other with a kiss (e.g. 1 Peter 5:14). Physical exchanges of affection are not necessarily “inappropriate and distracting” in the context of the liturgy, but rather, can be understood as flowing out of a proper understanding of what the Eucharist is and does.

Does every individual participating in the Sign of Peace at dorm mass approach the act in the way I describe? Certainly not. But this will not be corrected simply by forcing it back into the model of the average parish mass, in which people stiffly shake hands with a few people who happen to be seated next to them one full pew in front or behind because of our American personal space issues. Rather, the excesses of the Sign of Peace at dorm Mass are solved by a better understanding of what the sign of peace means. The goal is not to make it look different, but rather, to make what already happens more deliberate, in two senses of the word.

The first sense of “deliberate” is the most obvious: the communion which is more credibly expressed through the physical exchange of affection needs to be backed up by the intention to express Christian communion. The second sense of “deliberate” is, of course, related: it needs to slow down just a bit. While hugging is not necessarily irreverent and even leaving your immediate area to exchange the sign of peace is not, as I understand it, wrong, it could stand to be a touch more “dignified.” However, being “dignified” ought not be our primary concern. Rather, the goal of the sign of peace (as I, in all my ignorance) understand it, is to recognize in word and deed the dignity of others in the light of the Paschal Mystery.  This “liturgical abuse” arises more or less spontaneously as an expression of Christian community. The solution to the discernible excesses of the sign of peace in dorm liturgy lies not in stifling the expression of communion, but rather, in identifying more clearly the nature of that which is being expressed so that the expression itself becomes less ambiguous (and therefore, hopefully, less distracting to those unused to such gestures of affection).

If the insights in my previous post were correct, then the communion expressed through the sign of peace in every liturgy is so much more profound than a hesitant handshakes and muttered “peacebewithyou” can begin to express. In short, I do not merely wish to perpetuate this “liturgical abuse,” but to perfect and propagate it.


3 thoughts on “In Defense of a Liturgical Abuse

  1. Well said, Tim! While the dorm mass sign of peace is by no means the most reverent action in the world, it is certainly more reminiscent of the Eucharistic community to which we are called than the “hesitant handshakes” you describe.

  2. But here’s the problem. The Sign of Peace is supposed to show the communion of the entire Church and therefore of the entire church. (Yes, I’m proud of my capital usage there, thanks for asking.) That’s why you don’t discriminate based on who you know. In the Notre Dame version, it only shows the communion of people who are already friends. I have often experienced dorm Masses where I will stand and wait and literally not one single person will initiate a sign of peace with me. (Maybe my kneeling on the carpet is just too alienating?) I always shake hands with or hug the people around me, but I’m almost always the only one who does anything to people I don’t know. Running around and hugging all your friends and ignoring the people who came to Mass alone doesn’t show communion, it reinforces cliques.

    So hugging or kissing instead of shaking hands, whatever. But the moving around the chapel? No way.

    Lastly, keep in mind that we aren’t Protestants. Even if you can improve on the liturgy, you are not free to do so. Your idea on X might be better than the way we do X right now, but then you should write to the Vatican or the Bishops’ Conference or something (I’m not actually sure who the right people are). Even if it’s better, if it’s not allowed, it’s wrong.

    • Teresa, I find myself unable to disagree with most of your comment, but, as I said in the post, I’m not sure if the best way to fix it is just to denounce it as a liturgical abuse. I want to improve upon it without breaking it.

      Do you think that my suggestion about being more “deliberate” about the Sign of Peace would remedy some of the problems that you see?


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