I came across another blog post about the sign of peace, and I think it offers a helpful but rather different perspective:
After citing GIRM 82, the passage relevant to this matter, the writer explains:
There is no need for walking around and socializing, or even for waving across the parish to another person. If someone is not right nearby, there should be no pressure for anyone to seek out others. It should be quiet, contain, and short. It should not involving anything other than saying “peace be with you” or responding “amen.” It is possible to do this with dignity.
The Roman Missal itself makes it clear that the ritual is fully accomplished when the priest says: “The peace of the Lord be with you always” and the people respond: “And with your spirit.” There is no necessary need for anything else. In fact, the Missal says that the celebrant “may add, when appropriate: Let us offer each other the sign of peace.”
In other words, the congregational peace exchange can be eliminated completely — and I’m quite certain that many people will feel a sense of relief over this. I am among them.
While there is certainly a danger in taking the sign of peace as an opportunity for conversation, I think that there is an opposite danger in putting too much effort into seeming “dignified.”
There are two possible ways we can understand “dignity” in the context of the liturgy. The first definition of dignity is composure and self-control. If I were feeling particularly uncharitable, I would further suggest that this definition of dignity is really a sort of stoicism masquerading as reverence. This false perception of dignity is more likely to lead to the idolatrous love of one’s own piety than true and deep love of God.
The notion with which I would like to contrast this obvious strawman is the notion of dignity as inherent worth. A dignified liturgy is one in which the dignity of Christ is recognized, in which Christ, particularly present in the Eucharist, is recognized for who He is and treated with the appropriate respect, and I’ll be damned (quite literally) if the best response I can muster to Christ’s presence is stoic indifference or forced piety. Christ as present in our neighbor, however, is not to be neglected, either. The inherent dignity of each of our fellow Christians must be recognized, and the Sign of Peace seems like the most natural place to affirm that in an explicit and liturgical fashion.
The presence of Christ ought to prompt in us the deepest kind of vulnerability. For some of us, this vulnerability will manifest itself most often in a reverent silence. For others, it may more often than not involve a recognition of God’s presence in others, as I have elsewhere suggested. The order of the Mass, as it is currently set up, gives us time for both and recognizes the place of both in the worldwide Church as well as in each individual soul.
Love of God (as particularly evident in silent reverence) and love of neighbor (as made evident through actual participation (cf Vatican II) in the sign of peace) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the fact that Jesus gave us both of these as commandments tells me that both are necessary for the Christian. I should hope that we do not lightly reject opportunities to step outside of our comfort zones in living out our mission as Christians.
Does the practice of love of neighbor mean treating the church at Mass like the parish hall at coffee hour? By no means! I agree with the suggestions I’ve seen that priority in the sign of peace ought to be exchange it with those in the immediate area rather than one person on the other side of the chapel that you happen to know instead of any of the 50 other people between you, but I get the definite feeling that most of the people who complain about any abuses in the sign of peace are preaching to the choir at best.
Further proof of concept: #3 on this list, from the same author as the blog post cited above:
The rite of peace has a long tradition in the Roman Rite dating to the earliest centuries. It was mostly restricted to the clergy. There are arguments and disputes about whether extending it to the congregation is a revival of a lost tradition or an innovation. Regardless, this much we do know: it is not supposed to be a micro-social hour that encourages people to mill around as if at a cocktail party.
In general, this whole part of the Mass invites confusion and awkwardness, and no matter how much we try to solemnize it, it still has more of the feeling of a civic or social activity than a truly liturgical one. At best it is a distraction. At worst, it can result in hurt feelings and all around confusion.
I don’t doubt that the people who criticize the Sign of Peace do so because they want to see a greater reverence for Christ, truly present in the Eucharist. However, the solution to any seeming abuse in the sign of peace is not to remove the activity, but to make it more clearly liturgical in nature. This involves a more pastoral approach than the one Mr. Tucker seems to favor, which looks for any excuse to omit or otherwise downplay the Sign of Peace. I would like to think that the more theological exploration of the practice which I have laid out is slightly more pastoral, but that is not for me to judge. It seems to me, however, that a positive framing of the sign of peace might lead to the diminishing of the apparent abuses without losing the good that can come out of the practice.