When Everything Old is New Again

In response to a worldwide consultation requested by Pope Benedict XVI, the U.S. Bishops have recommended moving the sign of peace from its present location just before Communion to an earlier point in the Mass – after the scripture readings and before the offertory, or the presentation of gifts.
– John L. Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter. Read the full story here.

This front-page story jumped out at me as I brought this week’s NCR into the apartment, and I grumbled, “why are they trying to change the way we’ve always done it?” Meaning, of course, the way I’ve always done it. So now I’ve officially become one of those Grumpy Old Catholics. Or maybe this is the beginning of Grumpy Old Catholics: the Next Generation. In any case, I’m feeling very resistant to the idea of changing the liturgical norms I’ve grown up with.

But it’s not a simple matter of wanting things to stay the same just for the sake of familiarity. The liturgical tug-of-war currently going on in the Church is about what kind of Sacramental experience we bring to, and take from, the Mass. And the Sacraments, the point at which life and metaphor intersect, are key to how we as Catholics experience our Faith.

This strikes me as just the latest version of an ideological division in how Catholics view (ironically) the Sacrament of Communion. I call it (somewhat simplistically) “Eucharist” versus “Communion” — where Eucharist focuses on the outward signs of the Sacrament, while Communion looks more to the meaning behind it. Eucharist wants to worship Christ present in the gifts on the altar; Communion prefers Christ present within the community.

I heard once of a small monastery of contemplative Franciscans (I forget where, or who they are) who would spend about half their day in Eucharistic Adoration, then spend the rest of the day in the streets of the city attending to the needs of Christ in the poorest and neediest of the homeless population. And it seems to me that they understand better than most of us how the one part of the Sacrament feeds the other.

Which is why, ultimately, I would hope to see the sign of peace remain where it is. Because the ideological divide I describe is false; it breaks apart what ought to be united. So it seems to me good and proper that, in the middle of our celebration of Eucharist we pause to recognize our Communion.

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7 thoughts on “When Everything Old is New Again

  1. I agree, Josh
    What makes anyone think that moving the sign of peace is going to solve the problem of our being distracted from the the prayer that is the mass? I think the US bishops are not seeing the forest for the trees. If their congregation becomes too “distracted” during the sign of peace, moving it to a different point in the mass is not going to quiet people down. So the message now being sent is “the noisyness and high-fiving that occurs is OK in the new location of the sign of peace, because reflecting on the scriptures and preparing an offering are just not important parts of the mass.”

  2. I have to say, I sympathize with the pro-moving-it camp. I like a big ol’ Sign of Peace–one of my best church experiences was in a large Catholic Church in Jamaica where the Mass literally stopped for about 15 minutes while everyone filled the aisles, shared peace with all their friends, and approached to welcome us (rather obvious) visitors. But it is kind of hard after that to return your mind to paying attention and your heart to waiting. A better way to include the sense of “Communion” in a Eucharist that is still reverent would be to have several EM’s who represent the diversity of the congregation and have them assisting at the altar or standing near it during the rite. Some parishes already do this. The rubrics could also be changed so the entire congregation speaks the words of imposition, as they do at CTA liturgies.

  3. As I once heard, whew, glad they nipped that problem in the bud.

    I mean really, with all that is going on in our Church, they make changes here? And I’m not even normally fixated on the negative.

    I suppose life has to go on, certain things will continue when other things stand still. But I’m just a bit frustrated. Even though I’m all for positive changes; but I can’t even reflect on that yet!

  4. I believe the sign of peace practice by the faithful in the pews is only optional and I wish it were dropped completely. The sign of peace, in most places I have been it has become an “us-centered” mockery which invites irreverence and bad manners. Let our focus be on God.

  5. I find this interesting and curious; I’ve never seen any of the kinds of irreverent behavior or bad manners that people talk about. Maybe New Englanders are just more reserved…?

    I suppose you could say the sign of peace is “optional” in the same way any participation in the Mass is optional — technically we’re only required to show up, and to take communion once a year. So everything else is optional, you’re right.

    But spiritually, we only hurt ourselves by not participating.

  6. Josh – That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’m saying is that regarding the sign of peace, I believe it is at the option of the Priest whether or not to invite the congregation to make the sign of peace.

    We receive communion, we don’t take it. While we do hurt ourselves by not participating, I wouldn’t think that our participation at mass should be measured by how many hands we shake, or how many different options we employ during the mass.

  7. wow. great stuff.

    the eucharist is about so many things. the truth flow and flows from it. it’s an inclusive table of love, a source of unity with God, a strength for the outreach of gospel living called peacemaking.
    i love the sign of peace right where it is. communion is about community and i get so excited about celebrating the love of neighbor right next to me in the pew. then that excited energy brings me to God, prepares me, humbles me into a state of awe to receive the Word made Flesh and unite in that love more fully. it’s so rad.
    if it changed, as things do, i am sure i would still be awe-struck and excited. but it sure would be an adjustment.

    i am a franciscan in a eucharistic community, but i don’t think it’s the community you’re talking about. my community is the franciscan sisters of perpetual adoration. we’ve had adoration 24/7 for over 131 years, the longest adoration in the USA, it’s believed. the adoration continues at the motherhouse through the work and ministry of a lot of the retired and local sisters and our community’s lay prayer partners. i live 5 hours away and live a great ministerial life of prayer and service to some of the most beautiful chlidren of God. I teach inner-city high schoolers about the Kingdom of God, social justice and global citizenship. Just like me, these teenagers are needy and poor. We learn a lot together. I am strengthened by the unity of prayer and eucharist in community for my tough ministry.

    Love it.

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