My recent column, “The Snub of Peace,” drew more substantial direct responses from people on our mailing list that anything else I’ve written, and its republication on the Imaginative Conservative website likewise elicited more comments than any of my dozens of other pieces archived there. The reason for the responses is not hard to find. For many Catholics, the “sign of peace” has become a test of thoughts and feelings about the Church today. Ironically (since peace is the question), it exposes a persistent divide in the way people experience the Mass.
Many of the people who responded to my column gave me a quick “amen,” sometimes adding that they had experienced the same kind of snub that irritated me. Other respondents were disappointed that I had judged the motives of those reluctant to share a sign of peace with their neighbors in the pews. The reasons could be subtle, as they rightly pointed out, and by ascribing attitudes of righteous superiority and Pharisaism to everyone who avoids the sign of peace, I was forgetting that motives differ. A sample of these thoughtful comments can be found below, with my gratitude to their authors.
Dr. Glenn Arbery
The Church is contending with the balance between unity and doctrine. Doctrine is divisive. Unity is indiscriminate. The sign of peace is part of this broader issue. How do we maintain both doctrine and unity? I would say with charity.
Worldwide and even in America we have different cultures. I grew up in rural Vermont, a reserved and insular place. An anecdote about Mark Twain describes this:
The eminent humorist Samuel Clemens, who spoke and wrote under the name Mark Twain, at one time appeared before a gathering of Vermont natives in the town of Brattleboro, Vermont. During his allotted time on the platform, he told story after story that, before other audiences, had brought gales of laughter.
These Vermonters, however, never cracked a smile.
Afterward, Clemens decided that he would mingle with the crowd to try to learn why the reaction had been so unfavorable. Standing nearby a carriage into which a man from the audience was lifting his wife, Clemens heard him say:
“Mabel, you know, that speaker was real good. It was all I could do to keep from laughing.”
When I went to college in Fairfield, Iowa I had to adapt to the midwestern culture which is much more open. Where Vermonters are polite and taciturn, Iowans are effusive and friendly.
An Iowan whom you have just met will pepper you with personal questions, where a Vermonter will keep the topics more general. The Iowan is being friendly and welcoming, the Vermonter sees rude and invasive. Conversely, the Vermonter is being polite and respectful, the Iowan sees snubbing and rudeness. Intent and perception are very different things.
I also saw this reserved vs. open difference in Slavic countries Slovenia, Slovakia, and Poland. The wide smile of an American can be seen as off-putting or even mocking in the Slavic culture.
Vermonters and Californians are like oil and water. I remember the first time of hearing “love you, mean it” as a salutation. First, love is not a cheap trinket, second, you don’t say that casually anyway, and third, why would you have to say “mean it” unless your were lying most of the time? To a Vermonter it sounds shallow and insincere.
I find Wyoming to be a nice blend of friendly without being invasive. I imagine it is part of outlaw culture. People came here to get away from all kinds of things. They needed to establish that someone they met was not a threat and to connect with them for mutual benefit, but to be careful not to be looking for skeletons. Hence, friendly and open but not prying.
You characterized a lack of return of the sign of peace as “high-minded repudiation…pitying reproach…[attribution of another as being] deeply ignorant…a little assertion of their own superiority…” These are highly divisive attributions. The person who is keeping to themselves may or may not be feeling any of this, and may or may not intend the messages you are assuming. You feel a certain way about their response. You are having a reaction. But this is your reaction, not necessarily their intended message.
As a recent Catholic convert, I try hard to adapt. It is a great blessing to be at Mass among fellow Christians. I certainly don’t feel any superiority or animosity toward a friendly parishioner. I see the sign of peace as an awkward intrusion, both culturally and in my understanding. Even so I always try to respond politely no matter how uncomfortable it is for me. But I don’t feel obligated to encourage it.
Please consider that the sign of peace may not be appropriate at that time and place, that approaching a fellow Christian and seeking validation for your perception is a slightly aggressive act, that they may be uncomfortable with breaking the flow of the Mass, and that they deserve charity for whatever failings they have rather than condemnation. You have placed the onus on those who are uncomfortable with the sign of peace. Please consider that perhaps, rather than the fault lying with another, it may be with your own perception.
I prefer a respectful, solemn Mass but I’ll take what I can get. Up to a point. Discomfort is my problem, heresy is a bigger issue. Can we allow ourselves to show Christian love toward those who we disagree with? Can we, despite our understanding and preferences, still allow the preferences of others without attributing foul motives?
I look forward each week to your wonderful newsletter and am so grateful in general for Wyoming Catholic College.
I was rather taken aback by your newsletter this week, however. Why the attack on your brothers and sisters in Christ? Are you intimately familiar with the hearts and minds of those who prefer not to partake in the sign of the peace? Is it any more fair to claim this is based in high-minded repudiation than it would be to say that someone who does give the sign of the peace has little regard for the solemnity of the sacrifice of the Mass and the Truth of the real presence in the eucharist?
At my parish, we do not do the sign of peace. Thus, this is what I am used to and I am uncomfortable when I am at a Mass where it is done. I don’t partake actively, but if someone turns around and gives me peace I return in kind. I do not feel superior, it’s just that I’d rather not and I don’t see it as a requirement. May God forgive me if I’m wrong. I have been to Masses where the priest omits the sign of peace and there are some parishioners who do it anyway. I don’t judge them or their intentions, but figure it’s just what they are used to and thus more comfortable with.
Why castigate the laity for the chaos and disunity caused by the vagaries of the post-VII liturgy and the GIRM instructions? Let us presume the best intentions in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ while we wait and pray for increased unity and clarity in our liturgical practices that may heal the wounds that the devil uses to pit us one against the other.
I want to first of all thank you for your piece about the Sign of Peace. I am one of those people who over the last few years has begun to simply look down during that part of Mass in order to discourage others from making the sign to me. I have honestly never viewed my actions from the point of view of the person looking at me. Our priest does not even say “Now let us offer each other a sign of peace” anymore. The pianist just starts the Agnus Dei making it easier to avoid. I didn’t think my looking down would affect anyone, so again, sincerely, thank you for being honest about this.
The last few years have been difficult for many of us. I, like many others, have only recently discovered exactly what we lost with the changes to the Mass in 1969. During the lockdowns I wept over the lack of faith and courage of the bishops around the world. Many like myself struggle with how to best reverence Christ in the Mass while still attending a Novus Ordo where people applaud and priests make jokes standing behind the altar. I struggle trying to wade through which of my actions are genuine reverence and which of them are just my pride.
So I suppose I’m asking for you to think the best of those around you who do not look up during the sign of peace. Hopefully, most of them are like me, wanting with all our might to show Jesus in those moments the most attention and adoration we can, even when it feels like the men and women on and around the altar don’t seem to care.
Pray for them. Pray for me. I will most definitely take your words to heart and reach out a little more.