The Sign of Peace? I'm as frustrated with it as Basil Faulty with poor Manwell's well-meaning incompetence.
One of the liturgical practices that has most often landed me in hot water over the years and earned approbation, condemnation and censure has been the Sign of Peace. Over the years I have come to offer the instruction to the congregation to exchange the Sign of Peace less and less, so that now it is a great rarity in for me to do so in the OF of Mass. This has, of course, been accompanied by catechesis but because of the prevalent mode of exchanging the Sign of Peace, no matter what catechesis was given, it always became the occasion for something that it is not meant to be. I have deemed that as it was not taking place properly, the legitimate option to omit it should be taken. Although, of course, it is verbally exchanged between priest and people, whether the action is included or not.
Now, finally, the Congregation for the Sacraments has issued a letter which makes it clear that all those things which I have often been criticised for not doing or not allowing are, in fact, ABUSES which it will be "definitively necessary to avoid." (to quote Cardinal Canizares.)
"If it is foreseen that it will not take place properly due to specific circumstances or if it is not considered pedagogically wise to carry it out on certain occasions, it can be omitted and sometimes ought to be omitted. It is worth recalling that the rubric from the Missal states: "Then, if appropriate, the deacon or the priest adds, 'Let us offer each other the sign of peace.'"
On the basis of these observations it may be advisable that conferences of bishops should consider whether it might not be advisable to change the manner of giving peace... For example, in those places where familiar or profane gestures were previously chosen, they could be replaced with other more appropriate gestures.In any case, it will be definitively necessary to avoid abuses such as:The introduction of a "song of peace", which is non-existent in the Roman Rite.The movement of the faithful from their places to exchange the sign of peace amongst themselves.The departure of the priest from the altar to give the sign of peace to some of the faithful.That in certain circumstances, such as Easter, Christmas, first Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Ordinations and funerals, the exchange of peace being the occasion for expressing congratulations, best wishes or condolences."
Sadly, although this letter has been issued under the auspices of Pope Francis, I don't suppose all those who supposedly laud him to the skies will take any more notice of this than if it had been issued under Pope Benedict or Pope John Paul. I shouldn't hold my breath waiting for Liturgy Offices up and down the country to start workshops or produce publicity about this particular Franciscan directive to take effect.
The letter also makes it clear that the Sign of Peace is to remain in the place during Mass which is assigned to it in the Missal. I have experienced occasions here in the diocese where it has been moved around to other parts of the Mass. One of the problems with this is that the same lack of understanding of what it is meant to be were not tackled and so the usual free-for-all took place. As with so many other parts of the liturgy and of the Faith itself, the Christian gesture, teaching or symbol is emptied of its Faith content and we are left with a hollow secular meaning dressed up in Christian clothing. I believe Our Lord referred to such instances as "whitened Sepulchres".
There was a time when the Church could take on pagan symbols, gestures and places and make them Her own but now the process seems most often to be working in reverse: we take on the secular and embrace all that goes with it instead of changing it. Meanwhile, the secular world makes full outward use of our Christian heritage - candles, angels, demons, baptism, first Communion - but imbues them with its own degraded meanings. The Devil must not only be dancing but taking classes in the Fandango to celebrate!
My thanks to Fr Ray Blake for drawing my attention to the letter and, of course, he has some eminently sensible observations of his own on the subject.