Sign of peace: Are gestures replacing handshakes, hugs?

Some members of a youth group exchange a fist bump while others wave during the Mass for Life Jan. 22 at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.
Some members of a youth group exchange a fist bump while others wave during the Mass for Life Jan. 22 at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

While there are no longer formal restrictions on embracing in church, Catholics may have noticed there is a lot less of it going on in one part of the Mass after the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the priest or deacon says, “Let us offer each other a sign of peace,” many parishioners are not reaching across the pews to exchange a handshake or a hug. Instead, a flash of a peace sign or a wave seems to have become the preferred gesture to those near them.

“I have noticed this,” said Jennifer Rader, a member of Christ the King Church in Little Rock. “I will shake hands with anyone around me, but if they are reluctant, I don’t push it. I just smile and wave. I tend to wave to people further away, more so than I used to.”

Rader, a nurse anesthetist, speculates that COVID has conditioned people to associate touching other people with germs, and they are reluctant to shake hands right before using them to take Communion.

“That may insinuate we are still afraid of catching a cold or virus,” she said.

Because priests, deacons and altar servers are giving each other the sign of peace on the pulpit and preparing for Communion, they don’t always notice how parishioners conduct themselves during this part of the Mass.

“To be honest, I only catch a glimpse of what parishioners are doing at the sign of peace, as I am giving the sign of peace to the altar servers and the other volunteers on the altar. Even so, after some of the restrictions were lifted, I noticed there was still a tendency to wave or give some other non-contact gesture during the Mass,” Father Stephen Elser, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Pocahontas, St. John the Baptist Church in Engelberg and St. Joseph the Worker Church in Corning, said. “There are some Catholics who may think twice now about their gestures in Mass.”

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is the governing document for how the Mass is to be celebrated, during the Rite of Peace, “the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial Communion and mutual charity before communicating in the sacrament. As for the actual sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples” (GIRM 82).

“The purpose of the sign of peace (is) to show forth peace and unity among those present in the church before receiving the Eucharist,” Father Elser said. “In essence, we show forth our connection as the ‘body of Christ’ before receiving the ‘body of Christ’ in the Eucharist. I think a handshake, a hug, a wave or some other gesture is able to get that theological point across.”

Father John Antony, JCL, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith and Our Lady of the Ozarks Shrine in Winslow, said changes in parishioners’ behavior post-pandemic are understandable.

“Some prudent precautions are not out of order when we celebrate the Eucharist as a community of faith,” Father Antony said. “The transmission of viruses and bacteria are real and can seriously jeopardize a vulnerable person’s health. Hence, care for the most vulnerable should be a high priority at Mass as well.

“Here at I.C., the priests, deacons and Eucharistic ministers all sanitize our hands before distributing holy Communion. In addition, we give the sign of peace with a fist bump to the altar servers, although I do give the deacons a hug. We are trying to show that both are acceptable but to use some common sense, too. The best rule of thumb is to try to see what makes someone else comfortable and do that to put them at ease.”

Father Jason Tyler, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville and Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Lincoln, and diocesan bioethicist, said some people are more contact-oriented than others, but COVID made others more hesitant to have physical contact. As the result of habits formed during the COVID years, people are not shaking hands as much as before the pandemic.

“Even before COVID, we always had a few people who didn’t want any physical contact, so I expect we’ll have some in the post-Covidic era as well,” he said.

That can make for awkward moments when a touchy-feely person interacts with someone who resists physical contact.

“Some people are more cautious than others; some express positive feelings through physical contact — handshakes, embraces, etc. — more than others.”

“We all show love and respect in different ways, and it’s important for us to be able to acknowledge that during the celebration of the Mass,” Father Elser said. “I would say to be respectful and loving to however another person chooses to display the sign of peace or after Mass, when I am greeting people outside, I always do my best to respect how people wish to greet me. Some people like to give a handshake, others a simple wave, others like to hug, while others just want to say ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ as they walk by.”

“Within reason, I would advise people to do what they feel is necessary for their own health and safety,” Father Elser said. “If you feel the need to wear a mask during Mass, please do so. If you feel the need to wave at the person next to you during the sign of peace, that is perfectly acceptable. We, as the body of Christ, want to respect and love each other at all times, but especially during Mass so that we can be united in our celebration and reception of the body of Christ in the Eucharist.”

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