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Liturgy: Can Priest Go Down Aisle at the Kiss of Peace?

10/29/2003 - 5:00 AM PST

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ROME, OCT. 28, 2003 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Is it OK for the priest to come down during the peace offering to shake hands with the congregation? I hear this is wrong and I'd really like to know if it is or not since it makes me uneasy about our doing something inappropriate. -- I.S., San Ysidro, California

A: The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), with approved adaptations for the United States, refers to this question in No. 154: "The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord with the decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a sign that expresses peace."

For the moment the above exceptions, which are quite reasonable, apply only within the United States as almost no other episcopal conference has submitted a translation for the Holy See's approval.

The reason the GIRM dwells on this point is to put the kiss of peace into its proper context as a brief, and relatively unimportant rite in preparation for Communion; in fact, few realize that it is actually optional. It is the forthcoming Communion, not the priest, nor the good feelings we harbor toward our neighbors, that is the reason and source of the peace we desire for our fellows and the peace we receive from them. As GIRM 82 says, in the Rite of Peace: "the Church asks for 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."

So, when the celebrant walks down the aisle shaking hands, the gesture, despite his good intentions, tends to inordinately draw attention to his person, as if he, and not the Lord, were the source of the peace that only Christ can give. Sometimes we priests can forget that being a "Pontifex" means being a bridge, and a bridge serves its purpose only when we walk over it, not when we admire it from a distance.

The gestures of the faithful, while respecting local custom, they should avoid excess exuberance and ebullience, again according to GIRM 82: "as to the sign of peace to be given, the manner is to be established by Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner."

At the same time when this rite is done well it can be very effective spiritually. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, for example, has written of the powerful impression caused by witnessing this gesture at a Catholic Mass as he struggled to leave behind radical atheism and find, first belief in God, and eventually, acceptance of the Catholic faith.

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Follow-up: Extraordinary Ministers

To judge by the large amount of correspondence, it seems that our reply regarding the use of extraordinary ministers has touched a nerve (see Oct. 14). Many of the messages received serve to confirm that many Catholics perceive a widespread overuse of extraordinary ministers. Some follow-up questions, however, allow me to expand on my original reply although it is impossible for me to respond to all of the queries.

As stated before, priests and deacons, unless physically impaired, should not sit down and omit administering holy Communion. They may be assisted, but not substituted, by other ministers.

These extraordinary ministers, according to GIRM 162, "should not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the priest celebrant the vessel containing either species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful." The deacon also receives Communion after the priest and from his hands.

A reader from Rome asked if an instituted acolyte were not also an ordinary minister. Properly speaking he is not, but he does have precedence, in the sense that, should an extraordinary minister be required, he should be called upon first before anybody else. Also, in the absence of the deacon, the acolyte may purify the sacred vessels, something that is not permitted to other extraordinary ministers (although the United States has received an indult allowing them to assist in the purification in cases of necessity).

After the instituted acolyte, the usual order of preference for designating extraordinary ministers is to first choose an ...

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