The sign of peace “breaks up the Mass and, when conveyed with zealotry, transforms it into something it’s really not supposed to be: part hippie love fest, part election campaign (there’s always one fellow who dashes through the pews, clasping hands like he’s chasing votes).” He really doesn’t like the peace, explains the English historian Tim Stanley, a convert, writing in the Catholic Herald. “I’ve even witnessed a full-blown snog,” he says.
Stanley — a writer whose Daily Telegraph weblog I quite like — explains his objections: “For me, the peace challenges what I like most about the Catholic Mass — namely, the privacy of prayer. When I first attended a Mass I was struck by the wonderful anonymity. . . . If nothing else, it’s important to remind people that Mass isn’t a celebration of the community at all. It’s the community come together to receive the sacraments and worship God. There’s plenty of chance to exchange a sign of peace in the pub afterwards.”
Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s not a celebration of the community, but no, the community is not just the group that happens to come together as individuals at Mass. It’s the extended, mutually engaged network a parish ought to be. (The word “community,” let me say, is a dangerous one to use, as it seems to warp how people understand the authentic communioinherent inecclesia, especially when people speak of the “faith community” or “community of faith” as a way of avoiding saying “the Church.” But it’s the word Stanley used.)
The peace we give each other at Mass symbolizes this investment and reminds us of the Source. It should, if we are thinking about what we are saying and doing, encourage us to make a greater investment in our parish than many of us — I speak of myself here — do. The parish gives us one of the few chances most of us have to be forced to deal charitably with people who aren’t like us. We will have to do so in our work but those relations are calculated and governed by rules similar to the rules of combat. But relationships that are voluntary and governed by the rules of charity, those most of us only manage in the parish.
Our local parish is one place, probably the main place, where we meet the neighbor Jesus said to love as ourselves. “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor,” Chesterton wrote in his early book Heretics:
Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbor.
We may enjoy performing what we take to be our duty towards humanity. “We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting.”
But our neighbor, however, him we have to love “because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.”
It’s the ritualized encounter with the most terrible of beasts that makes the peace so important. Of course it could be more reverently observed in many churches, as I’ve observed, responding to something Pope Benedict said in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. As a symbol, it works best when you’re stuck with only the people you can reach. You may be with family or friends but everyone else you can reach may be friends but they may also be strangers or people you don’t like or who don’t like you or strangers of whom you have no opinion whatever. Standing in front of you may be a couple who’ve annoyed you for the last forty minutes by whispering back and forth about their lunch plans. Standing behind you may be the person you think of as your own personal Nero.
Whatever you think of them, to them you say “The peace of the Lord be with you.” You’re supposed to try to mean it, even when speaking to Nero and that annoying inconsiderate couple. That’s something deeper than community and fellowship as we tend to define them, as the elevation or intensifying of natural relationships. It expresses the breaking of natural enmities through Christ and the creation of a community and fellowship marked by its transformation of natural relationships, the good ones as well as the bad.
The peace is the act of meeting our neighbor that symbolizes and focuses the friendship we should have with him outside Mass. This should make the more, um, exuberant expressions easier for people like me and Stanley to bear. In even the most appalling abuse of the symbol, our neighbors are doing something they enjoy and forbearance is part of loving our neighbor as ourselves.