I often describe my personality as being “an introvert with extrovert Tourette’s” — I’m a hardwired introvert but I like people so I always end up putting myself in social situations, usually to the discomfort of all involved. Perhaps a more accurate description would be just “socially awkward.”
Because of this, my second-least favorite part of Mass is when we offer our fellow parishioners the sign of peace (my least favorite part is when one or both of my children throw a tantrum, though I hear that that is not actually an official part of the Tridentine Mass).
When I first went to church a couple of years ago, I was completely caught off guard by this practice. I was sitting there, minding my own business, when the priest said:
Let us offer each other the sign of peace.
And suddenly people started interacting with one another. “What?!” I thought, “This is chaos! Offer who the sign of peace? The people in front of me? The people behind me? Ack! I just made eye contact with that guy a couple rows up! Do I have to now shake his hand as well?” And though these days I’m not quite as shocked as the first time I experienced it, to a socially awkward person like myself this whole process just seems like anarchy, rife with opportunities for me to do something inappropriate and/or offensive.
I would like to propose that we change this part of the Mass. Perhaps we could all just stand quietly and think something nice about the people around us. Or, if we must interact, I would propose that the priest offer a little more clarity on the matter to prevent it from being the unruly hand-shaking free-for-all that it currently is. I suggest the following:
In a moment we are going to participate in a ritual in which we offer one another the sign of peace. The introverted and the socially awkward may want to take a moment to prepare yourselves, as this involves speaking to and even touching the people around you.
Offering the sign of peace involves shaking the hand of another person and saying the words “peace be with you, ” and preferably includes a smile and at least one full second of eye contact.
Offer the sign of peace to all persons within a four foot radius of where you are seated. This includes people seated in front of and behind you. If, however, any of the people within this radius are part of a group, it is customary to offer the sign of peace to everyone within the group, up to a maximum of ten people. It is acceptable though not preferable to pretend like you are not able to lean over far enough to shake all of their hands and alternatively offer a small wave and lip-synch silently, “Peace be with you.” Some parishioners may choose in this case to spice things up by pantomiming an “air handshake” in lieu of a wave, though this is not required.
Offer to shake the hand of anyone over the age of two. You do not need to shake the hands of very young children and babies, though you are required to acknowledge them and comment on their cuteness.
In the even that there is nobody seated within a four foot radius of you, you must offer the sign of peace to the following people:
- anyone seated in your same pew, even if outside the four foot radius, provided that there are fewer than five people total in the pew; and
- anyone seated anywhere in the pews in front of or behind you, even if outside the four foot radius, provided that there are fewer than five people total in either of said pews.
It is not acceptable to pretend to forget about the people seated directly to the rear of you. This is sometimes called the “Jennifer F. Dodge” and is frowned upon by the Church.
If there is nobody in your pew, the pew in front of you or the pew behind you, you are not required to offer the sign of peace to people more than one pew away, though the wave and lip-synch method (see above) is recommended if there is anyone two pews in front of or behind you.
You may safely ignore anyone seated more than two pews in front of or behind you, provided that you do not make eye contact with them. You must at least smile at anyone with whom you make eye contact during this time. It is not acceptable to pretend that you need to tie your shoe or brush something off your shirt in order to avoid eye contact with others; this is another form of the “Jennifer F. Dodge” and is strongly discouraged.
If you are seated on an aisle, you are not required to offer the sign of peace to those seated across the aisle from you, though it is fine to do so. The wave and lip-synch method (see above) is also acceptable in this circumstance.
It is acceptable to say only “peace be with you”. If so inclined, you may feel free to include additional spontaneous salutations such as “hi” or “good morning”, but the Church does not require that you do so.
It is customary to wait a full thirty seconds before wiping your hands with antibacterial towelettes.
And now, let us offer each other the sign of peace.
Now that’s the kind of interaction with the public that I can handle.
I recently had a Birkman personality assessment done and the administrator joked that I may have missed my true calling to be a desert hermit. Sometime I think she was right.
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