The sign of peace for the socially awkward

June 25, 2007 | 34 comments

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.


  1. Jeff Miller

    I think the biggest problem with the sign of peace is for one it’s placement disrupts the Mass, and the other is that people have this idea that they need to shake everybody’s hands withing a hundred feet of them.

    The Sign of Peace is optional in the liturgy. I once went to a Dominican parish where it was omitted and I was amazed at how much better the Mass flowed without this awkward interruption.

  2. Jeron

    I wish it would go away.

  3. majellamom

    Okay, I have to admit, I enjoy the sign of peace! (you’d want to avoid sitting near me in Mass…)

    But this made me think of something very funny that recently happened…

    We attended the wedding of a college friend. She had my hubby and another friend from college as readers. Because of the layout of the church, the three of us were seated on the groom’s side. He’s a convert…none of his family is Catholic.

    At the sign of peace, I turned to the guy behind me and shook his hand and said “peace be with you”…he responded “well, thank you very much! That’s very kind of you!”

    Apparently, he said the same thing to my hubby…

    Communion was fun as well…the groomsmen all went up, and I think the first one accidentally recieved communion, because he looked terrified (the priest said that people could come up for a blessing, but didn’t explain how to distinguish that!)…and then NO ONE else from our side got up at all…finally, I just lead the way up…the whole other side of the church was Catholic…

    Too funny! Gotta love weddings!

  4. Anonymous

    I always whip out the hand sanitizing gel right after the dreaded “sign of peace”. Tough if others find it “offensive”.

  5. Milehimama

    Well, you could always take the opportunity to busy yourself retying the sash of your daughters dress, re-wrapping the baby blanket, or, if all else fails, giving each of your own children the sign of peace. Twice.

    Works for me!

    Seriously, I don’t like the sign of peace for the opposite reason. I’m a talker. Shaking a quick hand and saying “Peace be with you” seems so fake to me, I feel like a total hypocrite. What I WANT to be doing is asking where the lady got her bracelet, how is her mother doing, and what on earth am I going to do with all the pears on my tree? Not shaking hands quickly and going back to the Liturgy.

    But then again, I’m a newbie to the Novus Ordo, I was raised inLatin Mass circles so you know, normal life and the spirit of Vat II and all just boggles my mind. 🙂

  6. Matilda

    I have attended Novus Ordo Masses where the Sign/Kiss/Party of Peace is skipped and it does “flow better”. I have also done the “I’m too busy taking care of children” to avoid it bit but I felt uncharitable.

    Cold and flu season is the worst time of year for it and I have often wished an epidemic of bird/cat/fish/whatever flu would prompt the Bishops to make a permanent change.

  7. Denise

    I have to admit, I love it. I find it a time to connect, albeit briefly, with my fellow parishoners. Just enough time though, a quick break to remind us we’re all here together and then back to “business”.

    I do like the Mainers’ habits of just nodding to one another during the winter. Saves on germs.

    I guess I can see how some people find it disruptive, but I think its a good reminder that we are there to share the eucharist with each other.

    Your ideas for the rules, had me laughing out loud. Thanks for the insight!

  8. Michelle

    What’s so wrong with the sign of peace? It is just a way to reach out to our neighbors and wish to them what Jesus wished to us, peace. When I was at some point being annoyed by the sign of peace I came to think of how Jesus greated his friend and apostles ” Peace be with you” he always said, and then I saw that our reaching out to our neighbors in this way was an extension of that. It took on a whole new meaning. Or are we to be so self absorbed in our own Mass that we cannot extend a friendly hand? Many protestants that convert to catholicis say they miss that friendly aspect of the people, that catholics are too serious. Let’s not live up to that label, it is just a hand shake. The sign of peace can be respectful without being distracting or become a whole ordeal. Just turn to your sides and extend your hands. No need to get complicated. It is being charitable.

  9. Sarahndipity

    “An introvert with extrovert Tourette’s” – love that! I think that describes me too. 🙂

    Despite that I’ve never had too much trouble with the sign of peace, although it’s probably because I’m a cradle Catholic and therefore used to it. I can see how it would be very disconcerting to someone who has never been to mass! I loved your description of what the priest should say.

    I remember when I was a kid I was always too shy to shake people’s hands. My 3-year-old daughter, on the other hand (no pun intended), shakes hands with everyone in sight. I don’t think she really knows what’s going on, but she loves to do it. Go figure.

  10. Anna

    My 5 year old daughter also shakes hands with everyone in sight. She is the extrovert of the family. I have always liked the sign of peace. Recently, I realized that it was the perfect opportunity to make my son and daughter make up with each other after fighting over who got to sit where in the pew. This way my son has some chance of going up to communion in the right frame of mind. Instead of being focused on wanting to kill his little sister. It is a reminder that we should all wish each other well and forgive each other as we would be forgiven.


  11. SteveG

    I have always liked the sign of peace. It was always my favorite part of the mass as a kid and I recall feeling so ‘grown up’ as I was being taken seriously enough to shake hands with the big people. Being raised a cultural Catholic who left the church shortly after confirmation, it’s one of the few parts of the liturgy that I clearly remember and look back fondly on.

    For all you naysayers, consider yourselves lucky. According to Saint Justin Martyr, and probably the earliest detailed description of the mass that we have, the sign of peace used to be the ‘kiss of peace’, as in a literal kiss. We get off easy with a handshake. 😛

    In all fairness, while it was a kiss, the ancient liturgies do indeed indicate (and I agree with Jeff’s assessment) that it’s just not in the right place and does kinda mess with the flow of the liturgy. It seems that it should really take place before the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins (i.e. before the gifts are brought forward) and not smack in the middle of it.

  12. Sarah L.

    You crack me up!

    On a related note, there ought to be rules for the holding of hands during the Our Father in parishes where that is the custom. I was sitting at the end of the pew with my baby in my arms. The only other person in the pew was waaaaaay at the other end (having come in after the homily- at the noon Mass!). As the Our Father began the man started towards me with his hand extended. I smiled and kind of indicated that I was using both hands to hold the baby, who is at that stage where she’ll suddenly jerk backwards. No, there was no stopping this man. He took my hand and said “You need BOTH hands to hold her?” “I might,” I said. I did hold his hand, but can’t we just leave people alone who can’t/don’t want to hold hands?

  13. Milehimama

    In all charity, the purpose of the Mass is not for us to “share the Eucharist with each other”.

    We do participate together though. I have no problem greeting people, it is just the placement in the Mass. The liturgy should be a crescendo, gradually building to a zenith when God Himself becomes present among us… to me the sign of peace interrupts the flow, and deadens the anticipation.

    Besides, a GREETING should take place BEFORE we’ve all been standing, sitting, kneeling, and praying next to each other for 45 minutes…

  14. Melody J

    Consider yourself lucky that you only have to shake hands with those closest to you. I’ve been in Catholic churches where the majority of the congregation goes wandering all over the church looking for people they know so they can hug them! Talk about disruptive!! I’m blessed enough to be in a traditional parish where that kind of thing doesn’t happen and the organist makes sure the sign of peace doesn’t go on too long by starting the Agnes Dei after less than 30 seconds. But I’ve visited churches where they wandered all over and attended retreats where EVERYBODY got hugged by EVERYBODY ELSE! Not pretty, not conducive to good liturgy, not something I care to experience ever again!

  15. Anonymous

    I agree…I think it is disruptive and the meaning of it is gone. I also am in a parish where ppl go around hugging/talking but at least it seems they r trying to get it under control by starting the music and choir singing asap so ppl will stop but it amazes me how many ppl will still continue even as the choir is singing. I think a nod and a silent peace be with you to the ppl beside you is sufficiant.

  16. Adoro te Devote

    I hate it.

    As I’m single and thus usually go to Mass by myself, I usually stand there looking around like an idiot waiting for someone to acknowledge my presence, because all the large families or groups around me are so busy congratulating each other and hugging the kids (actually, the kids are usually the firs to reach out to me – take a hint, adults), that they completely miss the fact that the sign of peace can be extended to the person standing next to them that happens not to be related by blood.

    I’ve never bitten anyone during the Sign of Peace. Tempted once, but held back.

    Long ago I learned to watch out for other singles, and even if I have to turn around to do it, we tend to see each other and have a certain solidarity and understanding of our own exclusion by virtue of being excluded in some way from our own families.

    I went to a Mass where they simply stated the Sign of Peace and we were never invited to exchange it…it was awesome.

    The time to socialize is NOT during Mass. Anyone saying that Catholics can be more friendly, I agree…but as, during the Mass, we are there to worship God and not our neighbor’s dress, children, lipstick, hair, vocal abilities during the hymns, etc, well, let’s not worry about socializing during worship. Let’s save that for AFTER Mass when it’s appropriate.

  17. Melora

    I like your rules! We are Episcopalians, and our church in Florida did the exchange of peace according to your guidelines (though without the intro., since everyone knew the routine). We moved up to North Carolina last summer, and were shocked to find that the exchange of peace in churches here is much more of a free for all. Some people go all around the church! I stick to our pew, but will shake hands with anyone who comes over — sort of a compromise, I guess. The upside is that it gives a chance to be friendly with members of the congregation whoses names I can’t remember, and I have a “script,” so there is no need for clever conversation. My kids loathe it.

  18. Anonymous

    Love it, Adoro!

    I could be wrong, but as I understood it, the sign or “kiss of peace” from ancient times was meant to symbolize the transmission of Christ’s peace to all.

    This was much better illustrated in some traditional (high) Masses I’ve seen, in which the ceremonial “kiss of peace” was transmitted by priest to deacon, deacon to altar server, then altar server to congregation.

    All our actions in the Mass should be directed toward God, so the above makes better sense than the sudden disorganized jumping about and gladhanding of the congregation that is performed in many places.

    My husband hates it (he’s only a recent convert) and refuses to do it, I dislike it but will shake hands if they are offered. I’d really prefer a nod if we had to have the sign of peace–less distracting/invasive. It just feels weird with the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar, to be disconnecting our attention from Him.

    God Bless,

    Embattled Catholic

  19. newhousenewjob

    I love those rules! As a cradle Catholic, I suppose I’ve just always been used to the sign of peace – I was shocked the first time I went to Mass in Northern Ireland and the sign of peace was omitted. In fact, the main aim of both priest and congregation in that particular church seemed to be to get the Mass over as quickly as possible and then make a quick getaway. I remember thinking what a shame it was that the sign of peace was being omitted in a country that had so much need of it.

  20. Stephanie

    Oh my goodness, I’m cracking up!!! LOL!!! I’m extremely guilty of the Jennifer F. Dodges 😉

    My tactic lately is to offer peace to the person to the right of me (hubby is always on the left, he comes first of course), offer peace to anyone who turns around in front of me, and then bow my head. Yep…I skip the row behind me, it just gets too long and I can only handle so many social interactions per minute! I wish them all peace in my head, I think that counts, lol.

  21. beez

    OK, time for confession…

    I’m not a big fan of the sign of peace, and its for two reasons:

    1) It is an overt attempt (in my eyes) to force a sense of community. We shouldn’t need to force that.
    2) It’s chaotic. (You very nicely said as much.)

    These days, o sit on the aisle and, unless I am in the very front row, I do not turn around to offer the sign of peace. I will shake hands with a couple people next to me and the folks in front if they turn around.

    I’m getting much better!

    I think my parishoners once thought I was the sickest man on earth because I always started coughing or sneezing just about the time the Pater Noster ended.

    “I would, but I have germs on my hand,” I would tell people.

  22. beez

    Another note to Sarah L, if’s she’s comes back:

    Technically, the hand holding during the Lord’s Prayer is a violation of the rubrics of the Mass. The congregants shouldn’t hold hand OR even raise their hands in imitation of the priest.

    The proper posture for the prayers of the Mass is reverence and hands held as in prayer (since the entire Mass is a prayer!)

    This is what I call “Protestant creep” into the Mass and should be eliminated.

  23. SteveG

    On the hand holding, I agree 100%.

    On the Orans position (Hand held out palms up), it’s a bit more complicated. It’s clearly the case that in the GIRM the Orans position is proscribed for the priest (it’s silent on the laity’s posture). However, it’s also pretty clear that in the early Church, the Orans position was common between laity and clergy. Artwork of the mass from the early church attests to that.

    So it’s not really accurate to say that the Orans is related to Protestant creep, at least in the substance of the posture. I will agree that the way it worked itself back into the mass, with folks just deciding to do it themselves probably stems somewhat from a Protestant mindset.

    Most important of all though is charity in assuming no ill motives on the part of those who are doing it. I actually used the Orans position for several years when I first entered the church.

    I had the impression it was more reverent (most folks at the mass just stood with hands at side), and I thought ‘Oh, those folks holding up their hands seem to be taking it more seriously.’ and I emulated that.

    When I learned the correct posture, of course I adopted it, but there was certainly no ill intent on my part, and in fact I was motivated by a desire to be devout.

    I know this was not at all the point of Jen’s post, but it seems a good place to state it. In my humble opinion, liturgical nitpicking is one of the dangers of the spiritual life that we (especially converts) should be extremely wary of. It can easily steal our joy at the great gift of even being present for the Eucharist.

    Let us all endeavor (as difficult as it is at times) to keep our eyes squarely on Christ, and not so much on what our neighbor is or isn’t doing with their hands during the Our Father.

  24. Anonymous

    You know I thought that the Sign of Peace was actually there in the Liturgy to help us to prepare to recieve communion, so suck it up and hold out your hand and maybe you just might meet Christ !!

  25. Michelle

    I was raised Catholic, so I am familiar with the Sign of Peace, but I was an atheist for a number of years and then ended up in a generic Christian church (we don’t even call ourselves “non-denominational” because the idea is to be in fellowship with all, but ironically some of us only fellowship with each other). Anyway, in the first church I attended of this type, we had probably less than 100 regular attenders, and when we were told to “greet our neighbors” the entire church would stand up and *hug* every single other person there. And talk to them. And practically line up to greet the new member or visitor. We would have stayed there all day, if allowed. (We also had a problem getting everyone to come in to the sanctuary when church started as most people would want to “finish this conversation.”)

  26. Kevin

    As someone who’s relatively introverted himself, I absolutely loved the sign of peace I experienced when I visited Japan! Japanese Catholics offer peace with a polite bow, as that is what’s customary in their culture. It’s really too bad Americans are too extroverted for that to take off here.


  27. Lacey

    (I know this is an old post, but I just read it…)

    Oh my goodness, HILARIOUS. The first time I went to mass (after having been raised Protestant) I was SO thrown off by the Sign of Peace. Suddenly everyone was coming towards me and I thought I was supposed to say “And also with you” because that’s what you say every other time the priest says “such and such be with you.” Logical, right?? That was a stressful day.

  28. sarah p

    I know, I’m coming in over a year late!

    As a newly converted Christian and someone who just can’t seem to keep away from Catholic mass, I love the sign of peace. Even as an extreme introvert and germophobe. It is actually one of the things that helped me to convert. I was so taken aback when I first experienced it – but the kindness and cheerful acceptance of the people who shook my hand was simply beautiful.

    The warmth, welcome, liveliness, and charm of a Catholic congregation in comparison to those I’ve experienced in Episcopalian churches is probably why I keep going back to Mass.

    I would love to attend a church where the congregation was so loving, so full of faith and joy, that they went around hugging everyone! What a delightful vision!

  29. Bender

    Of course, the Sign of Peace is in the Mass for a reason.

    “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” — Mt. 5:23-24

    Before approaching the altar to receive Communion (which, as the word suggests, involves the unity of all the faithful as one in Christ), it is necessary and essential that we prepare ourselves for such unity — that we set aside all divisions, including the idea that Mass is some kind of one-on-one worship with Jesus to the exclusion of everyone else.

    We are not Christians in isolation. As Pope Benedict said recently, “An autonomous, self-produced Christianity is a contradiction in itself.” To receive the Eucharist, so as to be one with Christ, we must prepare ourselves and make peace with the brother and sister next to us.

    Benedict continues, “[St. Paul wrote,] ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ (1 Cor. 10:16-17) In these words the personal and social character of the Sacrament of the Eucharist likewise appears. Christ personally unites himself with each one of us, but Christ himself is also united with the man and the woman who are next to me. And the bread is for me but it is also for the other. Thus Christ unites all of us with himself and all of us with one another. In communion we receive Christ. But Christ is likewise united with my neighbour: Christ and my neighbour are inseparable in the Eucharist. And thus we are all one bread and one body. A Eucharist without solidarity with others is a Eucharist abused.”

    Now, it is true that the Sign of Peace can be abused or disruptive, but that is only when it is used for reasons other than preparation for communion and Communion. It is a liturgical sign of peace, not a social sign of peace, much less an invitation for taking a break from Mass in order to socialize and party. That means a certain measure of solemnity and decorum, which means both limiting the action to those immediately around you (a polite handshake or nod of the head) and also not purposely refusing to “make peace” or even acknowledge the existence of the people around you. Either extreme is not consistent with the purpose of the Sign, which is to set aside divisions in a spirit of charity so as to come together as one body in Christ.

  30. Kelley

    I met with a priest at my church for the first time ever this week. I’m a bit shy around church… he knows this. I tend to lose my filter around priests though. I blurted out “Dude… I can’t stand that ‘sign of peace’ thing you guys do! I hear it’s not even required. What’s the deal? And at the 5:30 Mass they do it twice! Ugh!” He seemed to get a real kick out of that. He laughed really hard. My friend that’s a priest laughs at me about my ‘sign of peace’ issue and says “Keep an eye out for the huggers!” THE WHAT?!?!? I now keep an eye out for the huggers every week.

  31. Tres Angelas

    You can’t pretend to forget the people seated right behind you? Aw, shoot…

    Try going to Spanish-language mass sometime — the “Peace be with you” (La Paz del Senor) interlude goes on and on and on. Folks travel the length of the church to great friends and family.

    Me, I’m done in half a minute.

  32. Maggie Dee

    As an introvert I laughed out loud at your touretts description. I suffer from that too! I love the sign of the peace as it gives me something to say. It sures beats the required small talk of the meet and greet at our current non-denom. church we’re attending. Nothing says worship to an introvert like small talk! I hate it! I think the people at our church probably think I’m really rude to only talk with my husband or daughter. Whew!

    On a side note, I just found your blog and am really enjoying your beautiful posts.

  33. Anonymous

    I just came across this post and it is just hysterical! I laughed the whole time while reading it because it really is something that you have to get used to if you are someone, like me, who didn't grow up in the church. I am a friendly person and all but it was an awkward adjustment. But now, I've grown to enjoy it..hope you did too! 🙂

  34. Myn

    Pope Benedict issued a statement calling for the sign of peace to be sober and restrained…much to your introverted relief I’m sure. XD


    this post is hilarious btw… XD

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