Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
The first time I went to a Catholic Mass, there were a lot of things that seemed crazy to me. The kneeling, the incense, the parts with everyone saying the same prayers at the same time—most of it was baffling. But none of it startled me more than when the priest suddenly said, “Let us offer one another a sign of peace.” With no warning other than that simple phrase, there was eye contact! And hand-shaking! And verbal interaction! People I didn’t even know were looking at me and addressing me!
For those of us who are both extremely introverted and socially awkward, this sort of rampant interaction with other human beings isn’t the sort of thing you just rush into. It requires practice, preparation, and analysis on a scale not entirely dissimilar to that of a moon landing. For my fellow people who share the psychological profile of SHBDH (Should Have Been a Desert Hermit), I offer this handy guide to the strange extrovert ritual known as the sign of peace:
WHAT TO DO
- The sign of peace occurs shortly after the Our Father. You want to be able to focus on the Lord’s Prayer, so if you plan to do any warm-up exercises, stretching, or visualization techniques to prepare yourself for the hand shaking and interaction, try to do it after the Liturgy of the Word when they pass the collection plates.
- When the time comes, you engage in the sign of peace by shaking the hands of the people around you and saying, “Peace be with you.” Each handshake preferably includes a smile and at least one full second of eye contact.
- It is acceptable to say only “peace be with you” and move on to the next person. “Peace of Christ” and the abbreviated “peace” are acceptable alternatives. If so inclined, you may feel free to include spontaneous salutations such as “hi” or “good morning,” but the Church does not require that you do so.
- Some websites claim that it is acceptable to offer the Latin form of the greeting, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (“The peace of the Lord be with you always”), but I don’t recommend it. A non-socially-awkward person might be able to pull it off, but people like us would just end up making everyone nervous.
WHOM TO ACKNOWLEDGE
- Offer the sign of peace to all persons within a four-foot radius of where you are seated. This includes people in front of and behind you.
- If you are seated next to a group of people, it is customary to offer the sign of peace to everyone within the group, up to a maximum of 10 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-sync the greeting of peace. 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.
EXCEPTIONS & UNUSUAL SITUATIONS
- In the event 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.
- 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.
- 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 for all people within a three-pew radius of your seat.
- You may safely ignore anyone seated more than three pews in front of or behind you, provided that you do not make eye contact with them. In the event of eye contact, however, you are obliged to acknowledge that person with either a wave or an air handshake.
- 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 is also acceptable in this circumstance.
BEHAVIOR TO AVOID
- It is not acceptable to pretend to forget about the people seated directly to the rear of you. This is known as the “Fulwiler Dodge” and is frowned upon by the Church.
- It is not acceptable to avoid the sign of peace by pretending to choke, taking five minutes to tie your shoe, or dropping an important item that needs to be recovered. This is another form of the Fulwiler Dodge and is strongly discouraged.
- Resist the temptation to immediately wipe your hands with antibacterial lotion or towelettes. It is customary to wait at least a full 30 seconds.
You’re all set! Simply review this guide before each Mass, and you’ll be able to blend in with even your most extroverted fellow parishioners during the sign of peace.