Commonly the least peaceful time at Mass is the exchange of the sign of peace.

At some Masses, the liturgical gesture completely disrupts prayerful preparation for reception of Communion as those present shake hands, embrace and wave to each other for a protracted period with the celebrating priest often leaving the sanctuary to join in the glad-handing.

That could soon change — with a possible move of the sign of peace to a less disruptive moment in the Mass — according to the Vatican’s top liturgical official.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano last week that his congregation continues to pursue a recommendation made during the 2005 Synod of Bishops to examine whether the sign of peace should be moved to a different part of the Mass.

At that time, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed the value of retaining the sign of peace but said it must be done with “restraint” so as not to become a distraction.

Cardinal Arinze disclosed that his congregation has written to bishops’ conferences around the world requesting feedback about whether they think the sign of peace should stay where it is or be moved ahead, to immediately following the prayer of the faithful.

Responses from all the bishops’ conferences are expected to have been received by the end of this month. After they have been reviewed the matter will be referred to Benedict for a final decision.

Whether or not the sign of peace is moved, Cardinal Arinze said another possible remedy is to reiterate formally that it must be confined to an exchange only between people in close proximity.

The Congregation for Divine Worship’s 2004 document Redemptionis Sacramentum already made that point. The document states, “It is appropriate that each one give the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner,” and that during the sign of peace the priest should always remain “within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration” (No. 72).

Despite that instruction, Cardinal Arinze told L’Osservatore Romano that at some Masses the sign of peace is still so prolonged that it’s “almost a jamboree.”

— Tom McFeely