How the Pandemic Gave Me a New Appreciation for the Sign of Peace

“The sign of peace,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “signifies and demonstrates ecclesial communion with the bishop and with all the faithful.”

Catholics exchange the sign of peace without shaking hands during a Sunday Mass at Holy Family Minor Basilica in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 22, 2020.
Catholics exchange the sign of peace without shaking hands during a Sunday Mass at Holy Family Minor Basilica in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 22, 2020. (photo: Luis Tato / AFP via Getty Images)

It’s hard to believe that only 15 months ago Catholics in many parishes sat close to each other during Mass and shook hands with those around them at the sign of peace. Given our current COVID-19 hygiene sensibilities. the thought of eliminating social distancing and shaking hands with four or five non-relatives without quickly following up with hand sanitizer might inspire horror in some. 

The sign of peace was suspended in many dioceses as part of COVID-19 Mass restrictions and probably some Catholics are glad, but for different reasons. I imagine many feel the suspension is necessary for their congregation’s safety during the pandemic. 

Others may just be glad to see the sign of peace go because they’d rather it not be part of the Mass to begin with. I’ve never been a big fan of this practice because I think it can disrupt the prayer of the Mass at a point when we should be preparing our hearts to receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.  

But there have been bigger disruptions to the Mass in the past year that have made me see the sign of peace a little differently.

During the lockdown, my only sense of being part of a congregation as I viewed livestreamed Masses on Facebook came from scanning the list of attendees and reading their comments. It was a lonely time!

How much I appreciated returning to Mass in-person last summer. But my contact with other parishioners was limited because of safety concerns.  Pews were restricted so we would not sit too close to each other and masks were required. For a while we weren’t allowed to stop and talk to each other before or after Mass. 

Even though I previously wasn’t excited about the sign of peace, in one way, I’ve missed it. In reality, it’s just one of the ways that we, as the Body of Christ, have lost some of our connection with each other during the pandemic.

Knowing that some of my fellow parishioners have not returned to the parish since the lockdown — either by necessity or choice — is further evidence of the weakening of our connection. 

We’re told that some aspects of life probably won’t return to the way they were before the pandemic. I can’t see many people wanting to shake hands with others they don’t know well anytime soon. And maybe we’ve gotten comfortable with having a little more space around us at Mass. 

Whatever you think of wearing masks, we’ve made ourselves more like strangers by covering our faces. And the need to stay an arm’s length (or more) from each other intensifies that feeling.  

I don’t want to attend Mass with strangers, and that’s why I’ve started turning to those around me at the point of the sign of peace and offering a quick, contact-free nod or wave. Not everyone responds, but under my mask, I know I’m smiling.