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Musical Musings: Liturgy

The Kiss of Peace

by Fr. Edward McNamara

This question and answer first appeared on ZENIT (November 12, 2003). It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Cecile Borgeua.
The author, Father Edward McNamara, is professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenæum in Rome.


What is the history of the Kiss of Peace and when was it introduced?

A Reader from Toronto


The kiss, or sign, of peace was known from the earliest times, often inspired by Saint Paul's invitation to the Corinthians: "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (1 Corinthians 16:20). Jesus urged that one should be reconciled with a brother before taking one's sacrifice to the altar. The kiss of peace is also an explicit answer to Christ's admonition to fraternal reconciliation and peace, to purify one's sacrifice.

The rite is mentioned in ancient sources such as the Apostolic Constitutions and the sermons of Saint Augustine.

At first the kiss of peace was considered as an important, and even obligatory, preparation for those about to receive Communion but was later extended to all. After the year 1000 the kiss of peace gradually became a far more formalized rite and later the exclusive preserve of the clergy, except for some special occasions.

Thus the sign of peace, as described in the present missal, roughly restores the rite to the form it had in medieval times in which everyone briefly gave the kiss of peace to the person beside him. At that time the gesture of the kiss was more a mark of respect than of affection. Hence, the gesture adopted today should be what local custom considers as a gesture of respect.

A correspondent from Kentucky asks if the priest or deacon has the option to use other formulas for the invitation to make the sign of peace, besides the one printed in the missal and even if "the priest is allowed to change the words of the invitation to say, 'If you so wish, you may offer one another a sign of peace,' thereby transferring the 'option' to the people?"

Although the missal in English is fairly limited in this regard, other languages such as Italian and Spanish provide several formulas for the sign of peace, some of which reflect the liturgical seasons. Thus it is possible to have slight variations in the invitation.

Although I doubt that the priest or deacon using the particular example cited by our reader is consciously trying to shift the option of making the sign of peace from celebrant to people, it is rather clumsy and would be better left out, since some people may refrain from giving the sign of peace for a good reason (other than not wishing to).

This is not to let the grumpy members of the congregation off the hook, for while some people are naturally disinclined to shake hands with total strangers, a kind smile and gentle countenance costs nothing and is worth a lot.

Another priest from a multicultural situation in which parishioners have developed an "extended sign of peace" over the years, and who is experiencing difficulties in making them understand the true nature of this rite, asks: "Would it be acceptable and in keeping with the spirit of the GIRM if the fractioning rite (with the 'Lamb of God') is festive and more prominent than the 'extended' exchange of peace that has been the custom of these communities?"

I would suggest that the priest adopt a patient approach explaining the rite and the universal norms guiding its use.

Above all, he should motivate and inculcate his parishioners' spiritual understanding of the significance of the gesture as a preparation for Communion and unity in Christ's Mystical Body. This can never be reduced to being no more than a sign of our mutual affection, ethnic solidarity, or any other merely human value.

Once this explanation has been carried out, it is a good idea to strengthen the prominence of the "Lamb of God" with respect to the sign of peace. Thus the choir or cantor should be instructed as to when to intone the "Lamb of God," leaving a brief but congruous space of time for the sign of peace.

During the transition period from the "extended sign of peace" to a more solemn "Lamb of God" it would probably be better to use simpler melodies that facilitate the singing of the entire congregation. Once the habit of a briefer sign of peace has been formed, the choir may occasionally move on to more complex melodies and even dare sing it in Gregorian chant.

Singing the "Lamb of God" in a more festive, albeit measured, manner is in conformity with the letter and spirit of GIRM No. 83:

Christ's gesture of breaking bread at the Last Supper, which gave the entire Eucharistic Action its name in apostolic times, signifies that the many faithful are made one body (1 Cor 10:17) by receiving Communion from the one Bread of Life which is Christ, who died and rose for the salvation of the world. The fraction or breaking of bread is begun after the sign of peace and is carried out with proper reverence, though it should not be unnecessarily prolonged, nor should it be accorded undue importance. ... The supplication Agnus Dei, is, as a rule, sung by the choir or cantor with the congregation responding; or it is, at least, recited aloud. This invocation accompanies the fraction and, for this reason, may be repeated as many times as necessary until the rite has reached its conclusion, the last time ending with the words dona nobis pacem ("grant us peace").

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