1. Religion & Spirituality
Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: The Sign of Peace and Hygiene

By November 5, 2009

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On our Questions About Catholicism form, reader Noreen Glennon asks:

Why does the priest wash his hands before the consecration, and then go and shake everybody's hands before giving out Communion? Is this not unhygienic?

This is a question I have been asked many times, and it is likely to be asked even more frequently as concerns about swine flu grow. The question is based on two common but false assumptions: first, that the priest is washing his hands for sanitary reasons; and second, that the priest is supposed to be exchanging the Sign of Peace with the congregation.

Regarding the first assumption, if we view the action in context, its purpose becomes more clear. After the bread and wine for Communion have been received by the priest, he place the bread on the altar and offers this prayer:

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which Earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.

Next, he prepares the wine by pouring it into the chalice and adding a few drops of water, and then offers this prayer:

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.

The bread and wine are an offering, our earthly sacrifice that will become the divine Sacrifice of the Mass. At this point in the Mass, a shift is occurring, and the priest is preparing himself not to proclaim the Word of God but to act in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, offering the very sacrifice that Christ made on the cross.

And so now, with the bread and wine prepared, the priest returns to the water, and, as the server pours it over the tips of his finger, the priest prays:

Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin.

Together, the prayer and the washing of the finger tips constitute a ritual ablution, a ceremonial washing that is not intended for reasons of hygiene but to signify a deeper spiritual change and an increased solemnity from that point of the liturgy on. Indeed, in the Traditional Latin Mass, once the priest returns to the altar and touches the host again, he will keep his thumb and forefinger (the digits used to hold the host) closed for the rest of the Mass. (Obviously, he opens them as needed to pick up the host, but their normal position will be closed.)

The priest's hands should indeed be clean, but the time for cleaning them occurs in the sacristy before Mass, not at the ceremonial washing after the offering of the gifts.

But what about the Sign of Peace? For both reasons of hygiene and the solemnity of the Mass, offering the Sign of Peace to the congregation seems out of place. And indeed, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the rules according to which the Mass is to be celebrated) states (in section 154):

The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary.

The all-too-common practice, then, of the priest leaving the sanctuary at every Mass to make his way throughout the congregation and shaking hands is forbidden. Even in those rare circumstances when the priest may offer the Sign of Peace, he is not required to do so. And if he chooses to do so, he does not have to offer the Sign of Peace by shaking hands.

Traditionally, priests and deacons have offered the "Kiss of Peace" (as it used to be called) by an open embrace, where their hands remained free, or by a bow. Such practices are both hygienic and retain the solemnity of the Sacrifice that is being offered.

In this regard, concerns over the swine flu might well lead to a revival of older practices. An increasing number of dioceses are stressing that a handshake is only one possible form of the Sign of Peace and suggesting that members of the congregation consider bowing instead. And if only to allay the fears of their parishioners, some priests will likely suspend their practice of extending the Sign of Peace to their congregations.

More on the Swine Flu, the Sign of Peace, and Communion:

If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, you can use our submission form. If you would like the question answered privately, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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