The Catholic Church in Italy has announced that congregants are once again allowed to shake hands at the sign of peace during Mass. The practice was prohibited during the pandemic. The reinstatement of the handshake comes as Italy loosens several of its pandemic precautions, including mask-wearing in some public spaces.
Reuters reports that the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) issued its guidance on the matter on Friday, December 2, and it was disseminated by Italian news outlets over the weekend. The bishops wrote:
“It will be possible to restore the usual form of exchanging the sign of peace,” the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) said in a letter to bishops.
Bringing back the handshake during the sign of peace marks a major return to normalcy for Catholic parishes.
It is especially heartening to see the return of the sign of peace handshake to the Italian Church, as Italy was one of the countries hardest hit by the world pandemic. Reuters reported in early October that Italian authorities were already loosening restrictions. Italy has lifted its mandate requiring all passengers of trains, buses, and ferries wear face masks.
The sign of peace
The handshake during the sign of peace is a traditional Catholic expression of forgiveness of neighbor, which comes prior to the consecration of the Eucharist. The gesture is rooted in the Gospels, in particular Matthew 5:23-24, where Jesus instructs:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Early Christian communities took this direction to heart and incorporated the sign of peace into the Mass. Although it’s been included in Eucharistic celebrations since the early days of Christian practice, it has taken different forms over the years.Aleteia’s own Phil Kosloski writes:
What we call the “sign of peace” the early Church called the “kiss of peace.” It was a custom in Mediterranean culture at the time (and still is today) to greet family and friends with a kiss.
This gesture is found throughout the liturgical history of the Church and from the time of St. Gregory the Great was seen as a prerequisite for the reception of Communion.
The kiss of peace was typically given only to those standing next to each other and it was later developed that the kiss of peace descended from the sanctuary and was passed on to the people, symbolizing that peace comes from Christ. This was even further cemented when the priest would first kiss the altar and then pass on that kiss to his attendants.