Question Corner

Why don’t we just get rid of the sign of peace? And what are the rules about fasting before Mass?

By Father Kenneth Doyle

People giving the sign of peace at Mass
CNS Photo/Dawniel Sone


Sign of Peace

Q: My wife is on the shy side and prefers not to have to shake hands with the person who happens to be next to her in the pew. At most, she would nod but feels that this would be rude. Are there any options? (If you ran a petition drive to eliminate the sign of peace, I’ll bet that it would be greeted with 95 percent approval from Catholics.)

A: Far from being a new invention of the 1970s, the restoration of the sign of peace was actually a return to a practice common in the earliest days of the church. In those times, Christians, in a reminder of the charity that linked the eucharistic community, exchanged a greeting at the offertory — that timing chosen from the suggestion of Jesus that one reconcile with others before presenting gifts at the altar. (see Matthew 5:23-24)

By the late fourth century, the exchange of peace had been placed instead right after the Our Father, since Christians were committed to live in harmony with those with whom they were about to share the Eucharist. The greeting of peace faded gradually into disuse over the centuries and was restored to the Mass during the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council.

Technically, the sign of peace is optional. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal prescribes in No. 154 that it be shared “when appropriate.” But other sections of the general instruction (in No. 82 and No. 239) imply that it is customarily used. (During a flu epidemic, for example, the exchange of peace could reasonably be suspended.)

The greeting ought to be exchanged in a quiet and dignified manner, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded Catholics in 2006 that restraint was needed lest the gesture distract from the reverence appropriate to the reception of holy Communion. (Marathons during which congregants roam the church widely in search of hugs would seem to run counter to that caution.)

The particular type of greeting is not prescribed worldwide but left to be tailored by national conferences of bishops to the customs and culture of the place. In the U.S., a handshake is common, while an embrace or kiss is often used for family or close friends. Some simply nod or wave, which is surely acceptable. (Eye contact, though, would seem to be at least a minimum requirement.)

Fasting before Mass

Q: I have been trying to find a current reference to the rules for the eucharistic fast. I’ve checked the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of Vatican II and can find no help. I also brought up the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, but there is so much on it that I became frustrated.

When I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, I had to memorize these rules, but unfortunately I have forgotten them and I think that after Vatican II these rules changed, but I am not sure. Can you help me?

A: The rule for the eucharistic fast is contained in the church’s Code of Canon Law. Canon No. 919, Section 1, states that “a person who is to receive the most holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy Communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.”

In 1957, Pope Pius XII reduced the requirement from a complete fast after midnight to a fast of three hours. In 1964, Pope Paul VI changed it to one hour, intending to encourage Catholics to receive the Eucharist more frequently.

The reason for the fast is to remind the faithful of the sacred and special nature of the eucharistic food; whereas earthly food provides physical nourishment 
for a time, the body and blood of Christ nourish the 
soul toward life eternal.

Canon No. 919, Section 3, clarifies that “the elderly, the infirm and those who care for them can receive the Eucharist even if they have eaten something within the preceding hour.”

Father Kenneth Doyle is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


NORTHWEST CATHOLIC - January/February 2014