Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

Mass Tourism – Paris

Posted by universalis on 23 July 2006

The Hôtel des Invalides is one of the great achievements of the age of Louis XIV, both as a building as an institution. Housing old soldiers and an army museum, it is an expression in stone of the glory of French national pride, impartially embracing kings, republics, empires – for all are French and therefore worthy of honour.

My sister (a military historian) wanted to see the museum; my mother and I wanted to go to Mass; and I had a suit. Accordingly we turned up at the Invalides on Sunday morning: we might be civilians and we might not be French but we were, after all, Catholics.

The back three rows of the church were a solid mass of scarlet uniforms of straight-backed officer cadets. We went further forward, where it was pretty empty. The Mass began: it was unmemorable until the sign of peace.

When the sign of peace first came in I waged a long campaign against it – I was 16 and willing to fight any trendiness my elders sought to impose. I called it “the most divisive innovation ever made” (or some such resounding phrase). This is true to some extent, since you never know, if you’re a stranger, what the local community expects you to do and who you are expected to do it with… but naturally one mellows with age, and so when the sign of peace came at the Invalides I turned round and offered my hand to the lady in the row behind me.

She was old, grey-haired, of middle height, and elegantly dressed with an ostentatious unostentatiousness. She looked like the French duchess in “Don’t Tell Alfred” who does not acknowledge the existence of historical personages unless they are related to her (“fortunately”, adds her nephew, “most of them are”). It would simply not have occurred to her to shake hands with anyone whose antecedents she had not first examined minutely; for which a church provides little opportunity.

We both managed it rather well. I turned towards her with a smile and a hand that, though slightly extended, could be overlooked without actual rudeness, and when I turned away it was not because I was thwarted but because I had done what I set out to do. As for her, her facial expression did not change but it nearly did; and although her eyes did not move to meet mine I was already exactly in her line of sight and she did not move them away.

Thinking about it afterwards, I could have hugged her, from fondness but also from joy at a dance step so perfectly executed although entirely unrehearsed. I also now know that when one plays “dinner with the saints” with friends, it would be wisest not to invite Saint Teresa of Ávila unless one knew exactly what etiquette to employ with a well-born Spanish lady of the 16th century.

(When the time came for Communion the back of the church was empty and the scarlet-coated cadets had all disappeared.)

20 Responses to “Mass Tourism – Paris”

  1. Greetings from Columbus Indiana, and blessing to all who contibute to this much needed web site.
    I have been referencing universalis, off and on, over the years, and was happy to see the ‘blog’ offering.
    With respect to the ‘sign’, this was one of the things that helped me become a Catholic.
    Yes, it has many difficulties. Still, in all of lifes difficulties, at least for me, isolation can be amoung the most difficult to deal with.
    It seems to me that, for some, this little contact may be the only real human contact they have in thier life.
    I understand and agree that the ‘sign’ is pretty much always awkward, uncomfortable… all that. Still, from time to time, to reach out, or be reached out to, this seems to be so much the essence of what He did, not to those who deserve it, but to those who need it most.
    Thanks for letting me rant for a bit.
    Yours in Christ

  2. Richard said

    My turn to rant. Every church should have a section where those who don’t want to participate in the artificial ceremony that is the sign of peace can sit. To me it just emphasises that RC churches can be unfriendly places – a sign of peace is not a limp handshake and a pair of averted eyes. The English are just too undemonstrative to make it work. And if it doesn’t work, get rid of it. I am FED UP with being “ordered” by the priest to offer each other a sign of peace and for everyone to look acutely embarrassed – and the worst part is when people who know each other obviously throw themselves into it. It is divisive. Drop it.

  3. I love the sign of peace. I am divorced and have a broken family. I also have had a hard time making Catholic friends. I can go for a week without touching anybody, days without talking to someone, so the touch at the sign of peace is a Godsend to me.

    In spite of my best efforts not to let it matter to me, I am always uplifted after the sign of peace–that is if people don’t refuse to participate, don’t avert their eyes, don’t refuse to shake hands.

    The Church teaches we are all part of Christ’s body. How can it hurt to touch the body of one of your brothers and sisters in Christ? A friend of mine said that it’s wrong because you don’t know the other person. To me, looking at the people around you in the pews and shaking their hands is a good way to start to get to know them.

    I was raised at a time when people came to Mass and left without acknowledging anyone else in the Church. You can be a regular Mass attender without knowing or caring about any of your brothers and sisters in Christ outside of your family. But be aware that not everyone has a family to attend Mass with.

    Mother Theresa said that the poverty we have in our culture is a poverty of lonliness, abandonment, and isolation. Mental and emotional illnesses often result from the lack of touch and companionship.

    Please consider seeing the sign of peace as a chance to reach out to your fellow worshippers.

    The early Church according to the Gospels shared everything in common. Why are we so cold?

    See the person next to you as Christ, share your peace with her or him. You will be sharing it with our Lord, and you may be helping that person in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

  4. I enjoy the sign of peace. I am a convert from a Protestant denomination (several, actually, 🙂 ). I felt an immediate sense of belonging to my new catholic family when I first experienced the sign of peace in Mass. I thought it was really refreshing, sort of a break between the solemnities, if you will.
    Of course, some people would not be quite as enthusiastic about it as others, but after a time, I would see these shy souls make eye contact and they would even offer a smile of recognition when we would meet entering the church before Mass.
    I have met a lot of people I might not have had the chance to meet any other way, especially those not in my age group, young people and seniors alike.
    I hope this tradition stays with us.

    God bless


  5. Tim said

    I am not a naturally demonstrative person and would not claim to have good social skills. I agree that exchanging the peace can often be awkward and embarrassing. One of the reasons I persist with it in my own inept fashion is that I always remember a sermon I heard some twenty years ago. The priest told us that for many people (those who are utterly alone) the Sunday greeting with their brothers and sisters in Christ was their only physical contact with another person during the entire week. If my fumbling efforts can make someone else feel that they exist, then its worth it. The Mexican anecdote reminds me of when I was in a chapel at the Basilica of Guadalupe. A Mexican family (obviously not well off) was at the Mass and I tentatively went forward to exchange the sign of peace with the father. I could not return to my place until each member of the family had greeted the European stranger with warmth and sincerity. It was a moving and humbling experience. Tim

  6. Stephen said

    In terms of a single observation about a single aspect of this liturgical sign…Sign: something that has meaning within itself. One must always remember that it is a ‘sign’ of peace, that it is something that shows that we, as a community are at peace with one another…considering the history of the Church an important sign indeed. What we must do is acknowledge each other as a community, no matter what that sign is…the priest or deacon does not command us to shake hands he invites us to show a sign. Kiss those who wish to be kissed, hug those who wish to be hugged, shake hands with those who wish to shake hands, nod to those who wish to nod, flash the peace sign to others. Just make some effort. To deny some sign, is to deny one’s participation in the community, and to deny the community participation in one’s life…a gesture not exactly catholic. There is plenty of time to pray alone during the week, liturgy is the work of the people, not the person. Come ready to be one with others! And do do it for the least of your brothers as well! Thanks to those who have shared such beautiful stories!

  7. Janie L said


    Sharing the sign of “Peace” is always a Joy for me. It’s wonderful when the family is gathered in the pews and hugs and well meant Peace is given, shared and accepted.

    I’ve understood the sharing of the sign with those immediately behind & in front & to both sides of you during Mass was to signify the peace which surrounds us. sending our peace in all directions, from the north to the south to the east & to the west. Peace to All-the entire world-and it all begins with Me.

    In Love with My Lord.

  8. Ritagail said

    I posted here on a later blog posting, and read these after my response there, I won’t repeat much here.

    What I would like to write is that one flaw of the Sign of Peace is that it assumes all humans respond to “community” in the same way. Once I get to know somebody one-one, I’m told that I’m a very warm and friendly person….monologue your ear off….then listen while you “have a turn”.

    BUT, Humans En Masse is simply too much overload for me, and, for years, even I thought that I “hated people”. It wasn’t true, it was merely my body’s way of surviving so much stimulation/overload.

    As far as eye contact….that’s not even standard in all societies, so I’ve been told. There IS a simple physical explanation for avoiding eye contact, well, one anyway: The bright light that bounces off of the eyes can actually hurt my eyes. When I first read another autistic person write this, I decided to see if it were true for me….sure enough……some people who have very dark eyes, I can make longer eye contact with them, others, those flourescent lights just GLARE right back at me…ouch! Try looking sometime and see if it makes any difference to you.

    And, finally, about “friendship”. This is one of the most horrible things that upsets me in our Church, and I mean American Christianity in general…but it sounds like others have the same problem: Hardly anyone has friends anymore. Oh, we have acquaintances, business “friends”, family members we tolerate, people we “know”, but we don’t have healthy drop by sit on the couch and gripe, cry, and giggle together friendships.

    It’s very confusing to me, because, I always thought I was so socially inept/weird. Now I find out most folks are just going through life faking it.

    A Question: If we can’t even be friends with each other, how on earth can we have a friendship with God? Do we even really believe in friendship with God? (Jesus said “I call you friends.” John 15:15) (Ok, so that was 2 questions……I’d better get off of this blog….good thing I already did prayers!)

    By the way, I’d prefer standing or hugging shoulder to shoulder or leaning my head on somebody…….even elbows knocking…..


  9. Either the sign of peace is something quite formal – making, to the nearest member of the human race, a gesture that symbolizes community with the human race as a whole – or it is a physical expression of deep intimacy and love.

    Now the thing is that you can’t genuinely feel deep intimacy and love with a perfect stranger. Even prostitutes are unable to do this. They execute a parody of the act of love which is the same as the real thing in expression but is completely empty in substance: a desecration that is evil precisely because of the sanctity of the thing they are parodying. For a less extreme example, think of any number of standard commercial transactions – “Hi, I’m [insert first name here]; your call is important to us…” – where fake intimacy and emotion corrupt the real thing and make it impossible for it to exist or be expressed.

    The commenter who said that you should hug those who wanted to be hugged, shake hands with those who wanted to be shaken hands with, bow to those who wanted to be bowed to, must be very clever at sizing people up in the fraction of a second available. If I tried this I’d spend half the Mass planning it and the other half curled up in a ball because I’d got it wrong.

    The commenter who said that this might me the only human contact someone got all week could have a point; but what kind of contact is it that is carefully done in a context where conversation is impossible and where the contact itself cannot, by definition, last more than a few seconds before it’s interrupted by the continuing liturgy?

    What seems to work best is something fairly formal and hieratic – preferably the same throughout the congregation, if the priest can arrange it. That way one single gesture can cover all the possibilities:

    * This is a mere token. You and I know that if these other people weren’t here we’d hug and hug and never let go.

    * We don’t know each other from Adam but by this formal gesture we acknowledge and respect each other’s existence and in principle admit the possibility of some sort of communication between us. Perhaps the seed will sprout, perhaps it won’t; but it’s there.

    * I hate you more than anyone else in the world and I’ll have to wash my hand now it’s touched you; but still, I acknowledge you as one of God’s creatures and it is not for me to question his will.

  10. linda said

    I never new the sign of peace was such a controversial thing! It’s actually the peace of Christ that we’re giving to the other person, “the peace of Christ be with you and with your spirit.” Why would you want to get rid of that, unless of course you don’t know the meaning. It was also origanally a kiss on each cheek as the sign not a hand shake. The peace of Christ be with you and with your spirit!

  11. Marlie B. Smith said

    Like holding hands when we say the “Our Father” it took a long time for me to accept and participate. However, the main question that struck me in this story of the sign of peace was this persons following observation “(When the time came for Communion the back of the church was empty and the scarlet-coated cadets had all disappeared.”) and I ask -Why would one leave before receiving this beautiful gift of the Eucharist?
    Why be so concerned about a “sign” of peace when the true source of “peace” has been so rejected?

  12. t_r said

    When the Sign of Peace becomes pedantic for me, I merely sit down. A few persist, but they’re generally harmless and of good will.

  13. Joe Dombrowski said

    I pray that those of you who ‘hate’ the sign of peace realize how Christ touched outcasts and sinners. In every case where Jesus heals, he touches. He didn’t wave a wand or wag his hands – he touched.

    At Mass you are about to take the body/blood/soul/divinity of Christ into your body,into your soul.

    Help me understand what you are doing with it once it’s there.

  14. David Burger said

    This is a very tardy response to this particular blog, but the topic is striking one particular bell with me. When I watched the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, I was amazed at the wide variety of religious traditions represented as observers. As the Liturgy progressed, I began to wonder what the Consecration of bread and wine might mean to those not familiar with this everyday element of our worship.

    At the Peace, however, I could see how these men–probably representing the entire body of humans who follow some form of organized religion–just lit up with joy (even if with a little discomfort). They seemed to relish having this recognition of one another’s presence as a part of the worship, bringing the enthusiasm of a child to a new experience. This taught me a huge lesson about how God reaches out in time and space to each of us through one another to show His love and compassion, most especially in this ritual we call Holy Mass.

  15. Unholier than thou said

    Fr. Groshel once stated that he is a “closet charismatic” and that’s how I feel sometimes at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I guess the Kiss of Peace was taken a little too literal here, a poor interpretation of active participation during the Mass from the non-conforming reformers. Our parish did try do away with holding hands during the Our Father, even though some still do. The reason for not holding hands, Fr. said was it was not part of the general intruction and that it was an adaptation from North America without approval from Rome. This is a good teaching tool for us not to look down on those who do shake hands though, even if we don’t care to do something imposed upon us.

  16. Adrian said

    Why not have the sign of peace right after the Confiteor? It should be symbolic of making peace with your brother before offering sacrifices. I feel it is more disturbing to have it in the middle of the Liturgy of the Eucharist because the focus by then in the Mass is on Jesus Christ.

  17. Shirley said

    Good suggestion, Adrian of Jan.4,07. Have received much comfort from reading all these varied comments, for I too have had mixed feelings about the sign of peace. Now I am one of those who lives alone and am glad to give and receive the touch of another.
    Now I look for opportunities to touch or hug another, if appropriate. The Spanish have a custom of greeting one another with a kiss on each cheek….embarrassing at first for this reticent American, but wonderful to be so accepted.

  18. kentuckyliz said

    I don’t mind the “kiss” (handshake) of peace. I agree with Adrian that its better placement is after the confiteor/kyrie and absolution. If I confess, to you my brothers and sisters, and ask you to pray for me to the Lord our God, then we have made peace and that seems to be the peace moment, clearing our relations and minds before we hear the word of God and offer the sacrifice.

    I really dislike the handholding at the Our Father, and raising them up at for power glory now and forever. I assertively fold my hands in prayer and draw them close to my body, bow my head and close my eyes, but some others have more aggressively even pawed my breasts while digging in trying to rip my hands apart. I mean, really, take the hint people. Groping For Jesus–not cool.

    You Brits are just incredibly awkward people and therefore need the handshake at the peace more than anyone. Consider it a grace from God, trying to help you move past your limits. Be formal, avoid eye contact, don’t do it with any feeling, fine, just do it. God forbid you should show any joy at being at Mass and among your fellow believers. After all, we’re Catholics, we’re supposed to keep our coats on and be miserable. LOL

  19. Elizabeth A. Corcoran said

    I love the Sign of Peace. When I shake hands or hug someone at this time, I am genuinely offering them the peace of Christ, and I feel their warmth. Why would anyone not want to offer the Peace of Christ to a fellow human being?

  20. Timothy Capuano said

    The sign of peace has at times amused me and at other times seemed an ill-timed interruption. Once several decades ago I was amused for several weeks as I watched a gentleman without his right arm befuddle many of my neighbors. All of which seemed confused as to what to do when he presented his left hand. All except one old farmer, who simply grabbed it and him and gave him the biggest hug the poor fellow just wept.
    As an adult I have seen some of the most petty and vindictive responses to gestures of peace. The most disturbing however is lessoning to a group of people who are very active in the church discuss how NOT to shake hands as to avoid sickness.
    Fortunately a priest added that the flu or cold was not the worst sickness, that injuring the heart by rudeness and ignorance was perhaps a far worse fate.

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