The sign of peace is the greeting we are invited to exchange with other people after we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer and are preparing to receive Holy Communion. This gesture has a long history. We do not know exactly when it took its place after the Lord’s Prayer, but St. Augustine (354-430) speaks of that location in the churches of Africa. Pope Innocent I (d. 417) writes that the sign of peace should follow the Lord’s prayer “as a sign of acknowledging and accepting all that has been done in these mysteries.”
The norms of the liturgy explain that the priest may extend the sign of peace to the ministers of the liturgy, but he “always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration.” In some quarters this norm is not always greeted with enthusiasm. Many seem to view this rule as something that will diminish the unity and communion expressed in the act of sharing Christ’s peace with others, and others view it as an effort to reinforce the distance and difference between clergy and laity. In fact so intense was the concern for this restriction that the U.S. bishops asked Vatican officials to soften the rule for Catholics in this country, and so the rule was changed by adding, “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.”
To understand why the rule says that the priest should not normally leave the altar area to offer the sign of peace to others, it is helpful to see how this ritual has developed in the last 40 years. When the sign of peace was first introduced to us in 1969, it was never suggested in the rules that the priest should leave the altar to greet the people. After all, he has already offered the peace of Christ to everyone in the church. The concern was, and still is, that the beautiful sign of the peace of Christ not be seen as something that has to somehow originate from the priest - a form of clericalism that we don’t need - but rather as a gesture that can arise spontaneously from anyone in the assembly. The second concern is that if the priest wanders throughout the church greeting everyone in sight, then the rite of the exchange of peace can be exaggerated out of proportion to what precedes and follows it, and the proper flow and rhythm of the liturgy is lost.
The greeting of peace is still a part of our liturgical prayer, really a kind of blessing that we exchange with those nearby, and this attitude of prayer and blessing ought not to take second place to other praiseworthy impulses. Thus care must be taken that the sign of peace does not become a sort of “time out” from the liturgy so that people can chat and socialize. That the sign of peace reflects a certain composure and restraint also applies to everyone else in the liturgical assembly. The church’s norms describe the sign of peace as the rite “by which the Church asks for peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the Sacrament... It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a somber manner.”