Civilized society is based on one primary idea: that people can get along with each other with relative success. That is not to say that disagreements and feuds do not happen, but there are polite and decent ways of getting around them. As I understand it, that is partly the reason for the Sign of Peace during Mass. It was a show of peace and goodwill towards one’s neighbor before we go up to receive the Body of Christ, our savior so that we are in the right mindset of receiving Him.
The intention behind the Sign of Peace was good. It is right that we have our minds re-ordered from our usual, sinful selves, but the way it has been used is utterly terrible. For instance, I have been to Masses was the sign of peace lasted at least 15 minutes and everyone in the parish had to walk around and give the sign of peace to every other member of the parish. I cannot imagine that each and every one of them had some disagreement with every other one that needed to be resolved before Communion, unless, of course, all of them have extremely conflicting personalities.
These examples are obviously an abuse of the rite, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states: “It is, however, appropriate that each person offer the sign of peace only to those who are nearest and in a sober manner.” The definition of sober that most closely aligns with the context of this text is as follows: “serious, sensible, and solemn. . .” And wishing someone peace does not include saying things or asking questions that are irrelevant to the Mass. But even this is not the most egregious abuse of the rite.
My parents are traditionalists, but occasionally have to attend the new order due to transportation constraints or other complications. Last week my mother was subjected to a new humiliation during the Sign of Peace. She often has great pain and dizziness and was unable to let go of the pew back, lest she falls. The woman in front of her turned, and when my mother did not hold out her hand to be shaken said, “No, huh? Okay. Whatever.” Clearly, the woman felt embarrassed at having held out her hand unshaken, and rather than simply accept that there are myriad reasons why someone might prefer not to shake, decided to humiliate my mother. This is not okay.
This response likely arose because most of us broken human beings fail to see those around us as equal human beings with equally complicated inner workings to our own. If that woman had seen my mother as equal to her in dignity, would she have been so quick to transfer her discomfort to my mother? I cannot think she would have. When we worship with people we do not know, part of the purpose of consistent liturgical practice is that these embarrassments will not occur. Best, then, to remain with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
The GIRM goes on to say, “The reprobated practice by which Priests, Deacons or the faithful here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease. For in doing thus, they render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy unstable, and not infrequently distort the authentic meaning of the Liturgy.”  So we should cease with all novelties and changes, including those that will put us into conflict with the other children of God in the pews.