Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the June AD 1996
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question: Is the "sign of peace" ever given in the traditional Mass?

    Answer: The "sign of peace" is generally called the "kiss of peace," or in Latin, simply, the "pax" (pronounced like the English "pox.") In the traditional rite it is given by the priest to the Deacon at solemn Mass. Although called a "kiss," it is really more of an arms length embrace. The priest says, "peace be with thee," and the deacon responds, "and with thy spirit." The deacon then passes this gesture on to the subdeacon, and in turn to the other clergy. The pax may also be given to a crowned head of state. Bishops and princes occasionally receive the pax at low Mass.

    In the early Church the pax was exchanged at the beginning of the Mass of the Faithful, just prior to the Offertory. This seems to be in response to our Lord's caution that we be at peace with our brother before offering our gift at the altar (Mt. 5). St. Hypolitus, one of the early authors of the Roman Mass, excluded the unbaptized from the from the rite on the grounds that "their kiss is not yet pure." Hypolitus had the men greet only other men, and women only other women.

    By the early middle ages the pax was moved to a point somewhat before Communion and was received as a preparation for Communion by those who would receive sacramentally. The physical contact appears to have gotten out of hand, so that instead of embracing one another the communicants kissed a tablet or plate known as a pax-brede. The brede was first kissed by the celebrant and then carried by one of the ministers of the altar to a point where those approaching for Communion might kiss it. Some of the medieval pax-bredes are quite ornate, often being engraved in ivory or gold, or being elaborately painted. They varied widely in form, some being about the size of a small paten, with others being fairly large and tablet shaped. Today the pax-brede is still used to bring the pax to prelates and princes at low Mass.

    Toward the end of the middle ages the pax went from being a preparation for Communion to being a substitute for It, given to those who did not receive. Thus, even in twentieth century missals, we have the direction to omit the pax on those days when virtually everyone is expected to receive Communion (Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil) and in those Masses when nobody other than the priest receives (Good Friday and funeral Masses).

    By the sixteenth century, the pax had become a source of discord, with people vying for the honor of receiving it before the others. (See inset, below.) Debates would break out over who received it first the last time, or who was more worthy to receive it this time. There are documented accounts of physical violence breaking out, and legal action being brought to restrain the over-enthusiastic. In some cases, the pax-brede itself was used as a weapon! It is not surprising, then, to find the rubrics of the Tridentine missal restricting the pax to a more mild-mannered ceremony among the clergy.

Pox tecum?

    In 1494 the wardens of the parish of All Saints, Stanyng [England], presented Joanna Dyaca for breaking the paxbrede by throwing it on the ground, "because another woman of the parish had kissed it before her." On All Saints Day 1522 Master John Browne of the parish of Theydon-Garnon in Essex, having kissed the pax-brede at the parish Mass, smashed it over the head of Richard Pond, the holy-water clerk who had tendered it to him, "causing streams of blood to run to the ground." Brown was enraged because the pax had first been offered to Francis Hamden and his wife Margery, despite the fact that the previous Sunday he had warned Pond, "Clerke, if thou here after givest not me the pax first I shall breke it on thy hedd."

--- from Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven: Yale, 1992), p. 126-127


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