Tuesday, August 05, 2014

You Must Remember This: A Kiss Is Just a Kiss, Unless It's the Kiss of Peace

National Catholic Reporter Senior Analyst Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., comments on the recent decision by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) to leave the contentious Kiss of Peace where it is in the Eucharistic Liturgy.

If the CDW would read Reese's piece, they would learn that their refusal to follow the request of the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist -- to move the Kiss of Peace to the end of the Liturgy of the Word -- further corrupts what the kiss meant in the most ancient of Christian liturgical texts that liturgical scholars have found.

Not only are Reese's comments educational; they are also very entertaining.  And for my purposes, the history of the Kiss of Peace is another great example of how the creativity of church teaching sometimes moves forward only after church leaders turn into cul-de-sacs.  More on that in a moment.

Reece's wry comments include:

"Only in the Catholic church is a kiss never just a kiss."

And, the CDW's letter "shows why liturgical scholars have been praying for a new prefect of the congregation."

And, "Kissing at the conclusion of prayers appears to have been a common Christian custom."

And finally, "The Catholic community, no matter what the Vatican may want, has made the kiss of peace in its current place a joyous symbol, and no amount of catechesis will change that."

What is less entertaining -- and more ironic, really -- is that on one of those rare occasions when the Synod of Bishops actually got something right, the Vatican's response is to ignore them, and the very decent theology that Reece finds their request at least implied (whether or not they fully appreciated it).

Reece documents that in the most ancient text known to liturgical scholars, the first Apology of Saint Justin in the mid-second century, "the kiss occurred immediately after the prayers that concluded the liturgy of the Word.  Today this would mean placing the kiss of peace after the prayer of the faithful."

It is mistaken, Reece says, to see the Kiss of Peace as "a preparation for the Eucharistic sacrifice..."  Rather, he says, "The kiss at the end of the Liturgy of the Word symbolizes the community acceptance of the message they have just heard.  They are 'shaking on a deal.'  They are agreeing to a covenant."

Of course, the message the community has just heard in one way or another always involves reconciliation with one another and communion with each other.  So as the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, that process is a sine qua non for the communion with the Risen Lord brought about in the actions of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Reece says "Liturgical historians believe that the kiss moved to its current location when the Lord's Prayer was moved from the end of the prayer of the faithful to its current location prior to Communion."  An unintended consequence of moving the kiss with the Lord's Prayer was that the meaning of the kiss became confused.  And it has remained open to confusion for centuries since.

The history of the Kiss of Peace is another excellent instance of how the creativity of church teaching -- the subject of my doctoral dissertation -- works over time.  New developments in theology are not often straight-forward, upward progressions in the quest for accuracy and truth.  Sometimes progress is erratic and messy.  Sometimes the church must take a wrong turn, discover after a time (sometimes a very long time) that it has lost its way, then go back to earlier practice to learn where the wrong turn was made and what better alternative was possible.

In this case, liturgical scholarship has identified the wrong turn and, at least in 2005, convinced the Synod of Bishops to call for a correction.  (Of course, the bishops may have been more concerned with the community's serenity leading up to Communion than with the actual history of the Kiss of Peace.  But their request in fact would restore a better appreciation for the kiss than current practice allows.)  Because their request is theologically sound and makes good sense, it will likely be adopted before much longer -- perhaps even in some of our lifetimes.

Meanwhile, we can be disappointed that Pope Francis, Reece's fellow Jesuit and generally on top of things that are authentic and make good sense, signed off on this CDW pronouncement.  And we can join the prayers for a new prefect for the CDW -- one who pays attention to good liturgical scholarship and local liturgical instincts, and uses them to improve global liturgical practice.  And we can try to educate Catholics about what the Kiss of Peace is supposed to signify and how it will make more sense when it is eventually restored to its original place in the liturgy.

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