In National Catholic Register, self-professed introvert Jennifer Fulwiler advises other people-shy Catholics on how to give and receive the Sign of Peace without dissolving into a puddle of self-consciousness. She must be a very good Catholic indeed, because she breaks the whole process down into a long series of — you guessed it — rules. Thomas Aqunas would be proud:
WHAT TO DO
The sign of peace occurs shortly after the Our Father. You want to be able to focus on the Lord’s Prayer, so if you plan to do any warm-up exercises, stretching, or visualization techniques to prepare yourself for the hand shaking and interaction, try to do it after the Liturgy of the Word when they pass the collection plates.
When the time comes, you engage in the sign of peace by shaking the hands of the people around you and saying, “Peace be with you.” Each handshake preferably includes a smile and at least one full second of eye contact.
It is acceptable to say only “peace be with you” and move on to the next person. “Peace of Christ” and the abbreviated “peace” are acceptable alternatives. If so inclined, you may feel free to include spontaneous salutations such as “hi” or “good morning,” but the Church does not require that you do so.
Some websites claim that it is acceptable to offer the Latin form of the greeting, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (“The peace of the Lord be with you always”), but I don’t recommend it. A non-socially-awkward person might be able to pull it off, but people like us would just end up making everyone nervous.
WHOM TO ACKNOWLEDGE
Offer the sign of peace to all persons within a four-foot radius of where you are seated. This includes people in front of and behind you.
If you are seated next to a group of people, it is customary to offer the sign of peace to everyone within the group, up to a maximum of ten people. (It is acceptable though not preferable to pretend like you are not able to lean over far enough to shake all of their hands, and alternatively offer a small wave and lip-sync the greeting of peace. Some parishioners may choose in this case to spice things up by pantomiming an “air handshake” in lieu of a wave, though this is not required.)
Offer to shake the hand of anyone over the age of two. You do not need to shake the hands of very young children and babies, though you are required to acknowledge them and comment on their cuteness.
This all may be very well and good for authentic introverts. My own introversion is compromised by a frenzied neediness: I may avoid people, but they’d better not look like they want to avoid me, or there’ll be hell to pay. So, rather than putting myself forward (as Fulwiler suggests) or hiding (as she admits wanting to do), I usually stand stock still and wait to see who approaches. What happens then could make or break my worship experience. Broadly speaking, if people clasp hands firmly with a smile, it’s a good service. If they offer me the tips of their fingers with a sigh or a sneer, it’s a bad one.
Now, in my old parish, it was much more complicated. The norms of the place encouraged effusive displays of affection, and parishioners tended to take every bit of license given them. In concrete terms, this meant a lot of hugging. I found the practice to be a curate’s egg. On the good side, it sometimes served as an ice-breaking first move in a mating dance. A young woman and I discovered that our fascination was mutual when our liturgical embrace turned into a sort of bump-and-grind. On the bad side, this sometimes meant finding myself clasped to the bosom of a person I detested — and who, now that I think about it, probably detested me. They say familiarity breeds contempt; it can also express contempt. Did this sort of thing go on in the upper room?
I’ve been shopping for a new home parish for a while now, comparing different liturgies and different moods. And though I’ve found myself, from time to time, in some pretty conservative places, no one has yet greeted me in Latin. The first time anyone tells me “Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum,” then — I swear before Almighty God — I will shout back, “Asalaam aleikum to you, too, my brother!” and trap him in one of those continually mutating urban handclasps that will run straight through to the dismissal.