When the Vatican announced changes to the way individuals should express signs of peace during mass, an article from the Religious News Service reported:

In an effort to insure a more sober ritual, the Vatican has urged bishops to clamp down on singing, moving around and other casual expressions of affection when the sign of peace is exchanged during Mass.

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments led by Spanish Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, has sent a letter to bishops around the world expressing concern about what it considers to be ritual abuses.

Among them, he said, were turning the sign of peace into a “song of peace,” the priest leaving the altar during the interlude, or use of the ritual to offer congratulations at weddings or condolences at funerals.

Pope Francis reportedly approved the letter, which confirmed the importance of the rite, before it was distributed to bishops’ conferences.

One scholar quoted in the RNS article, Rev. Anthony Ruff, a theology professor at St. John’s School of Theology-Seminary in Minnesota, predicts that even with the letter,  “I suspect such local practices will continue and the Vatican letter won’t change much, since most people don’t find it irreverent to reach out in friendliness even if it’s beyond what the rules allow.”

So why doesn’t he think that Catholic communities will change? While the article doesn’t explain his rationale, there are a number of common themes raised here at https://studyingcongregations.org that come into play.

First, religious communities develop their own congregational cultures. Think about the religious community that encourages an extended prayer time, where attenders can feel free to raise their hands to share joys and concerns during the worship experience. Other communities opt to have written prayers handed to the worship leaders and read from the pulpit. These activities have been created and sustained over time, creating a unique style for each community. In many Catholic churches, the sign of peace is a time for individuals to welcome and visit with friends in the community, giving hugs and sharing handshakes. When that activity has been engrained in the worship experience, it can be hard to change.

Secondly, religious communities within the United States are overwhelmingly becoming more congregational and less institutional over time. R. Stephen Warner calls this “de-facto congregationalism” (and wrote a piece for this site on the topic, view it here). Churches, even ones where the central hierarchy (such as bishops, archbishops, and the pope) is strong, often feel distanced from that hierarchy and feel closely tied to their local congregation. Their congregation is unique and meaningful, and the hierarchy and institution may not be able to recognize that. Top-down changes can be viewed with resistance, and those changes are often accepted depending on how strict the priest within the community is.