Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Shaky Ground ...

Oh dear - feeling quite cranky today. Please forgive my rant-lite but ... just who thought up this shaking hands thing at Mass anyhow? I have to confess I struggle with this from time to time. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not anti-social, I love the communal aspect of the Mass, and enjoy a good greeting as much as the next gal, but am I the only Catholic concerned about germs here? Over the years the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta has repeatedly issued warnings that a primary transmission of cold and flu germs originates, not in the dreaded sneeze or cough as previously thought, but through hand contact.

I don't know how many times I have sat in front of or behind people who have hacked, sneezed, dripped and schnuffled their way through Mass, and when the Kiss of Peace arrives, I find their damp hands outstretched to greet me. What do we do? We are to be gracious and friendly so we shake hands with a grimaced smile. They believe you are uttering, "Peace be with you my friend," when what you've really muttered was, "Please, why aren't you home in bed?"

One winter, over a two-week period, the whole right side of the daily Mass crew was slowly wiped out when one diligent faithful attendee kept coming to Mass with a dreadful drippy cold. During the Our Father were our thoughts piously attending to the words Jesus taught us? No, we were cringing in anticipation of having to shake hands with the cold-monger. After a week of gratuitous germ-sharing, he finally took to his bed. (Alright, I do admit to having attended Mass maybe once with a very very slight cold ----- okay, okay -- yes, I have gone with a terrible full blown cold and been the actual cold-monger fellow parishioners were dreading. I mean, haven’t we all?).

But this time, when I felt the parish cold coming on, I determined I simply would not shake hands, so at the Kiss of Peace, I stuffed my hands in my pockets, turned around to the couple behind me and murmured quietly, "Peace be with you; sorry, I would shake hands but I have a bad cold coming on."

They smiled confusedly and said, "Pardon?"

"I have a cold; I don't want to spread my germs."

"You have worms?"

I held up my hands and said, "No, no, I don't have worms. I just don't want to give you my cold. See, I'm all germy."

They grabbed my hands and pumped them enthusiastically, "Germany? We didn't know you were German. Our son was stationed in Baden-Baden for six years. Is that anywhere near your home town? You know, he thought you German people were the nicest he's met in the whole world."

I smiled wanly and turned to be met by the now healed cold-monger who snatched a hand from my pocket and wrung it excitedly, gushing, "Peace, peace, it's so grand to be back now that I've got that cold beat." I offered him a sickly grin and murmured as he made his way back to his pew, "Not for long." He waved cheerily and mouthed back, "Yes, I am feeling strong."

After Mass the woman who'd sat behind me sidled up and whispered confidentially, "I have just the remedy for those troublesome worms."

Let's face it. It is a lose-lose situation. If we shake hands (especially during the flu and cold season) we risk transmitting or receiving germs; yet, if we avoid it, we are regarded as a liturgical leper or an intransigent Catholic traditionalist.

And then there’s the matter of the liturgical gyrations involved in an actual Kiss of Peace, where we find ourselves engaging in the Reverse Triple-twist, Double-Salchow Swivel so as to shake hands with everyone near us. From a God’s-eye point of view it must be His weekly smile. I’ve calculated that if we are in the middle of a crowded pew section on a Sunday morning, we are obligated to shake at least eight hands. And, of course, every other person is obligated to shake eight hands as well (except, of course, if we find ourselves at the end of the pew, or in the first or last pew, in which case we must shake five, that is, unless the priest, deacon or ministers of hospitality come down the aisles, thereby creating the unknown variable).

Co-ordinating this weekly ecclesiastical ballet is another thing indeed. We’ve all been there. We turn to greet the person on our right to discover they have turned to meet the person on their right, so we turn to our left and find they have turned to the person on their left. Beginning to feel like social outcasts, we turn to the people behind us to learn they have turned to the people behind them! And so it goes. Then there are the occasions we find ourselves between two beloved family members or two friends. Who to turn to first? My always diplomatic son has solved the problem neatly. He crosses his arms and extends hands to family members to the right and left of him.

But, really now, must we go through these germy weekly calisthenics? Could someone please put us out of our misery and permit us instead to smile and nod grandly at one another.

And while I am on a roll here, how about those eager priests who go walkabout during the Kiss of Peace and shake hands with the first two people in just about every pew - all this after having washed their hands before Mass and touched them up at the Lavabo. Or those good-hearted extraordinary ministers who come up from the congregation at Communion time, receive the ciborium from the priest and commence distributing Holy Communion without at least a token effort to cleanse their pinkies. These are probably the same scrupulous people who carry large vats of moist Handywipies in their cars.

As for priests who have deleted ritual hand-washing from their Mass, don't get me started...


JP said...

Welcome back!

One solution I've heard to avoiding the germy hands is to firmly hold a crumpled kleenex in your "shaking" hand! Someone else has suggested a rosary, but that takes us down another path.

The Lavabo is (or was anyway) not intended as an actual washing. If memory serves, it is purely symbolic. Nowadays though I've heard of priests using Purell during the ritual.

Our priest brought up the possibility of having the EMHCs "purelling" before they distribute Communion. The liturgist in me cringes in horror. I wouldn't be against a discreet procedure in the back though.

Thom Nickels said...

In the Traditional Latin Mass, the true Mass, there are no creepy handshaking issues. Handshaking does not belong in a liturgical ceremony.

Hidden One said...

The sign of peace also happens to be entirely optional in Novus Ordo Masses.

Estase said...

I totally agree. Kissing during Mass also seems rather inappropriate to me.

Hidden One said...

As an additional note, in Canada (at least), one option for the Sign of Peace is to bow one's head toward the other, rather than shake hands. Since I keep my hands folded clean through the standing portions of the Mass (having been trained as an altar server for both Forms), I have managed to avoid handshakes for months (and I normally attend daily Mass). It helps that I often attend Mass with one or two friends who do the same - in which case I always make the sign of peace to one of them first. I also find that the sign of peace is much more endurable if one refuses to move one's feet for its duration. Pivoting only!