Q I belong to one of those parishes where the whole Mass stops for what feels like an hour during the Sign of Peace. What I want to know is, what does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal say is the proper way to do the Sign of Peace? Do you have to shake hands, or is polite nod acceptable? And was there talk a few years ago about changing when we do it during the Mass? It seems really disruptive where it is.
A My second grade teacher Sister James Denise, OP, taught us this rhyme: “Patience is a virtue. Possess it if you can. Seldom found in a woman. Never found in a man!” So my first piece of advice to you is “patience,” because I doubt that the Mass stops for an hour. Maybe four or five minutes, but even that would be excessive.
So, here’s what the GIRM states on the matter:
82. As for the actual Sign of Peace to be given, the manner is to be established by the Conferences of Bishops in accordance with the culture and customs of the peoples. However, it is appropriate that each person, in a sober manner, offer the Sign of Peace only to those who are nearest.
154. The priest may give the Sign of Peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so that the celebration is not disrupted. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present), the priest may offer the Sign of Peace to a small number of the faithful near the sanctuary. According to what is decided by the Conference of Bishops, all express to one another peace, communion, and charity.
While the Sign of Peace is being given, it is permissible to say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” to which the reply is “Amen.”
From these passages I think you can conclude that no one is obliged to shake hands with another person, and a polite nod of the head should be sufficient, and even praiseworthy in the event that you might have a cold. Also, there had been significant discussion prior to the new version of the Roman Missal to move the “Rite of Peace” to the beginning of Mass, but that never happened. Finally, I agree that it can be disruptive for some people. For that reason, (cf. GIRM no. 154), the celebrant has the discretion to invite the congregants to exchange a Sign of Peace or not. The wise and prudent pastor who is close to his people will have the proper intuition about when and when not to invite the faithful to exchange a gesture of peace and good will to those nearby.