As a new Catholic many years ago, there were two rituals during the Mass that particularly appealed to me: holding hands during the Our Father and extending the sign of peace. Now I go out of my way to avoid the former (head bowed, hands folded) and oftentimes find myself gritting my teeth during the latter (not feeling peaceful at all, to be honest). For the purpose of this post, I'll focus on the sign of peace.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
There follows the rite of peace, by which the Church entreats peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family, and the faithful express to each other their ecclesial communion and mutual charity before communicating in the [Blessed] Sacrament.
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 (GIRM 82).
In the United States, our national bishops conference indicates that "the people extend to those around them a sign of peace, typically by shaking hands." If you'll notice, this guideline from the USCCB defines two ambiguous elements of the GIRM's instruction: the manner of the sign (in the U.S., shaking hands) and to whom the sign is given ("those around them").
Compare this to what usually occurs at your local Sunday Mass.
Immediately upon being told to offer the sign of peace, couples hug, kiss, and pet each other (yes, really); kids are caught up in bear hugs by parents and grandparents; friends backslap, high-five, and flash peace signs; everyone chatters, not necessarily saying "Peace be with you" but offering whatever casual greeting pops in their head. Meanwhile, anyone who happens to be at Mass alone is either left for last or ignored entirely. When remembered, the single person ordinarily gets a brief hand-touch (it can't really be called a handshake) and a mumbled "Peace!" while their minister of Christ's peace is already looking away rather than making eye contact.
What's going on here?
In my opinion, many congregants at Mass seem to be confusing a ritual performed during the Mass with an expression of affection reserved for intimates. In Middle Eastern and European culture, where the Mass originated, it is not unusual for people to greet acquaintances with a chaste peck on the cheek (or sometimes on both cheeks), even for members of the same sex. This greeting is the equivalent to an American handshake. That is why the ancient "kiss of peace" has been "translated" to a handshake in much of Western society. In Far Eastern cultures, such as Japan, where bowing is the standard greeting among acquaintances, congregants might exchange bows at the sign of peace.
In our society, hugging and kissing are reserved for intimates, while handshakes are exchanged with friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Because such a range of public displays of affection is our cultural norm, and since we attend the Mass as brothers and sisters in Christ with equal standing before God as members of the communion of saints, it is inappropriate to bestow more lavish displays of affection upon some and more formal displays of affection upon others. Rather than interrupting the Mass to engage in public displays of affection, what we should be doing at the sign of peace is to engage in a ritual that signifies our unity in Christ prior to our reception of the Communion that accomplishes that unity.
Modern American society very much tends to shy away from entering into ritual, thinking it "empty" and "meaningless" unless a person happens to experience emotion during its performance. In addition to corrupting the ritual of the sign of peace, that is why you also see newly married couples at the altar engaging in the kind of kissing that belongs to sexual foreplay rather than exchanging a chaste kiss that ritually signifies the marital relations in which they will privately engage to consummate their union.
What are the consequences of this corruption of the sign of peace?
I hear all the time from single Catholics who can't stand to go to Mass alone. Unless they can find someone willing to go along with them, they would rather stay home and watch Mass on television. At one time I didn't have much sympathy for that attitude. After all, going to Mass is not like going to the movies: It's not an event for bringing along a buddy with whom you can have a good time. But then I started noticing how long I had to wait to be noticed by all the family and friend groups at Mass who were too busy hugging, kissing, stroking, and chattering to offer me a sign of peace. I once noticed a profoundly disabled man in a wheelchair, a quadraplegic who evidently also had a cognitive disability, entirely ignored by everyone around him except his caregiving mother.
In other words, I noticed that the rite of peace, which is supposed to signify the Church's desire to "[entreat] peace and unity for herself and for the whole human family," had become a pre-Communion klatsch for everyone fortunate enough to be in the "in crowd." Those who either do not have homies to hang with at Mass or the ability to reach out to those around them all too often are essentially shunned.
Is there a solution to be had to this problem?
Perhaps we should reclaim the sign of peace for what it is: A ritual at Mass during which the celebrant and the congregation is expected to extend Christ's peace—not necessarily first and foremost to family and friends, for whom there should be plenty of time to greet and chat with after Mass—but to the stranger, the lonely, the isolated, the one who can do nothing but receive without giving back. That does not mean that family and friends need to be ignored; but if they are given a ritual handclasp and a "Peace be with you," then perhaps there will be enough time to greet a few more nearby congregants before the Lamb of God begins. And perhaps the disparity in the treatment of those in nearby pews will be less pronounced.
Stickler though I can be for liturgical rubrics, I also think the rules can be bent a bit for those in special need. Remember that quadraplegic man I noticed at Mass? When I realized what was happening to him, I walked several rows over to take his hand in mine and say, "Peace be with you." He could not respond; his face did not change. But his mother's eyes filled with tears and she said, "Thank you."