March 2015 Print

The Pax Ceremony


by Fr. Christopher Danel

Friendship with God, the foundation of the Communion of Saints and thus the basis of friendship among those who share the life of charity, finds one of its principal expressions in the Sacred Liturgy by way of the conferral of the peace of Christ—that peace which the world can neither give nor take away—and this is shown most resplendently through the ceremony called “the Pax.” As the Pax (meaning Peace) shows so clearly, the peace of Christ flows forth from the altar of God and indeed from the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ to those united in friendship with God in His Holy Church and who share in the abundance of graces and spiritual blessings which this divine friendship bestows.

In its strict sense, the Pax ceremony in the Roman Rite is considered the traditional expression of fraternal charity exchanged by the clergy after the Agnus Dei at a Solemn or Pontifical Mass. As this charity which animates souls comes forth from God, the Pax as well comes forth from Him: from the altar—the pre-eminent symbol of Christ in a church—and from Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament which has just been consecrated and which rests upon this same altar. The Pax originates and passes on like a message or gift coming directly from Christ, therefore the rite takes place in this way: the Priest kisses the altar and in such a way he symbolically receives the Pax from Christ. Then the Priest gives the Pax to the Deacon by means of a liturgical embrace and by saying to him: Pax tecum (Peace be with you), which the Deacon reciprocates with: Et cum spiritu tuo (And with thy spirit). The Deacon then gives the Pax to the Subdeacon in the same way, and the Subdeacon gives the Pax to the clergy assisting in choir and to the Cérémonière (MC), through whom it is passed to the clerics serving in the sanctuary. In a Pontifical Mass, in which a Bishop is the celebrant, the Bishop gives the Pax to the Assistant Priest and Assistant Deacons as well. The symbolism of the Priest kissing the altar before giving the Pax holds true for other times in the Mass as well. For example, he kisses the altar (=Christ) before turning to salute the entire Church—those present in body and those in spirit—with the benediction Dominus Vobiscum (the Lord be with you), auguring the blessing and presence of Christ upon them.

The liturgical gesture used for the Pax resembles a reserved embrace. In this we see the traditional sobriety, nobility, and decorum of the Roman Rite in comparison to the exuberant rites of the East. It is indeed not so much a gesture of embrace as it is a discreet and stylized representation of a reverential kiss. The Pax, in fact, has also the name of osculum pacis (the kiss of peace) or φίλημα άγιον (=phílema hagion, the holy kiss). It is necessary to consider that in cultures of antiquity the kiss has a different meaning; among those who are not related to each other, it is primarily a gesture of reverence or respect. This same reverence is inferred also in the ceremonial kiss of the Priest’s hand at Mass, especially considering that his hands have been consecrated.

In a wider sense, the Pax ceremony can be considered not only as the specified gesture itself, but also within the context of the entire set of gestures and prayers from the end of the Pater Noster up to the Pax itself. The prayers of this set all have the peace of Christ as their common thread and all lead to the Pax. This set has the following five components: the Embolism (with da propitius pacem); the Fraction (with Pax Domini); the Agnus Dei (with dona nobis pacem); the Oratio ad pacem (with pacem meam do vobis); and the Pax (with Pax tecum). 

The Embolism

The words at the conclusion of the Pater Noster (…libera nos…) serve as the phrase which is elaborated upon in the prayer called the Embolism. This prayer is “linked” to the conclusion of the Pater Noster, as it begins with those very same words (Libera nos) and it develops them into the larger theme of Christ’s peace which the Priest implores—through the intercession of Our Lady and the Saints—to free souls from the spiritual and temporal evils and perils of this life: Libera nos, quæsumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis, præteritis, præsentibus, et futuris… (Deliver us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, from all evils, past, present, and to come…). Thus he implores protection from the abiding consequences and pains of past sins, protection from the evils which threaten souls at present, and preservation from unknown dangers ahead. The central words of the Embolism are: Da propitius pacem in diebus nostris (mercifully grant peace in our days). There is a particular gesture made by the Priest as he pronounces those central words imploring Christ’s peace: he crosses himself with the paten and kisses it. Symbolically, it recalls that the peace of Christ is won by way of His redemption of man on the Cross. Liturgically, it provides a glimpse of the ceremonies of the ancient Papal Mass, which was the basic template of the Roman Rite. The Roman Ordines from at least the ninth century describe the ceremony of antiquity in which the Roman Pontiff kisses the paten at this very point (at Da propitius pacem), and the paten is then passed to the assisting clerics to kiss in succession, in such a way that the paten acts as a “Pax instrument.” The use of such an instrument will be described further on.

The Fraction

At the conclusion of the Embolism comes the Fraction, in which the Host is fractured into three parts. The symbolism of the three parts is considered to represent the Blessed Trinity, the three parts of the life of Christ (earthly life, Passion, eternal glory), as well as the three parts of the one Mystical Body (militant, suffering, triumphant). The smallest piece is placed into the chalice for what is called the commingling (commixtio). Before the Priest does so, he traces three crosses with this small fragment over the chalice, and pronounces a blessing of peace: Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (the Peace of the Lord be always with you), and this is what places the Fraction squarely in the context of this set of prayers connected to the Pax. The prayer of the commingling expresses the final fruit of this peace, which is everlasting life: fiat accipientibus nobis in vitam aeternam (May this…be to us who receive it propitious to life everlasting). The small fragment of the Host placed into the chalice also reflects the antiquity of the Roman Rite in that it is a remnant of the ceremony used in the Masses celebrated in the City of Rome in the earliest centuries to denote unity in time and unity in place. In the Papal Mass, a portion of a Host reserved from the Roman Pontiff’s previous Mass (the Sancta) would be brought to him to commingle with the Precious Blood in the chalice at his present Mass as a sign of the unity of all Masses and all believers in time. In addition, on Sundays a Host from his present Mass (the Fermentum) would be sent in procession to each of the parishes of Rome, where it would be commingled in the chalice at the parochial Mass as a sign of the unity of all Masses and all believers in place and the unity of the Church in general. In both cases (Sancta and Fermentum), the fragment was placed into the chalice with the same commingling ceremony used in every Mass of the true Roman Rite since that time up to the present, that is, with three crosses and the “Pax Domini.

The Agnus Dei

Here the Priest and ministers (i.e., Deacon and Subdeacon) recite the Agnus Dei while it is sung by the choir and faithful. The imprecations are for the mercy of Christ in the first two strophes, but in the third, it beseeches His peace: Dona nobis pacem (Grant us Thy peace). This is precisely due to its proximity to the Pax ceremony and its context in this set of prayers associated with the Pax. In fact, this imploration of peace is substituted on Maundy Thursday at the Missa in Cœna Domini by a third Miserere nobis, and is omitted altogether on Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil, because the Pax is not given on those occasions.

The Oratio ad Pacem

This is the prayer for peace recited sottovoce by the Priest before giving the Pax to the Deacon. It is the final imploration for peace and recalls the Lord’s words to the Apostles in St. John XIV, 27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” It beseeches Christ’s peace for the Church: eamque secundum voluntatem tuam pacificare et coadunare digneris (vouchsafe to grant her peace and unity according to Thy will). This prayer is omitted not only during the Easter Triduum, when the Pax is not given, but also at Requiem Masses, since the Pax is omitted in these as well, for they are offered not for present peace but for the repose of the dead. It is clear by its subject how closely the Oratio ad Pacem is linked to the Pax ceremony itself.

The Pax

Having already considered the ceremonies of the Pax above, a brief consideration can now be given to another important aspect of this rite, and that is its location in the Mass. The Pax placed between the Canon and the Communion is specifically Roman and from Rome the use extended also to the Ambrosian Liturgy of Milan. Its placement at this point of the Mass is clear from the writings of Pope Innocent I (AD 416) whose explanation is similar to that of Tertullian on this point: that the Pax serves also as a signaculum orationis, that is, a kind of final seal upon the Canon of the Mass, a seal of fraternal charity. The Pax at this location of the Mass is also a proximate preparation for Holy Communion, which is recalled also by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa when he describes how each element of the Mass serves as a preparation for Communion, including the Pax (S. Th. III, q. 83, a. 4). It can also be noted that the Pax occurs in other ceremonies, though not exactly with the same rites: in Baptism and Confirmation, the celebrant graces the recipient of the sacrament with the blessing Pax tecum; this is said also during the ceremonies of Ordination by the prelate to the newly-ordained, and the liturgical embrace of the Pax is exchanged on that occasion.

The Pax Instrument

An analogous way of passing the Pax is by means of an instrument. It has been seen above that the paten was used as a Pax instrument in the Papal Mass, but it was not entirely practical that the paten normally serve this function in other Masses, not only because it is immediately required for the Fraction, but because of not infrequent damage or indignity suffered by the paten in the process, as decried by some local councils (e.g., Spain in 1512 and Milan in 1523). Therefore several types of other instruments emerged to serve as instruments through which the Pax could be passed. They are called by various names, such as instrumentum pacis, osculatorium, portapace, or simply pax, and the rubrics of the Missal describe their use (Ritus servandus X, 3). If their origin traces to a substitution of the paten for this role, their employ nevertheless became deferred to the moment of the Pax itself, and they were used to pass it to others in the sanctuary at that time. It would be presented especially to a bishop in attendance and even to certain dignitaries (magistrates, barons, nobles) as described in the Ceremonial of Bishops (Cær. Episc. I, 24.6 and 30.2). The various types of instruments were a cross, the Book of the Gospels, or more commonly, a small holy image engraved on ivory or silver-clad wood, from which the terms Pax Brede or Pax Board derive. The images on these Pax Bredes would be images of the Crucifix most commonly, but also of the Annunciation, Ascension, Blessed Sacrament, or Agnus Dei. They are still seen in the treasuries of the larger basilicas of Europe and are indeed exquisite works of art.

The rite of the Pax, in conclusion, is the manifest expression of fraternal charity which itself flows from the source of charity: the Triune God, who is charity Himself (Deus caritas est). It reflects the surety that those who are in divine friendship with the Father are bestowed the peace of Christ and the interior tranquility of soul which is the balm of the Holy Ghost. “So great is the gift of peace,” wrote St. Augustine, “that even in this earthly and mortal life there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we desire with such zeal, or find to be more thoroughly gratifying” (De civitate Dei, XIX, 11), and that this peace is consummated in eternal life: “This is the final beatitude, this the ultimate consummation, the unending end” (ibid., 10).