Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Altar Rail Returning to Use

July 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Gen

The following is from the National Catholic Register:

(I have only bolded some key points. There is no need to offer commentary on something this well-outlined.)

Altar Rail Returning to Use

Architects, pastors and parishioners find it enhances reverence in church.


In Tiverton, R.I., when some parishioners suggested returning altar rails to the sanctuary of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, Father Jay Finelli gladly accepted, little knowing shortly thereafter the Pope’s 2007 motu proprio letter Summorum Pontificum would follow and he would be interested in learning how to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass.

In Norwalk, Conn., when a groundswell of parishioner support encouraged pastor Father Greg Markey to restore St. Mary Church, the second-oldest parish in the diocese, to its original 19th-century neo-gothic magnificence, he made sure altar rails were again part of the sanctuary.

Altar rails are present in several new churches architect Duncan Stroik has designed. Among them, the Thomas Aquinas College Chapel in Santa Paula, Calif., the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., and three others on the drawing boards.

Altar (Communion) rails are returning for all the right reasons.

Said Father Markey: “First, the Holy Father is requiring holy Communion from him be received on the knees. Second, it’s part of our tradition as Catholics for centuries to receive holy Communion on the knees. Third, it’s a beautiful form of devotion to our blessed Lord.”

James Hitchcock, professor and author of Recovery of the Sacred (Ignatius Press, 1995), thinks the rail resurgence is a good idea. The main reason is reverence, he said. “Kneeling’s purpose is to facilitate adoration,” he explained.

When Stroik proposed altar rails for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Cardinal [Raymond] Burke liked the idea and thought that was something that would give added reverence to the Eucharist and sanctuary.”

In Eastern Orthodox churches, there is an iconostasis — a wall of icons and religious paintings that separate the nave from the sanctuary — rather than altar rail separating the sanctuary. While the altar rail is usually about two feet high, the iconostasis veils most of the sanctuary.

“The altar rail is nothing compared to that,” he says, “and these are our Eastern brethren. We can benefit and learn something.”

Altar Rail History

They may be returning, but were altar rails supposed to be taken out of sanctuaries?

“There is nothing in Vatican II or post-conciliar documents which mandate their removal,” said Denis McNamara, author of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hillenbrand Books, 2009) and assistant director and professor at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.

Cardinal Francis Arinze strongly affirmed this point during a 2008 video session while he was still prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments: “The Church from Rome never said to remove the altar rails.”

So what happened?

“Unfortunately, democratic ideas came into the situation after Vatican II,” Hitchcock said.

Stroik points some out of these ideas: a general iconoclasm that rejected the past, a desire to make churches into gathering spaces more like Protestant meeting houses, and the argument that kneeling is a sign of submission, which is seen as disrespectful to the modern person — we didn’t kneel before kings and queens, so it was more “democratic” not to kneel.

Added McNamara: “Some people called them ‘fences’ which set up division between priest and people.” (Remember what the IPPG said about the communion rail at St. Thomas?)

“Of course,” he said, “theologically there is a significant meaning in the distinction between nave and sanctuary. Just as there was confusion over the roles of ordained and laity at the time, so there was confusion about the architectural manifestation of those roles.”
Altar rails give “a clear designation as to what is the sanctuary,” Father Markey said. “The word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the word ‘holy,’ which means ‘set apart.’ The sanctuary is set apart from the rest of the church because it reinforces our understanding of what holiness is. The sanctuary is symbolically the head of the church and represents Christ as the head.”

McNamara traces church architecture roots to the Temple of Solomon: The large room corresponded to the church nave; the Holy of Holies, an image of heaven, corresponded to today’s sanctuary. They were separated visually by the great veil, which was torn when Christ died.

“[The altar rail] is still a marker of the place where heaven and earth meet, indicating that they are not yet completely united,” McNamara explained.

“But, at the same time, the rail is low, very permeable, and has a gate, so it does not prevent us from participating in heaven. So we could say there is a theology of the rail, one which sees it as more than a fence, but as a marker where heaven and earth meet, where the priest, acting in persona Christi, reaches across from heaven to earth to give the Eucharist as the gift of divine life.”

Reverence at Mass

Altar rails have an important role for the extraordinary form of the Mass where, Father Finelli noted, reception of Communion has to be on the tongue. He celebrates the extraordinary form weekly in Advent and Lent and monthly the rest of the year.
Communicants kneel at the oak railing that was crafted by a parishioner who is a professional woodworker. The rail was gilded by parishioners. They crafted a similar altar rail for the adoration chapel.

The presence of the rails has made an impression on the 2,000-family parish. “So many people kept requesting to use the altar rail,” he recalled, “I decided at the beginning of Lent that people receive at the altar rail.” (The requirement is for all weekday and special feast Masses in the ordinary form too.)

Given the option to kneel or stand, many choose to kneel to receive Communion. While they can receive on the tongue or in the hand, more people are choosing to receive on the tongue.

As Father Finelli put it, “It’s a very strong sign for the love and respect for the Real Presence because it’s really Jesus we’re receiving.”

Father Finelli clarifies that for Latin Catholics to receive the Eucharist while standing and in the hand is an indult, a special permission granted by the Holy See, because the ordinary way by Church law is still to receive while kneeling and on the tongue. (The indult was granted at the request of the American bishops.)

While the extraordinary form is celebrated three times weekly at St. Mary’s in Connecticut, Father Markey says the Communion rails are used for all ordinary form Masses as well. In his 1,000-family parish, parishioners also have the option at the ordinary form to kneel or stand.

This is approved by Rome. He notes the Vatican directive: “In 2003 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments says in the ordinary form ‘communicants who chose to kneel are not to be denied holy Communion … nor accused of disobedience …’”

Stroik designed St. Mary’s renovated sanctuary incorporating hand-carved marble neo-gothic altar rails with brass gates that Father Markey purchased from a church that was closing in Pennsylvania. It beautifully matches the original white marble fixed altar and new marble free-standing altar, which brings another dimension to liturgical symbolism.

“When we gather at the altar rails, we symbolically gather at the altar,” Stroik said.

Making both altar and rails from the same materials — in this case marble — makes the connection even clearer.

Liturgical architecture expert McNamara agrees. He has found that some old church architecture books consider the rail the “people’s altar” and thus was made with the same marble as that of the altar.
To add to the symbolic connection, some churches cover the rails during Communion with linens similar to those on the altar.

Drawn to Prayer

There are yet more reasons for incorporating altar rails. Stroik finds where they have been removed in a cathedral, basilica or historic church receiving numerous visitors, many don’t know how sacred the altar is and wander around the sanctuary. The church has to put up ropes and signs like in a museum to do what altar rails were supposed to do: “create a real threshold so people can tell it’s a special place, a holy place set apart.”
Stroik says the altar rail is “an invitation for people to come close to the sanctuary, kneel and pray before the tabernacle, a statue of Our Lady or images of saints.”

Father Markey said returning the rails has been a great success.
Longtime parishioners who have attended St. Mary’s for 50 years or more regretted the magnificent altar rail being torn out in the 1960s. They now tell him, “Thank God you brought it back, Father.”

He also notices worship is enhanced for adults as well as children: “Little children like to kneel and pray there while their mom and dad receive holy Communion,” said Father Markey. “There’s almost universal embracing. It’s one of the most popular decisions I’ve made as pastor.”

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15 Responses to “Altar Rail Returning to Use”

  1. Rosemary says:

    I think this one step, more than any other, has the possibility of returning due reverence to the Church today. Thank you for posting this!

  2. Scott W, says:

    Ohh…National Catholic Register. I always get those mixed up, so I was baffled at first why the story wasn’t portending collapse of the Church if altar rails are reintroduced.

  3. I am in favor of altar rails.

  4. anonymous says:

    The parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle regularly used their Communion rail until the parish was dissolved. It was a beautiful aspect of their worship. Father L. James Callan continued the use of the Communion rail despite the strong trends at the time to eliminate it.
    At his funeral Mass, the Bishop along with Sister Mary Binsack tried desperately to make parishioners stand for Communion but in tribute to Father Callan they all knelt for Communion behind the Bishop’s back. Fr. Tanck despised the Communion rail and the parishioners use of it. There was a constant struggle with him to maintain its use. The use of the Communion rail at STA and the DoR’s destain of the STA parishioners that stubbornly refused to give up the practice was certainly a factor in the demise of their parish. All they wanted to do was kneel when receiving their Lord and God. How sad! God Bless Father Callan!

  5. Stage says:

    St Mary’s downtown Mass was filthy with applause today. You would think that they might want to try and channel some of that attention towards the Lord Most High. The Homily was caked with much talk of the Priest about himself riddled with ‘quipiness’. Swell guy though, you know. The church was a veritable gabfest prior to the service when there is supposed to be a span of reverential silence, or at least some respect for others who are seeking it. Not a bended a knee before the King of Kings, the Creator of the Universe. Chummy crowd; sadly self-absorded and hindered by pride and its ailments. They are missing the remedy found in the Scripture reading today. Would they ever bow and revere the King of Kings revealed in the form of a child in a lowly manger? He was there but they were led away from Him, unwittingly. It is interesting how few would admonish them at least out of concern for themselves. He wants to be worshiped in the true spirit, not the spirit of the world. They ought to be more cautious and seek out Wisdom, especially if there are any children around. God sees this folly. It is a sad state.

  6. Eliza10 says:

    “Added McNamara: “Some people called them ‘fences’ which set up division between priest and people.””

    Sigh. Some people would mean our Bishop and the DoR leadership?

    I love how at the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee there is the rail/fence dividing the cloistered Monks. (Unfortunately, they aren’t completely immune to progressive times and you don’t kneel before it to receive communion.) Its how its done at all the monasteries, I believe? It seems to right to separate those whose lives are consecrated in a special and sacrificial way. So should it be the same for the Priest, whose life is consecrated also in a sacrificial way, when he is about his priestly duties at the altar. No robed pastoral administrator authoritatively standing behind him like she has a role there, either! Just the priest, and his kneeling altar-servers, attentive to his holy work.

  7. Eliza10 says:

    “The railing at the Trappist Abbey is not an Altar Rail but a cloister barrier which continues on either side of the lower passages surrounding the chapel’s sanctuary and nave, and even to the outdoors in the form of fencing. Do not confuse the two.”

    You are absolutely right; there is a difference and I am aware. I was just making my own connection between the two.

  8. Eliza10 says:

    “Secular or diocesan priests, religious sisters who are not nuns and mendicant friars are not cloistered and should not be.”

    And this is why I said, “So should it be the same for the Priest, whose life is consecrated also in a sacrificial way, WHEN HE IS ABOUT HIS PRIESTLY DUTIES AT THE ALTAR”. (please notice caps, which I put there for you!)

  9. A Catholic says:

    Thank you for posting this article. I’m all for altar rails. As it says in the article, without the rails, people easily forget the sacredness of the altar and wander around the sanctuary. This happens all over the DOR. It doesn’t help people to remember the holiness of the Lord when reminders like altar rails are removed.

    One of the most shameful chapters in the DOR in recent years was the jackhammering and dismantaling of the beautiful atlar rail at St. Ambrose. It was a complete, absolute, and totally unnecessary destructive waste of money. It was another example of why so many people are so ready for a change in leadership in this diocese.

  10. DW says:

    I appreciate the posting of the GIRM where it is very clear that communion is to be received in a standing position.

    This is a great example of how the management of this blog are hypocritical- when a rule supports their arch conservative agenda it is highlighted and held high. When a rule does not support their agenda it is ignored.

  11. Gen says:

    Oh, come on. We have never said you can’t receive in the hand. What we have said, and Pope Benedict, too, is that the preferred manner of receiving Communion is kneeling and on the tongue. It is not the *only* way, just the preferred way. There is an indult from the American bishops to receive standing and in the hand. Then again, you should already know this, seeing as how I’m the one who actually posted the GIRM’s statement on the manner of receiving communion. Your complaint isn’t really logical – you can’t say we hide the truth, or skew it, and then point to our citing the GIRM as proof.

    A reminder of our comment policy: You are guests here. If you disagree with us, fine – you’re free to do so. However, you have no right or privilege to condemn, label, vilify, or pass judgment on the staff.

  12. Dr. K says:

    I appreciate the posting of the GIRM where it is very clear that communion is to be received in a standing position.

    This is a great example of how the management of this blog are hypocritical- when a rule supports their arch conservative agenda it is highlighted and held high. When a rule does not support their agenda it is ignored.

    The Church allows all Catholics in good standing to receive Communion on their knees. So you assertion ” it is very clear that communion is to be received in a standing position” is false.

    “The Congregation in fact is concerned at the number of similar complaints that it has received in recent months from various places, and considers any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful … Even where the Congregation has approved of legislation denoting standing as the posture for Holy Communion, in accordance with the adaptations permitted to the Conferences of Bishops by the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani n. 160, paragraph 2, it has done so with the stipulation that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds. … In fact, as His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has recently emphasized, the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion has in its favor a centuries-old tradition, and it is a particularly expressive sign of adoration, completely appropriate in light of the true, real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species.”(CDWDS, Prot. n. 1322/02/L)

    The following more recent response makes it clear that the faithful are not being disobedient when they kneel for Communion:

    “while this Congregation gave the recognitio to the norm desired by the Bishops’ Conference of your country that people stand for Holy Communion, this was done on the condition that communicants who choose to kneel are not to be denied Holy Communion on these grounds. Indeed, the faithful should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly when they kneel to receive Holy Communion.” (CDWDS, Prot. n. 47/03/L)

    Also, the updated translation of the Roman Missal coming out later this year will contain significantly different language with regard to kneeling for Communion that omits the “such instances should be addressed pastorally.”

  13. Irondequoit Mom says:

    This is one area where if Blessed Kateri really really wanted us STA folks to come, to feel welcome, they would capitulate and put in a kneeler… But we have asked and make the argument, and as of yet, no kneeler. So, indeed the idea that all 5 churches in IRQT are united, are even a PART of the parish is laughable. They wanted our assets, and to be honest, the CTK (actually the P. Council of the whole BKT parish) has absolutely no desire toward inclusiveness when it comes to STA; the kneeler is exemplary of this attitude.

    Oh, and if I were to be granted the kneeler I would make one more absolute before going to CTK- get rid of the passing out of baby rattles to the children during mass.

  14. Choir says:

    When the Catholics staffed Saints Peter and Paul’s on West Main Street they insisted on taking the altar rail out. Then the church was sold to the Coptics and one of the first things the Coptics did was to put the altar rail back. It now looks “complete”. Also the Coptics are very particular about who goes into the sanctuary.

  15. christian says:

    I saw beautiful altar rails and altars at King Richard website: There are all types of church items there. They not only make new church items, but also store and find a new home (sell) for church items that have been removed from churches and sold to them. You will see the predominant Catholic theme. There are beautiful altar rails, altars, and other church items at this site.

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