Altar Cloths at the Altar Rail

Does anyone know about altar cloths at the altar rail? My Dad told me about it at his church growing up. It’s my understanding that you place your hands under it in case the host falls and doesn’t land on your hand.

Any info about it would be greatly appreciated.

I don’t know anything about this but when I was growing up lay persons could not touch the Host at all. The priest put it directly on the tongue. If the Host fell no one could pick it up except the priest. Things have changed a lot. Today not only is the Host put in the hand but there are lay people, including women, distributing Communion. This was not done 50 years ago!

We (altar boys) would flip the cloth over the altar rail so it would act as kind of a “tablecloth”. There were a couple of parishioners who did put their hands under the cloth, but I don’t think this had anything to do with not having the Precious Body of Christ touch their hands.

In those days we always had an altar server hold the paten (like a plate) under the communicant’s chin to catch the Precious Body in case of accident while placing the host on the tongue.

By the way, several times as an altar boy (in about 5 years of serving the 1962 missal, pre Vatican II) I caught the Precious Body dropped from someone’s tongue. In all masses I’ve attended in the subsequent years, I have seen the Precious Body dropped twice, although I know it happens. That is why I alway receive the Precious Body in my hand, unless a server with a paten is present, then I receive on my tongue.

I can’t imagine that in the Pre Vatican 2 days where reverence was EVERYTHING that the cloth at the altar rail was for aesthetic meal like appearances. Yes it is extremely remote that a host could fall from a Priest’s hand and miss the Communion paten but I think the point of it was one of utmost respect shown to the SACRED SPECIES. Certainly you never heard back then about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass being a meal or banquet like you do these days.

Techinically, the white cloth was like an early communion paten: to take one exmaple, in the mediaevel English Uses (especially Sarum and York) the communicants would kneel as a “houseling cloth” would be held at either end, down the line. The Rituale Romanum retained that rubric, but also allowed for the communion paten, or a stiffened square of linen to be used. In some places you could see the cloth being held by the servers (similar practise in the Byzantine liturgy with the deacons) but as noted, it was usally more common to have it attached to the altar rail.

And the Host can fall- I saw it yesterday when one communicant shut his mouth when the priest had not yet placed it completely on his tongue. Communion paten was definitely handy there.

Ahhh, to get back to the good old days. When did it all change as to lay people touching the Host?

It started with a disobedient practice in Holland in 1968 of communicants receiving in the hand. This spread to Germany the next year and then the bishops there asked Rome for permission to distribute communion into the hand. Pope Paul VI granted those two countries permission or an indult. Then the US Bishops’ conference also asked for an indult for this hand communion for the US and received it about 1970. I don’t know if that is the correct date. Someone can look it up.

The lesson out of this is that indults have a way of becoming permanent. So to the indult fo the Old Mass can also become permanent, contrary to the expectations of some.

Some TLM communities use Communion Rail Cloths even today, including St. Margaret Mary in Oakland, CA and St. Josaphat in Detroit.

Yes the idea is that if the Host falls it would be ‘caught’ on the cloth. The cloth prevents the host from rolling off, it also prevents any parishoners from trying to ‘catch’ the host out of reflex.

Consecrated hands for consecrated hosts.

Things have changed…a lot.

Is there any Liturgical book that mentions about the cloth at the altar rail?

If you mean Traditional liturgical book: yes, the Rituale Romanum mandates it, and though it was ignored for a while in the 19th century, the SCR re-mandated it’s use in the 20th.

There is even a NO parish, St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota, that uses these!

thanks but you can tell me what the SCR is? Also is there a website that contains what Rituale Romanum says?

SCR = Sacred Congregation of Rites. It was the body charged with interpretation and direction of the liturgical rubrics and the liturgy in general. It dealt with all sorts of things from when to wear what vestments,to rubrical difficulties posed in the rectitation of the Office. I wish I had a nice compendium of there texts. It was later split into the Congregation for the Causes of saints (which was another of its functions) and another part into the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

There is a copy of the Latin Rituale at but it appears to be down for the moment.

Of course when the altar boy does the flip of the wrist in unison with his colleague at the other altar rail, these very longish very white cloths have been lovingly washed and starched iron to the consistency of almost board like perfection, they do indeed flip at the flick of a wrist.

Our congregation on arrival at the altar rail put their hands under the cloth in the prayerful hand gesture to await the priest with altar boy and paten …so the cloth acts as a secondary catch point if the Host should fall…

there was a beautiful story of a father and son who stayed after Mass to watch the loving reverence a priest exhibited when a Host fell ( a rare and distressing event) in the removal of the Host from the floor.

Here it is (pg 79 has the direction for the cloth)

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