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.

Wonderful. Such a beautiful tradition.

It can’t come to my parish soon enough!

This is encouraging. Thanks!

Most of the churches around here never did take out their communion rails, and they’re frequently made of the same material that the altar is made of.

There’s a very practical issue that occurs when communion rails are absent: Unless you have the knees of a gymnast, it’s difficult to go up to the sanctuary and kneel down to pray in front of the tabernacle, or the Exposed Eucharist, because then you have to get up without assistance. A nice, stable, anchored communion rail makes that a lot easier for those of us with bad knees.

It’s still done in the EF Mass, and actually, is done in the Anglican Church, but when the congregation used to receive kneeling at the rail, I don’t recall that communion took any longer than nowadays with a priest and multiple Eucharistic ministers distributing communion to a long line of standing communicants. In fact, I think that because Father and a server could walk along the communion rail to distribute communion to the people, the priests developed an efficient way of doing it, much more efficient than waiting for a whole line of communicants to receive in the hand, put the Sacred Body of Christ into their own mouths, and then make a sign of the Cross, or whatever individual devotional practice moves them at the moment. Actually, I think communion at the rail, kneeling, and on the tongue was a lot faster than the current practice.

Just my two cents’ worth, but maybe some seminarian will conduct a study of the efficiency of both methods. Personally, I think that the bottom line is–:If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!"

Interestingly, we get our English word Chancel (Anglican use of Sanctuary) from the Cancellari, lattice-carved gates that allowed entrance past the substantial sanctuary-rails which adorned ancient churches. Chancellarius was the man who guarded such gates outside emperor’s palace; hence, Chancellor, one who guards the Chancel. Secular terms became religious ones.

Ironically, for all the conservative connotations of altar rails and all the liberal connotations of facing-the-people, the early Christian churches seemed to have had both. Within the latticed-gates, the Bishop’s throne was directly behind the altar with presbyters’ thrones arranged in a semi-circle, all pointed inward to the altar. From the nave’s point of view, the vesting room was to the left of the altar, and the Prothesis was to the right.

The vestry became the sacristy over time, and the prothesis (table upon which were rested the unused elements after Communion) became the tabernacle.

Here is a diagram from a scholarly book done in 1722, of what proto-archaeologists of the time thought most ancient churches looked like. Note the front steps, the court-like narthex open to the sky, and the inner sanctums with Great & Holy doors. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican architecture all borrow some bits from this blueprint.

As an Anglican I fully support the reintroduction of altar rails across the Christian world. We must kneel before the Lord our maker, and give praise to Him with a humble song in our hearts. Altar rails look very majestic too, and make definite the highest holy place of consecration and the entrance door where the Lord Jesus comes into the soul. The Beauty of Holiness must shine forth.

We never lost our rail. For a while we just made two lines in the aisle, but then began lining up along the rail. Most of us stand, some kneel. The priest can make it from one end to the other pretty fast, so not much time loss. Works for us.

This is wonderful!

My parish priest erected an altar rail, and he’s re-enforcing it so that it would be harder to remove if future pastors want it gone. :slight_smile:

I didn’t know that Vatican II didn’t call for their removals.

Our beautiful church was completed in 1885. We have a new pastor (July) and he has us kneel @ the rail or stand @ the rail. Most people kneel.

Wonderful!!! :smiley:

"March 8, 1958 " said the young priest beginning his homily *"you will ALWAYS * remember this date!"

True! With the other children in my class I sat waiting. The girls were resplendent in “immaculate” white dresses, lacy chapel veils concealing their carefully arranged hair and little white gloves; we boys wore pale blue neckties (like our Dads!) white shirts and dress coats - our Sunday bests for Our Lord (and the photos to come).

The long awaited day of Our First Communion had arrived. The mass prayers were in Latin, readings in English. Crisply dressed altar boys reverently bowed and whispered Latin responses kneeling a step below the priest who faced … the altar, the tabernacle, the crucifix on the front wall (back to the congregation as if leading a procession to Jesus).

Maybe I’ll be an altar boy someday I mused. Slightly older than I, the altar boys had set the scene, reverently lighting all the altar candles, stopping to genuflect each time they passed in front of the holy tabernacle containing the most Holy Eucharist.

They knew each step, gesture, and Latin response. They bowed, brought forward the gifts. Poured the little vial of water over Father’s hands and held the purificator for him.

At the elevation of the consecrated Host they knelt ringing bells three times to call everyone’s attention to the Eucharistic Jesus held high in worship. Thrice more for the elevation of the Chalice.

As the moment of our reception neared, we stood up and orderly processed to our spots
behind those at the communion rail. They knelt, waiting. The priest himself, with blessed hands consecrated by a Bishop approached distributing the sacrament.

Eyes lowered, a dutiful altar boy held the golden paten beneath the chin of each communicant to catch any particle of the Eucharist wihich might fall.

I moved forward, knelt at the altar rail, hands folded, watching the others receive.
The moment had come. I received, reverently walked back to my place in the pew, closed my eyes and spoke to Jesus - now with me closer than ever before.

I felt a gentle warm feeling within. That nice feeling of being home and loved. The security of Dad and the tenderness of Mom all at once. We were told to speak to and listen to Jesus with our eyes closed right after communion.

I was glad I had gone to my first confession the afternoon before and had a clean soul to welcome the Lord to (after a LIFETIME of sinning)!

This was nicer than kneeling in the dark confessional, looking at the crucifix of Jesus who’d died to save me from the sins I was about to have to confess. That screen slid open, I gulped out a “Bless me Father, this is my first confession …”.

My sins were probably parental disobedience and fighting with my sibling brother.
At any rate, the priest told me Jesus loved me very much and wanted me always to do better - and that I’d made a good confession (as I remember). Then came the words of
absolution. They might have been in Latin. But I emerged from that little closet clean … clean …FREE FROM SIN! Shining and ready for my FIRST communion.

Now it was ending. The priest had carefully cleaned the paten and chalice, consumed any remaining PARTICLE of the Holy Eucharist, In magnificent vestments he ceremonially gathered together the Chalice, purificator, pall, chalice veil, burse and corporal into their proper post-mass configuration, said the final prayers “Ite, missa est!”

“Deo Gratias!” we replied. And priest and altar boys bowed and genuflected to the remaining Eucharist in the centrally located and high golden tabernacle, with its nearby red sanctuary light indicating “HE is here!” … and left the sacristy.

In an orderly manner we waited to leave as the choir sang its Recessional hymn.
“Holy God we Praise Thy Name!”

As our turn to exit the pew came, we faced our Lord in the tabernacle, once more genuflected our fealty to Him as we’d done when we’d entered the church; then turned and exited.

Back to the world now. A lovely, sunny but cool north suburban Chicago day. Relatives, presents, a party at home. Cards with money in them. Prayer books, missals, prayer card bookmarkers and a great meal with Grandparents, cousins and the glow of Jesus still within me. “I will never forget this day,” I thought, the priests words echoing in my ear.

The women were happily gathered in the kitchen preparing one delight after another wihile they conversed. The men were in the yard and the living room excited about the new baseball season - could the Milwaukee Braves repeat as World Champs? Was Ernie Banks of the Cubs the best shortstop ever? Or was the White Sox’ Luis Aparicio going to
lead the go-go boys past the Yankees this year?

I could feel God smiling at all of the wonderful people he’d made. Heaven was going to be better than THIS?

And I think today of communion rails. Genuflectiing to Our Lord. The reverence of my elders back then. The chapel veils and hats of the women. The clicking of high heels as they processed to communion. The rustle of the men’s corduroy pants.

The holy tabernacle high, exalted and central as God’s throne (and how I looked at it during the Holy, Holy, Holy because that’s where Jesus WAS).

Things changed. If if was fine with the Church it was good by me. Guitars, organs, both good! Priest facing the people? Jesus probably faced the apostles. New music? Why not if its good … though for a while only the choir knows the new ones.

A culture of “coming closer to Christ” and “worshipping as a community” was the rationale.
A little more horizontal (we) celebration in the mass instead of giving the Lord his own hour of Kingly worship (vertical) with solemn reverence.

God and neighbor. We are to love them both. Today, when I see that altar rails are returning, I rejoice. Reverence is needed. More important than the rail will be the return
of tabernacles to front, center and high (as is proper to the guest of honor and master of the house).

We WILL have to remember to bend the knees again. And it might be harder than when I was 7. But every knee shall bow and tongue will tell that “Jesus Christ is LORD!” :angel1:

Thank you for your response.

Its a really awesome read. :thumbsup:

I love altar rails, and if I had the money I would pay for them being built in my parish out of my pocket.

Unfortunately my priest would never allow it :confused: I love him but hes very “Spirit of Vatican II”

I like how EWTN Daily Mass is done so they may receive either way.

Our parish has a Latin Mass on Sundays after lunch. I attend it about once a month or whenever my schedule allows. Kneeling at the alter rail is such a beautiful thing. It shows reverence and adoration to He whom we are receiving. :signofcross:
My friends are Lutherans. Their son is my godchild. For his baptism, we went to their church and I was surprised that they took communion on their knees at the alter rail. :clapping:
If the protestants can figure out that this is the true way to take communion, I hope the Catholic (big C) church would go back to it. :smiley:
I don’t know everything there is to know about Vatican II. But, from what I do know, it seemed to take a lot of the sacredness of Mass away. Whatever its intentions were, I think it did more harm than good to our traditions. Just my opinion. :shrug:

Have you ever gave any thought to what the spirit of vatican II really is or means? For myself Im not sure but it seems to have caused a break away from what the vatican wants and what the world wants. Im just sayin…It appears that way.

My current parish church has never been without an altar rail, even though it is of a rather new construction, as churches go, and more modern. Even when the sanctuary was remodeled a few years back, the altar rail was retained.

My previous parish church in another city was a beautiful gothic type of church with stained glass windows, a marble high altar and corresponding marble altar rail, beautifully constructed. Unfortunately, when it was renovated back in the 70’s the altar rail was removed and never came back. It’s still a beautiful church, but that altar rail belongs there. I don’t know that they could even find another like it. Most likely its been destroyed or put to another use.

When our parish was built, the Archbishop at the time ( Cardinal Dearden) had forbidden the addition of altar rails.

When Cardinal Szoka (and the subsequent archbishops) allowed their use, our previous pastor placed lines of prie-deiu, which we use today.

My parish still has sections of the original marble altar rails. Only the center section was removed. I would love to have it back and hope it is somewhere nearby.

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