Question regarding history communion via line vs Altar Rail in OF

Two Sunday’s ago, I needed to attend Mass Sunday evening and the local University which is close to me was not in session, so they did not have their usual 9PM mass.

So, I attended for the first time a Parish which has an 8PM mass. I was pleasantly surprised to see that use the Altar Rail for communion, even for the Ordinary Form.

The Acolyte was dressed in an Alb and both the Acolyte and the Priest provided communion (the Acolyte handled one side the aisle and the priest the other-side.

Communion was fast and equally fast as the communion line. The Priest and Acolyte just worked back and forth, two lines.

I’ve also been to an EF mass were 4 priests were used to keep communion moving.

So if Acolytes can serve as ministers of Holy Communion at OF Masses using an Altar Rail, what prompted the idea to which to the Communion Line? What was behind that push and how did it become so widespread in the West?

It is my understanding than an Acolyte is an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, as the only Ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are clergy proper.

This may help answer some of your questions, particularly, “what prompted the idea to [s]which to the Communion Line? What was behind that push and how did it become so widespread in the West?”:

My suspicion is that the communion line as opposed to people gathering alone the communion rail is mostly about communion in the hand.

It is easier for people to receive in the hand when they are standing than when they are kneeling. Their hands could get tangled up in the communion rail as they would be reaching up to a level where the minister of communion (whether ordinary or extraordinary) could easily reach.

Consider that the sanctuary side of a communion rail was frequently a step higher than the side that the communicant is on and there was a step size area separating the communicant from the rail.

Thanks for the two replies thus far… They lead to a follow up question: what was driving Communion in the Hand? Protestant communities? Why that change?

Under the 1917 canon law the deacon was the extraordinary minister of communion with special permission only. A change was made when the permanent deaconate was restored in 1967 to make deacons ordinary minister of communion and acolytes could be special ministers if there were not enough ordinary ministers available. Later in the 1983 CIC Canon 910.2 “an acolyte or another of Christ’s faithful deputed in accordance with Can. 230.3” became the norm.

I always thought it was because a lot of people in the west are just generally uncomfortable with sticking their tongues out and having people’s hands close to their mouths. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but I do it anyway.

Totally a guess, though.


First off, I don’t want to get off track by debating whether this line of thinking was valid or correct. There are lots of other threads here that have such discussions. I’m just telling a very abbreviated version of what I personally saw happening.

But back in the 1960s and 1970s (and within seminaries this went even further back) there was a lot of interest in rediscovering our early Christian roots. Most people I knew seemed to believe that early Christians/Catholics practiced communion in the hand. Many of us were now being taught that all the old ideas that only priests were worthy to touch the host were very misguided and that to be proper Christians/Catholics we had to step up and assume our rights. (Keep in mind this was very much going on in the culture at large.)

Before long you had people who had not grown up receiving on the tongue and as RevertJen has pointed out, communion on the tongue makes lots of people uncomfortable.

Although both are acceptable, personally I viewed as very scriptural; the line is in keeping with Exodus 12:11 - This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

With all due charity, and respect, the Altar Rail, seemed a bit theatrical to me, because if it were to have been based on even NT scripture, we would all recline at table, and not at a rail.

I read that part of the reason altar rails were used was to keep animals out of the sanctuary.

The irony is that the communion rail is an offshoot of the rood screen which even blocked one’s view of what was going on in the sanctuary. And with a rood screen, one lined up for communion, one by one or two by two (as is currently the case at our abbey but there’s no rood screen, just a cloister gate).

The removal of the rood screen and replacement by a rail was apparently to allow the laity a greater sense of participation in the Mass and was a product of Trent though rood screens still lingered on (Carthusians still use them). Apparently quite controversial at the time just as removal of the rails has been. Seems we haven’t changed all that much :stuck_out_tongue:

I seem to recall reading this somewhere, can’t recall the source at the moment.

Communion in the hand goes back to some of the earliest writings in the Church outside the New Testament. There is no clear indication when Communion on the tongue started, but both continued on until about 1000 Ad, when Communion on the Tongue became the rule. However, Bro, JR has noted that the Franciscans received permission, somewhere in the 1200,s for Communion in the Hand, and that continued on to the present day.

It saddens me that the OP mentions how “fast” the Communion process is with an altar rail. I would have had my ears so thoroughly boxed, in my youth, that they would have been ringing the next morning if I had rushed through Sunday dinner with guests. And if a simple Sunday dinner requires a minimum of decorum and respect for both the cook and the guests, how much more decorum should we have when we are receiving Our Lord? Is that really something to be rushed? To be fast about?

I disagree. When kneeling at the rail I have nothing to think about and occupy my mind other than the sacrament I am about to receive. Thus when a place become available at the rail, I shuffle forward, kneel down, drop all other thoughts from my mind and await my turn. When queing single file I am occupied by the continuous shuffle of the line right up until the very moment that I receive the sacrament. Thus even if both processes take the same time overall, at the rail I have more quality time.

I can’t cite dates to support this, but my recollection is that communion in the hand was only permitted some years after the communion line became common practice.

*]Pope Pius XII in 1955. (Includes revised Holy Week and calendar changes)
]Pope John XXIII in 1962. (Approved for E.F. Pope Benedict XVI - 2007)
](Vatican II 1962-1965)

*]New Mass - November 29, 1964. Communion changes (“Corpus Christi”, “Amen”), later in English.
*]Orders for Missal changes March 1965 (vernacular except Canon, option to face congregation).
*]Communion under both kinds 1965, intinction preferred.

*]Second instruction 1967 (English Canon, simpler rubrics)
]Additional anaphora 1968
]Communion in the hand
indult, 29 May 1969.
*] Pope Paul VI Novus Ordo Missae on March 22, 1970.

So where in the list did standing for communion begin?

The above explanation is the one that most reflects my understand of why the Communion rail was removed. In hindsight people can have all sorts of thoughts on why it happened. Did it start with a bad intent or did some use the opportunity to inject and promote their own misguided thoughts with the change? I’d like to think that the intent was a good one. As a youngster growing up with the change, it did not bother me and I continued to receive on the tongue while understanding that people have an option to receive Communion in the hand. It got to the point when the method of receiving was about half and half when we were on the East Coast. Then my husband was transferred to the Pacific Northwest and there was a dramatic change where there were only a handful of people other than our family who still received on the tongue. For a time I did experience some negativity because of my decision to continue receiving on the tongue. But after meeting with the pastor, that was eventually cleared up and he ceased to put notices in the bulletin stating how awkward and unattractive it was to receive on the tongue. Today, I would say that the majority in our parish receive on the tongue and most are faithful to the proper posture to stand. However there seems to be a growing number of young people who kneel without any support to receive Communion. While I understand that no one should be disciplined or refused Communion for kneeling to receive when the posture is to stand, I do believe in the importance of obedience to the proper authorities who designate what the proper posture should be.

As I recall, and what seems logical, is that it (standing to receive Communion) started in 1964 when the “New Mass” began. And the permission for the option to receive in the hand came a little later as shown above -29 May 1969

Standing was already in use and helpful for large congregations. This was documented in Eucharisticum Mysterium May, 25, 1967. Item 34.The Way of Receiving Communion
34. a. In accordance with the custom of the Church, the faithful may receive communion either kneeling or standing. One or the other practice is to be chosen according to the norms laid down by the conference of bishops and in view of the various circumstances, above all the arrangement of the churches and the number of the communicants. The faithful should willingly follow the manner of reception indicated by the pastors so that communion may truly be a sign of familial union among those who share in the same table of the Lord.

b. When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence toward the most holy sacrament is required, because the kneeling itself expresses adoration.

When they receive communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, approaching in line, they make a sign of reverence before receiving the sacrament. This should be done at a designated moment and place, so as not to interfere with the coming and going of the other communicants.

I can’t remember exactly.

What I do remember was that when around the time I made my First Communion in the Spring of 1966, people would just all get up out of their seats and make their way up to the communion rail. There were more or less lines to get there but they were unorganized. At least that was the case on Sundays. On weekdays the sisters made sure students were in orderly lines when they went up to receive communion.

Within a short number of years, we had switched to a process where the ushers went down the pews to tell people when it was permissible to leave that particular pew. When people got to the front of the line they were stopped until a significant number of people had moved away from the communion rail and then those waiting in line were allowed to kneel.

I have no memory of receiving communion while standing in that church building. The parish built a new church which opened in the late spring of 1972. I have no memory of either kneeling or standing for communion at that church when it first opened but we were still receiving exclusively on the tongue.

One of the things I remember from that original Church was trying to inconspicuously look to the side to figure out which priest would be distributing communion to me. Some of the priests would gently place the host on the tongue but others seemed to be in some kind of race and would almost shove the host in the mouth while already moving toward the next person.

It is not difficult to receive Holy Communion in the hand when kneeling at an altar rail. The Episcopalians have been doing it that way for centuries, except for intinction when it is placed on the tongue.

They have never torn down their altar rails at all.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit