Monday, January 14, 2013

The return of the altar rail

Deacon Greg Kandra writes on his own blog of the pastoral advantage of the altar rail: namely the challenge that it presents to us:
It demands a sense of the sacred. It challenges us to kneel before wonder, and bow before grace. It insists that we not only fully understand what is happening, but that we fully appreciate the breathtaking generosity behind it. It asks us to be mindful of what "Eucharist" really means: thanksgiving.
For the past 15 years I've been advocating that we return the altar rail for such reasons. As I wrote in Architecture in Communion (1998), at a time when I did not have the advantage of the Extraordinary Form or Summorum Pontificum to give credence to my intuitions,
"There is no doubt that receiving Holy Communion on one's knees at the altar rail provides a greater opportunity for recollection and prayer. Kneeling at reception is still to be preferred, as Eucha­risticum mys­terium states: "When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a sign of adoration" (EM, no. 34.b). Since the Church suggests that the faithful revere the Eucharist by communicating in this posture, it seems inadvisable to remove the opportunity for doing so. There is also a dimension of community provided by kneeling together to receive Communion. A diversity of people--mayor, house­wife, teacher, pupil, worker, socialite, child-- kneel side by side in a silent profession of faith as they come to receive the Sacred Host. The communion rail also provides an opportunity, if only for a few moments, to compose one's thoughts before the crucifix and to reflect on the great mystery of the Sacrament. Today, with reception standing and in a line, it is more difficult to focus on the meaning of the Sacrament when communicating. It has also become impossible to pray or meditate (if again only for a few moments) before the crucifix after communicating, since the communicant must immediately make way for the next person."
 It is fair to note that neither the rubrics of the Extraordinary Form, nor Summorum Pontificum, nor any bit of church legislation as far I can tell require that we receive communion in  kneeling position. Yet the clear discipline in the Church's practice until the Second Vatican Council was to receive while kneeling. It was only in the destructive wake of the liturgical "renovations" throughout the 60s and 70s that altar rails that were unceremoniously ripped out and destroyed in virtually every parish church in Europe and North America. This despite the fact that neither the documents of the Council nor the instruction of the Concilium ever even suggest it.

Churches nowadays should be designed to accommodate both the ordinary and extraordinary expressions of the Roman rite (the actually architectural differences are negligible from a strict reading of the rubrics). So it does seem apt that the altar rail be returned to churches where possible, especially as the call for the restoration of the Extraordinary Form is more widely and generously embraced.

Where I can in my recent projects I now try to make a generous accommodation on the first step of the sanctuary platform for a communion rail, even if the funding is not yet in place and even if the building committee is not yet appreciative of the advantages.

 Design for Communion Rail at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church, Surprise AZ. 
The other liturgical furnishing have been implemented, the communion rail is slated pending additional funding.  
If you wish to make a donation for this, please contact Fr. Hans Ruygt at (623) 546-3444.

Perhaps someday, when the liturgical sensibilities and budget align, I'll be able to execute something like Borromini's wonderful altar rail, tucked quietly in a side chapel at San Girolamo della Carità in Rome. An altar rail worthy of the Panis Angelicus!

Altar rail, San Girolamo della Carità, Rome, by Francesco Borromini (circa 1660).
The wings on the angels are hinged to provide access to the chapel.


  1. Interesting commentary. The liturgical use of Communion rails made (or perhaps makes) sense in a package: kneeling, receiving the host on the tongue, receiving only the host and not from the cup, distribution by the priest celebrant, with a minority of the congregation receiving at any given Mass. Any discussion of returning to kneeling must include discussion of these other factors. Restoring kneeling without restoring some of these other practices may not give the desired effect. Would it be strange to have a dozen extraordinary ministers quickly working up and down the sanctuary side of the rail with patens and chalices aplenty?

    I believe the causality flowed as such: Pope Pius X strongly promoted frequent, even daily reception of the Eucharist by all Catholics. As a result, a typical parish Mass may have gone from a couple dozen communicants to several hundred at a time, every week of the year. It would have been burdensomely long to distribute to all those people kneeling, so standing became the preferred posture as a matter of practicality. Once standing was the norm, there was no functional use for the rail which helped it to go out of fashion.

  2. hi Scott: I don't think that history bears out your comment -- standing to receive and the multiplicity of lay ministers only happened in the 60s and 70s when communion rails were taken out -- 60 years after Pius X's motu proprio. I'm not sure how that maps on to your views.

    I have not done any measurement, but I suspect that the priest moving up and down the line is a lot more "time efficient". I also suspect that a lot of priests would move and keep repeating "Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam" while communicating several people. The altar rails in a lot of the old urban parishes were huge, and a couple of priests could communicate the whole congregation in a reasonable time. It would be interesting to do some actual time studies on this though.

    I agree certainly with you about the other aspects -- I am not opposed to intinction which could be an acceptable way of reintegrating these other concerns.