Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ask Father... "What happened to the altar rails?"

‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
And before all the people I will be honored.’  (Leviticus 10:3)
A reader asks: “Father, what happened to the altar rails?  They’re not in churches anymore, and I miss them.  No one ever told us why they were ripped out!”

First of all, I personally believe that it is a crime and a shame that no one ever properly catechized this person’s parish about why the altar rail was removed.  Priests have an obligation to make certain that the people of their parishes understand why changes—particularly changes which may be seen by some as architecturally or liturgically drastic—are made, what the motivation behind the change is, and most importantly how it affects how the community worships. 

Rail at the Papal High Altar at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

For those (like myself) who grew up in parishes that are more modern in design and didn’t have altar rails to begin with, a brief overview.  Altar rails are very basically railings that formally and definitively delineated the sanctuary space of a church building.  They are still seen in many older parishes where liturgically-motivated renovations have been more modest or where the historical integrity of buildings was sought to be preserved.  In some respect, altar rails help to create a very visual understanding of the nature of the sanctuary, which is (or ought to be) that part of the church in which the Divine Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is preserved.  It is sacred space(“sanctuary” is derived from the Latin word sanctus which means “holy”), our Holy of Holies, not unlike the inner sanctum of the Temple of Solomon (cf. Leviticus 16).  According to this perspective, altar rails serve as a barrier, not so much to keep people from getting too close to God (as was often thought) as they were presence to emphasize the awesome presence of God within that space, a space through which superfluous traffic ought not to pass.

A second interpretation of altar rails that is more Eucharistic than “hierarchical” (if I may use that term loosely) is that of the altar rail being seen as an extension of the altar itself.  In many cases, churches went to great lengths to see that the top of the altar rail was made of the same material as the altar, and it is most properly covered with a white linen cloth—just as the altar is—during the reception of Holy Communion.  As the Faithful would come and kneel at the altar rail to receive Communion with Christ physically coming to the kneeling communicants (as opposed to us going to Christ), the imagery of us kneeling at the table of the Lord and receiving was made more clear (as it would be impossible—and quite undesirable—for the whole congregation to gather physically around the altar). 

Receiving Communion at the altar rail in Trinidad.

The liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council brought about new norms regarding the reception of Holy Communion.  Rather than kneeling at an altar rail, “[t]he norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, March 25, 2004, no. 91).” As a result, altar rails quickly fell out of use.  (This is not to say that they could not be used once again, as the documents only say that the norm is for people to stand, and not that they are required to stand in line in the aisle, as opposed to standing at the altar rail or the foot of the sanctuary.)

For some future priests, it's just natural!
Regarding the fate of altar rails, what has happened in terms of church renovations is largely unfortunate from an historical and architectural standpoint, not to mention in light of maintaining some semblance of liturgical continuity between the two forms of the Roman Rite.  It is true that they are no longer required for the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (though still needed for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or the Traditional Latin Mass), and it was in that spirit that they were removed from the majority of churches—at least those in which the historical integrity of the building was of less importance than more historic properties.

One thing must be made clear though: in no document of the Church, from the Second Vatican Council or otherwise, has it ever been stated, implicitly or explicitly, that altar rails must or should be removed from parishes.  The Church, mindful of the necessity of historical, liturgical, and cultural continuity has never been so brash as to make a formal call for the removal of altar rails.  In almost all cases in which altar rails were removed from parishes, the removal was instigated at the local—or possibly diocesan—level. 
Most recent official guidelines regarding the sanctuary, while maintaining the distinction between sanctuary and the rest of the church, no longer mention the Communion rail.

For example, the recent guidelines for church buildings published by the U.S. bishops' conference, "Built of Living Stones," recommends the following regarding the sanctuary in No. 54:
"The sanctuary is the space where the altar and the ambo stand, and 'where the priest, deacon and other ministers exercise their offices.' The special character of the sanctuary is emphasized and enhanced by the distinctiveness of its design and furnishings, or by its elevation. The challenge to those responsible for its design is to convey the unique quality of the actions that take place in this area while at the same time expressing the organic relationship between those actions and the prayer and actions of the entire liturgical assembly. The sanctuary must be spacious enough to accommodate the full celebration of the various rituals of word and Eucharist with their accompanying movement, as well as those of the other sacraments celebrated there."
That said, the above guidelines, and documents on the preservation of sacred art published by the Holy See, do suggest that great care must be taken before altering churches of certain historical value or even particular elements of a church that may have particular artistic merit.  (Fr. Edward McNamara, “Removal of Altar Rails,” Zenit Daily Dispatch, Feb. 1, 2005)
 As the sanctuary continues to be that space in which “the priest, deacon and other ministers exercise their offices,” it ought very clearly to remain in the minds of all the Faithful that the sanctuary is holy ground, a sacred space that deserves—nay, commands—the utmost reverence and respect.  Whether altar rails did—or could again—help to convey the sacredness of that space is unknown. 

Even our Protestant brothers and sisters,
in their own contemporary rites give communion at the altar rail!

What I can say from personal experience is that those sanctuaries that are most revered and treated as sacred are those in which the priest, deacons, and other ministers conduct themselves with reverence and dignity, and in which the Sacred Mysteries are celebrated in a fashion that is truly in keeping with the solemn, sublime dignity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

1 comment:

  1. Given your answer, perhaps the more appropriate question is, "Why the push for communicating while standing rather than the then normative kneeling?"

    That's very interesting what you say about the railing being the extension of the altar. Never heard that before!

    This reminds me of another question I've never had answered: Why in the new order is it thought to be so important to celebrate the "liturgy of the Word" from the sedilia rather than the altar, as in the TLM? Even amongst his mini-rants against some of ways in which the NO has been said, (at that time) Card. Ratzinger in his "The Spirit of the Liturgy" remarks that the shift to the sedilia was an important one. Why? I don't understand that.