Altar Rails and the Holy Mass – the significance of.

December 8, 2011

295. The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation. – General Instruction of the Roman Missal

Here the Church requires that the sanctuary be marked off, calling for, yes, even now, a particular structure; in other words, an altar rail. The altar rail serves beautiful symbolic and considerately practical purposes within the Mass. Further, it makes basic psychological sense as well. Let me explain.

Firstly, we call it an altar rail; the name has reference to the altar. This rail can be seen as an extension of the altar. Christ becomes present on the altar and invites us to be fed at His altar via the rail. Very often the appearance of the rail matches the appearance or imitates the appearance of the altar. In churches where there is no rail, this symbolism is very diminished or completely destroyed. There is a beautiful parallel in the series of events that lead to the distribution of Holy Communion. Just as the priest goes to the altar, offers the sacrifice, and brings that Sacrament to the altar rail for the faithful, so every Christian is called to Sunday Mass, called to the altar, and, nourished by that Sacrament, is sent out to bring Christ and His gospel to the world through daily life.

Practically, the rail is a help to people, both physically and spiritually. The use of rail and the way Holy Communion is distributed with it sets a solemn pace for the reception of Holy Communion. On the part of the priest, more of his time is spent actually distributing the Blessed Sacrament and less time waiting. On the part of the person receiving, the hurried tone is removed; there is a great opportunity for quiet and prayer both a few moments before and after receiving our Lord. The rail also is a help to people in kneeling and standing back up.

On the psychological level, we all have a desire, built into us by God, to offer Him our love and worship, but all of our efforts will be imperfect. This is a truth we cannot escape. If we deny our short-comings and wrong-doings on our conscious level, we will feel it and suffer on a more subconscious level. Because we know that the ‘sanctuary‘ exists — we know that there is a realm that we are unworthy and unable to enter on our own. We know that our knowledge and power are limited. God, of course, knows this too and created a solution. God sent His Son — His Christ — as the perfect high priest, who in turn instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which He allows and commands men to enter His sanctuary and offer His perfect sacrifice, so that we, the entire Church, may join our imperfect sacrifices to His.  Having a sanctuary that is marked off by an altar rail is not a way of keeping people out of where they have a right to go, but it is more than anything a visible reminder to us of the reality of our situation — we need God to do what we cannot. Our worship of God is not something that we get together and decide to do; it is something that God enables us to do. We cannot worship perfectly, so Christ enables us to join in His perfect act of worship.

The distinct sanctuary and the altar rail are, far from being something restricting, a symbol of a truth that is truly liberating — we need God. With reception of Holy Communion at the rail, we see the second part of that truth — God comes to us. We cannot reach God by our own powers, so He comes to us. Deep within us, we know the first part; we know we need God. If we deny this consciously, we will become a people of sadness, anger, and despair. Is it any wonder that a society that has rejected its need for God is full of people weighed down with despair, depression, and struggles of self-worth? It is precisely by acknowledging that we need God, as the sanctuary and rail remind us, that we are able to acknowledge the joyful truth that God comes to us and thus become people of light, peace, and hope.

Father Evan Harkins

About Father Evan Harkins

Father Evan Harkins has written 3 post in this blog.

Ordained a priest of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 2010. Currently Parochial Vicar at St. Therese in Parkville, Missouri.

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  • Midwest Girl

    Fr. Evan,

    Great article – I, too, prefer to receive kneeling at the altar rail when it’s an option.

    As you and I are both well-aware, most parishes these days do not have altar rails.

    Are you suggesting we change this trend? If so, how?

    • Father Evan Harkins

      Midwest Girl,
      It is true that it has been a trend to build churches without altar rails. This trend is not something that comes from the Church, as we can see from the requirements in the General Instruction, which still mentions a “particular structure” that marks off the sanctuary. In many other rites, this “particular structure” is not two or three feet tall, but seven or eight (as an Iconostasis). The Church gives us two options to distinguish the sanctuary: elevation or structure. Raising the sanctuary or using the altar rail. Of these two options, I guess I would give preference to the rail for the reasons in the article. (Of course, we could do both).

      Unfortunately, the trend of removing rails is a trend among other trends that contradict the Church’s liturgical requirements. Very other these arise from a misunderstanding or a malformed theology. The solution is to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers, but to trust the Church, who is entrusted to give us the rites we celebrate. She knows best, being, after all, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).

      Thanks for the comment.
      -Father Harkins

  • Midwest Girl

    Thanks, Fr. Harkins for a well-balanced answer.

  • Alex (this is not the Alex who moderates Pray The Mass)

    I don’t mean to be a contrarian, but what do you say about this part of the GIRM where it says the norm (in the U.S.) for receiving communion is to receive it while standing:

    160. The priest then takes the paten or ciborium and goes to the communicants, who, as a rule, approach in a procession.

    The faithful are not permitted to take the consecrated bread or the sacred chalice by themselves and, still less, to hand them from one to another. The norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.

    When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood.

    • Father Evan Harkins

      Thank you for that good question. As in Scripture, we often find passages in the liturgical documents that seem to be in conflict. Father Totton’s comment is correct, but I will treat your question more in depth in the near future. At times, we need to inquire for clarification from the Holy See, which is what happened in this case. Please stay tuned.

      -Father Harkins

  • Father Totton

    Often times people see a bridge or a gate and they mistake it for a wall or a barrier! That has been my experience in most of the reaction to the altar rail. A certain generation was told (mistakenly) that the altar rail was a barrier to keep the unwashed masses out of the Sanctuary. Fr. Harkins has done a nice job of pointing out that the altar rail is rather a bridge, as an extension of the Altar itself, it is a meeting point where the faithful (unwashed or otherwise!) may encounter the Living God and so so in a way which is not hurried or awkward! I have been pastor of my current parish for over five years, and since the beginning of my pastorate (and a few years before that) I have distributed Holy Communion each day at the altar rail. In my experience, about 85-90% of the faithful kneel at the rail to receive Holy Communion, the remaining are often elderly, or those whose knees don’t work so well, so they choose to stand (which is perfectly acceptable). Surprisingly, only about 70% choose to receive Holy Communion in the traditional manner, that is having the Sacred Host placed directly on the tongue, but that is a topic for another post! Without exception, whether regular parishioners, visitors or what not, nearly all who come to Mass here comment on the positive experience of being able to kneel down in preparation and being able to linger a little after Holy Communion. It is difficult to describe the contrast if one has never experienced the altar rail (from either side) but on those occasions when I celebrate the Sacred Mysteries in churches where there is no altar rail, the distribution of Holy Communion seems rushed and awkward. Those who wish to genuflect refrain from that practice (At the name of Jesus, every knee must bend, at the name, how about at the very Sacramental Presence?) for fear they should trip somebody up. In the moments before receiving people are more focused on shuffling their feet. The priest (or extraordinary minister) finds himself following each communicant with his eyes (or perhaps really following them!) to be sure that individual consumes the host. As I say, however, it is difficult to see what is superior about one posture if another posture is the one commonly (nearly exclusively) used. If you will allow me a crass comparison, the difference between Holy Communion while kneeling at the Altar rail versus the standing stations with a shuffling populace might be likened to the difference between enjoying the relaxed hospitality of a sit-down meal versus grabbing a brown bag full of food from an hourly employee standing behind a stainless steel counter. I don’t say this to insult anybody or question the devotion of so many faithful who have never been given the option to receive Holy Communion while kneeling at an altar rail, but it is an observation from experience (and I will grant you that my experience is a rarity!)

    As far as Alex’s question about the stated norm for the United States, I will leave that to those more well-versed in the documentation (though I believe the CDF wrote a response to that which softened the edges in favor of those who choose to kneel!) I have offered here just a bit from my 5+ years of administering Holy Communion at an altar rail.

    One thing I noticed right away was – not to overstate – that it was slightly more physically demanding for the priest (the priest is a shepherd who feeds the sheep entrusted to him, this is physical work as well as spiritual!)

    There’s my $0.02 – do with it as you wish.

    P.S. The altar rail in my current parish was newly-fabricated within the past 10 years or so (the original one having been removed long before)! Of course, the age of the building and the shape and size of the sanctuary made that a possibility, but it IS possible to erect altar rails again.

  • J

    Father, your article is well written, but –respectfully— your analysis falls critically short, especially if you’re trying to make a point that Instruction 295 requires churches to have an alter rail. Re-read the entire instruction 295: “[i]t should suitably be marked off from the body of the church EITHER by its being somewhat elevated OR by a particular structure and ornamentation.” Thus a church that suitably marks off its sanctuary by elevating the sanctuary would satisfy 295. Similarly so would a church that uses any suitable structure and ornamentation other than an alter rail -so long as it is suitable.

    You should be careful NOT to confuse your readers into believing that those churches without alter rails are disobeying the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. (Your comment to Midwest Girl, above, does clarify this point.)

    Thanks and God Bless,

    • Alex Weber

      Father Harkins actually does address this in one of the replies (see above)
      “The Church gives us two options to distinguish the sanctuary: elevation or structure. Raising the sanctuary or using the altar rail. Of these two options, I guess I would give preference to the rail for the reasons in the article. (Of course, we could do both).”

      • J

        I agree. (I call this out in the last line of my post.) But it is only addressed in a comment, which may be ignored by many readers.

    • Father Evan Harkins

      Thank you for your comment. I do apologize if my article caused any confusion. I did want to avoid that as much as possible. For that reason, I wanted to offer, not so much an exposition on the application of liturgical law, but rather a personal reflection on the reasons behind liturgical law and traditions. I was hoping to share some of the significance of the altar rail, with a particular emphasis on its effect on our prayer and relationship with our Lord. I don’t believe I used the term ‘disobedience’ in my article. I did mention in a comment to Midwest Girl that the fad that sought to take out the rails was contrary to liturgical law. To my knowledge, please correct me if I am mistaken, there has never been a call from the Church to do such things. On the contrary, she often reminds us to preserve and respect the beautiful contributions to sacred furnishings and art that generations before us have offered. Perhaps in future posts, I may move beyond symbolism into criticism and examine the questions of obedience and disobedience in detail. For now, I just wanted to point out some of the reasons the Church, in history and still today, brings the altar rail to our attention. Please continue to read and reply.

      -Father Harkins

  • Alex B. (another Alex!)

    I understand the reasons for an Altar rail and the added reverence it can bring to receiving the sacrament, but I’m supposing there was a reason that our norm came to be receiving it as we do now. I am fairly young and have never received communion from an altar rail (and seen very few). I don’t know how or why it faded from existence in many of our churches. You seem to be calling for it to come back and for, I think, good reason. So my curiosity leads me to wonder why it faded in the first place. If you’re calling for it to be universal, it seems that we should weigh that reason(s) against the reasons you present for having the altar rail. Or do you think it should be up to each Bishop or church?

    • Father Evan Harkins

      Alex B,
      That is a curiosity that you and I share. I must admit that I will have to do some homework and get back to you. It is important to make a distinction here, though. While the posture of standing for receiving Holy Communion has been granted as a norm to the United States by the Holy See, the removal or omission of the altar rail is not a norm or requirement in the liturgical documents. It is not something I want to “bring back” because, as we read in the General Instruction, it never left. (Where would it go? as Cardinal Arinze is fond of saying.) Certainly the question is not whether I think such and such (rails in this case) should be universal, but what the universal Church provides for us. This is getting more into the application of liturgical law, as J was asking about. I am somewhat familiar with this part of the issue, but I will have to study before I can really comment. Thank you for bringing these questions and considerations. They provide a great insight.
      -Father Harkins

  • Birgit Jones

    This is beautiful and shares my sentiments better than I could ever have stated them myself! God bless!

  • Paul Becke

    I don’t recall Jesus lamenting the absence of a rail, when distributing the loaves and fishes or at the Last Supper.

    It evokes in mind the sad literalism of receiving the sacred Host in our mouth instead of our hand. Our analogy with sheep was never mean to be so literal and demeaning. We are called, one day, to join in the life of the Holy Trinity, as members of their extended family, but each individually cherished as only-begotten of the Father. Eating in the manner of a biological sheep does not seem to be an appropriate preparation.

    We approach the altar rail in a properly reverential atitude, hands clasped in front of us. Beyond that, it seems like the throne-room protocol, which Jesus sought to do away with.

    • Fr. W. M. Gardner

      I suppose one could view a genuflection as being demeaning as well.  But when you know that you are in the presence of the Divine Master, then the folding of one’s hands, genuflections, kneeling, Communion on the tongue, and even prostration are natural gestures of humility and adoration.
      My experience is that if you sow mediocrity, you will reap irreverence.  On the hand, if you expect excellence, then you will see true growth in Eucharistic piety.
      Also, I recommend that when you receive Holy Communion on tongue… close your eyes.  Of course, as Fr. Harkins mentioned, this is easier when you have a rail to hold onto.

      • Paul Becke

         Well, Fr Gardner, as I indicated, I would prefer less reliance on symbolism by the Church, historically, and more reliance on the prompting of individuals by the Holy Spirit, but it does seem to me, now, that I understated the role and importance of formality.

        While I stand by my views concerning the altar rail (physical disabilities aside), and receiving the Sacred Host on the tongue. Nevertheless, genuflection and a genuine  attitude of prayerful reverence are, of course, necessary. It is where the line is drawn that I take issue with.

        As a matter of fact, I see us, the congregation, rather as soldiers on parade; that formal. On one occasion, before the Mass, someone in the pew in front of me began to cough. I was thinking of patting her on the back and saying, “Cough up chicken”, but was prompted not to. However, genial and well-meant, it was not appropriate in the church, particularly on the occasion of a Mass, before, during or after it.

      • irishsmile

        Thank you Father Gardner.  My husband and I, thank God, were raised in the era in which we had the altar rail and received the Holy Eucharist on our tongues.  We miss it very, very much.  It was very efficient but most importantly, it generated reverence and  belief in the Real Presence.    Our youngest son is a priest & I  believe that our family’s unshakable belief and reverence for the Real Presence is the reason.

  • Tgoergen

      Dude, i don’t get how you logically go from ”
    either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation” to “in other words, an altar rail.”  Much as I sympathize with your intentions, your logic is extremely flawed.  By my read, elevating the sanctuary (and I have never seen one that isn’t), is all that is “required”.  So pretty much every “modern” church I’ve ever been in is in compliance . 

    • Tgoergen

      Please forgive my use of the word “Dude” father, I did not see the byline till after I posted.  God Bless You Father!

    • alexmweber

      or by a particular structure and ornamentation.” I think that it is pretty clear that a rail is being inferred. Have you seen another kind of “structure” separating the sanctuary from the rest of the body of the Church? I guess you could say steps, but that would just be elevation which is separately mentioned in the qualifying statement “somewhat elevated OR by a particular structure and ornamentation”. Plus, you act as though Father is just pulling this out of thin air. Until recently, all western rite sanctuaries where separated from the body of the Church by an altar rail. It is not difficult at all to “logically” draw the conclusion that the GIRM is referring to an altar rail.

  • Eschaefer1

    I loved this. When I came into the church, it was at  a church that still maintained an alter rail (St. Patrick’s in Columbus, OH!). I have since switched parishes, and my new church does not have one, and I miss it. What is different is where “the hurried tone is removed; there is a great opportunity for quiet and prayer both a few moments before and after receiving our Lord.”

    This is absolutely true. I remember in those first years after my conversion kneeling there, right in front of the alter thinking about Christ coming to me! To ME! Amazing. Without the alter rail I feel like I’m the sheep – being herded like cattle to recieve Him and then right back to the pew.

    I miss the ritual aspect of the Sacrament. Like waiting in line at confession. You should have to wait silently in line for confession, not walk in, make you order at the window and head on out. too easy.

  • Backtothefuture

    The modernists and masons have done a great job a getting rid reverance in churches. Not kneeling when receiving the lord, putting the tabernacle at the side. Receiving communion in the hand allows the host to become nothing more than an object for most to put in their mouths. How many desecrations of the eucharist are commited by satanists who simply take the host in their hands and leave? All these things are done so that the sacred isn’t revered anymore, hence the great lack of faith from people. I pray that the good lord gives us more traditional minded priests.

  • Mcitl Blogspot Com

    Gratias tibi ago.

  • Christina

    I’m a relatively new Catholic and I’ve never seen Communion distribution with an altar rail.  I’m assuming, based on the description here, that the parishioners kneel along the rail and receive Communion in this manner?  I can certainly see the appeal of having that quiet moment before and after to focus entirely on the body of Christ.  As it is now, I can only focus on Christ once I’m settled back in the pew. 

    How do the parents of young children handle the children when receiving Communion at the altar rail?  

    • alexmweber

      As a father of 5 I can honestly say it is much easier to handle my children at an altar rail than keeping them in a single file line while trying to receive communion. We are relatively new in the Church too and it took a little training, but now all of my kids (even the 2 year old) just know to kneel next to their Mommy and Daddy when we receive communion. Not only that, it is waaaaay more efficient for a priest to go down a row distributing communion that to stand in front of a line. The whole process is quieter and quicker when 30 people kneel at the same time to receive Holy Communion. The parish we attend now does not have an altar rail, but it does have a kneeler that people can use as an option to standing.

  • Sera Phim

    I agree with what you are saying but you ommitted to say why altar rails were erected in the first place – to keep the chickens or goats off the sanctuary – without refrigeration offerings were live stock to keep the priest in food. However, I agree that reverence is lacking. A Polish church in Bedford got it right:  the people who want to kneel come up first  and line up kneeling on the sanctuary steps (two or three lots of rail fulls), and after them the others come up two at a time in procession. Peactically all churches disobey on two counts – 1) that the extraordinary minister should only be called in to distribute the chalice if the wait exceeds 10 minutes” after receiving the Sacred Host: 2) the St John’s Gospel was removed from the end of mass to let people have a time of silent prayer closer to receiving the Sacred Host and 10 minutes silence in the Church was recommended at the end of every Mass for this. Only parts of Poland obey this and there no one leaves the church until the end of the 10 minutes.

  • Timothy

    I had the good fortune to be able to attend Mass at Good Shepherd Church in Columbia SC USA. It was formerly an Episcopal Church whose Pastor and entire  congregation came into the Catholic Church back in the 70′s. I don’t know if they were given special permission, but the priest always said Mass at the original altar, with his back to the people and they never got rid of the altar rail. It is such a wonderful thing to receive the Lord on one’s knees. (IMHO)  I have since moved back to Michigan, and I’m thankful that The local parish I attend has Perpetual Adoration and has a young priest that will say the Latin Mass weekly on Thursdays and once a month will sing the solemn High Mass. During these masses we are able to receive kneeling and I’ve noticed that it really doesn’t take much longer than the normal mode.  I have never really been comfortable with the act of receiving in the hand, and prefer to receive from the priest, unless it is not possible. Thanks for a wonderful essay and may you always remain under the protection of Our Lady’s Mantle.

  • suegonzalez

    Yes! Yes!  We need altar rails now more than ever!  I made my First Holy Communion in May 1965.  Sr. Mary Aiden explained to us that the altar rails were a place to gather at the Banquet of the Lord, similar to how an extended family would gather around a dining table to celebrate a holiday.  What a beautiful image to have in mind when coming before the Lord. 
    I was crushed to hear, years later, the argument that the altar rails were a “barrier” between God and the congregation.  Such ignorance of the awesomeness of God. 
    The altar rails were either taken out or not utilized in most churches in my state by the end of the 60′s and I have missed them ever since.  Especially in this world where time rushes by so quickly, we jump from one thing to the next, wouldn’t pausing for those few seconds before the priest shares communion with us, to take that time to just say, “Thank you, Jesus”? 

  • Doncameron83

    I must say that this article is reaching in trying to make its claims on the importance of the altar rail. From the quote in the GIRM which states: “It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation.”  The author tries to imply that this sentence demands the use of an altar rail. On the contrary, it says that EITHER elevation or a particular structure and ornamentation are acceptable. Further, the vast majority of the Theological explanations used to hold up the claims for the use of an altar rail can be stated of the normal process for the reception of Communion in the Church today. In fact, the only true benefit I could see in the article was the assistance it offers to people in standing up after receiving Communion. I found this funny because the same book quoted at the beginning of the article also claims that the proper way to receive Communion is by a “profound bow”

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