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June 19, 2012

Catholicism Nerd: The Return of the Altar Rails

It's been a few months since I explored a topic from my nerdy Catholic perspective

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Why were Altar Rails part of the structure of a Church in the first place?  

The Altar Rails encircled the altar on all sides.  There was often a gate through which the bishop, priest, deacon or acolytes would enter in order to say the Mass.  The gate was small - narrow if you will.  The Sanctuary houses the Tabernacle - the "Holy of Holies" where our Lord remains after Mass.  The Altar Rails provided a boundary indicating the end of one space and the beginning of another.  As we are still here on this Earth, the boundary is a visual reminder of the holiness we still hope to attain and the Grace we still need in order to end up in Heaven.

When I mentioned yesterday that our pastor is planning to install altar rails into our "modern" church, I thought...why did churches ever remove them in the first place?  According to last year's article in the National Catholic Register, there is nothing in Vatican II documents mandating their removal.  

One reason given was the idea that kneeling was a position of submission and seen as disrespectful to the modern person.  I find this strange.  But maybe that's why I'm a Catholic nerd, haha.  I get that "the modern person" doesn't want to kneel before any mere man...but we're talking about God, the One who made us, the One without whom we do not exist, inside His house.  I mean, if you don't believe you're there in the presence of God, then you probably aren't approaching to receive the Eucharist anyway, and if you are a Catholic disposed to receive the Eucharist, then, you should believe you're approaching God, and I'm not sure why a person in such a state does not want to kneel in His presence and pay Him the homage and reverence due to Him as the Creator of all.  

The idea of making Catholic sanctuaries to look and feel more like Protestant worship spaces is confusing to me.  Why would Catholics want to be more like Protestants?  I will never understand this.  Catholics have the source and summit of our faith - the Eucharist - and for 40-plus years now, so many Catholics in our country have turned their own backs to it and tried to encourage all of us to do so.

There are some people that may not like the idea of a distinction between the nave and the sanctuary.  Interestingly enough, the article discusses the root of the word sanctuary, it comes from the word "holy" which means "set apart."  The sanctuary is the holy place where our Lord comes to be with us, and I think it makes sense to set it apart because we are not yet in Heaven.

Perhaps I am alone in thinking I need that barrier between myself and the Holy place of Heaven?  I mean, I know I am not worthy to receive our Lord, I say so every Mass, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."  Where does this idea come from that we are on a plane with Jesus while we are still in this world?  

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It seems to be the case that many Catholic churches are returning to the use of Altar Rails, many with swelling parishioner support.  Even with my parish's "modern" structure, I look forward to the day when there is a distinction between the sanctuary and nave of our church.  It's nice that we have kneelers currently so that those of us who feel drawn to do so, may kneel in front of our Savior to receive Him.  How wonderful it will be when there is simply a rail all the way around the Altar?

I think it's beautiful to consider the Altar Rail as the meeting point between Heaven and Earth. 

Perhaps with a greater distinction between what is holy and what is not, there might be greater consideration and reverence when approaching to receive the Holy Eucharist.  I believe it would help me and my children.  There is so much confusion, I fear, in our broken world.  I sometimes wonder how deep the belief runs in us (yes, myself included) that we truly are receiving our Lord - Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity - in the Eucharist.  As fallen human beings, it is truly something difficult to wrap our heads around, that our Lord would humble Himself to be with us in this way.  I like to kneel to receive because it helps me focus on this aspect and puts me in a better frame of mind.  And I'm fortunate to have this option at my parish.  

Perhaps a visual reminder, such as an altar rail, will cultivate that sense of awe, wonder, amazement and evoke the reverence that is due as one approaches the edge of Heaven to receive His Holy Grace.

What do you think?  Do you have Altar Rails in your church?  Do you have a preference with regard to their presence?  



  1. We do have an altar rail at our parish, and I love watching my Dh kneel to receive the Eucharist (a very natural way to receive when you receive on the tongue). I have a gluten problem, so I only receive from the cup (not offered at the rail), but I also find the rail makes it easier for me to communicate "I am not able to receive the Host"... I simply remain standing with hands folded over my chest for a blessing and the priest is far less likely to forget and try to give me the Host by accident!

    All in all, I am a huge fan of the rail.

  2. p.s. Yes, our parish is one of those thriving parishes too! (People seem to love the rail). And honestly, anyone who feels put off by the "separation" of the rail should attend an Eastern Rite liturgy with the full screen... you'll see how "liberal" and inviting the western rail really is! Haha. At least we can SEE the sanctuary and tabernacle at all times during the year!

  3. I agree with you about returning to the reverent structure of kneelers and altar rails.

    However, this past Sunday at Mass, I sat in front of a very devout, elderly woman. She knelt after communion like most of us do, and couldn't get up afterward. I had to turn around to assist her back to the pew. I think the altar rails might have originally been removed in consideration of less mobile parishioners, who feel obliged to kneel and who may be physically restricted. Altar rails and kneelers contribute to such a feeling of reverence, that I'd like to see the universal return of them...but with something like the Lenten requirements for fasting for elderly. Something to the effect, "If you're over the age of 65, you are still being reverent if you simply bow your head."

  4. Oh, I'm jealous of your alter rails! Our church building is pretty new (maybe 7 years old?) and is big and open and light and BORING. I long for stained glass and some statues that I can point out to occupy Miriam for a few more minutes!

    I asked our preachers about bringing back the bells during the consecration, mostly because I think they would really help as we're trying to focus Miriam on what's happening on the alter. The younger one thought it was great, but unfortunately the head (older) priest was completely dismissive. He's very into efficiency when it comes to communion time (to his credit, it is a large parish), so there are tons of Eucharistic ministers and very few people actually come down the center aisle towards the alter. And get this - he actually made an announcement one time that people shouldn't kneel or even do a deep bow before receiving, because it slows down the line. Yeah. Is there smoke coming out of your ears? Because there was from mine! Be thankful for your good priests and parish!

  5. I don't think I've ever regularly gone to a church with rails, but I'm certainly not against it. We are physical people, so in my mind a physical reminder of our need for humility and the separation of the sanctuary is a good thing.

  6. Katie - even with an altar rail in use, there is no requirement to kneel. We have plenty of parishioners who bow then remain standing as they approach the rail with no trouble (basically, the presence of the altar rail does not negate the other appropriate forms of receiving).

  7. It's interesting. When our pastor put in the kneelers when he first arrived at our parish so that people had the option to kneel to receive...it seemed many people really wanted to do it. I don't think anyone felt forced (or if they did, they must have handled that with Father privately). But I know I felt so happy to have the option and I know at some point, my infirmities may cause me to be unable, but I could see myself trying it anyway, LOL.

    Also, Father was clear that it is still okay to do the deep bow before receiving standing, or even genuflecting. All of those things (at least here in the US) are appropriate and accepted forms of showing reverence before receiving our Lord.

    I had a little inspiration to write something about the indult we have here in the U.S. for our reception in the hands, etc. I might have to do a little research though!

  8. Yes and no, the church is currently closed for renovation but there were two altars. The big one used for Ordinary Mass has the set up but not the actual rail. The smaller used mainly for Latin Mass does have the altar and was used.

    Where we are now, the sister church we are "crashing" in the meantime has altar rails but are only used during Latin Mass. Which is not a regular occurrence, the last series ended in early January.

    I like receiving kneeling at Latin Mass and would never think about standing but at Ordinary Mass, I actually have no problem just bowing and receiving on my tongue.

    I'm not in the U.S by the way. I have seen a few people just kneel as is to receive.

  9. Nicely written Michelle. I've been thinking about this too, as well as possibly starting to veil, though I'm not quite there yet.

    I do receive on the tongue, and I wonder what they'd do if I knelt to do so? Maybe I should try it and see.

  10. Our church has its original alter railing from the early 1900's.. it is lovely. We really appreciate it.


Thank you for reading. I enjoy reading other perspectives, please feel free to share yours. :)