|ROME, 1 FEB. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: A statement, on behalf of our parish priest, supporting the removal
of the altar rails, states that "removal of the altar rails is
consistent with the changes of the Vatican Council's 1963 Constitution
of the Liturgy. To the writer's knowledge, altar rails no longer
separate the congregation and the celebration of the Mass in churches
throughout Sydney. ... [R]emoval of altar rails was undertaken 'to make
the layout more suitable for the modern liturgy and particularly the
involvement of school children coming onto the altar [sanctuary] at
several times during various liturgies [to perform liturgical dance] and
due to concerns raised by the Principal of the school about safety
issues arising from the restrictions imposed by the altar rail during
children's liturgies.'" Is this statement correct?
S.R., Bondi Beach, Australia
A: The decision in whether to remove altar rails falls basically upon
the pastor although, as with any major renovation, it should be done in
consultation with the local bishop and often requires his explicit
Before the liturgical reform the Communion rail, or balustrade, was
required in most churches.
It served both to set off the sanctuary from the rest of the church and
to facilitate the administration of Communion, which generally was
received kneeling, while the priest moved from one communicant to the
Since after the reform, Communion is frequently received standing and in
processional form, the people approaching the priest while he remains in
one spot. Hence, the Communion rail has often lost one of its principal
Likewise, where Communion is often distributed under both species and by
more than one minister the rail can sometimes be an obstacle.
In this sense your parish priest's comment that the removal of the rail
is consistent with the liturgical changes is broadly correct. Yet, no
document explicitly mandates or even suggests that the removal of altar
rails is required by the liturgical reform.
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.
Even churches that are not, strictly speaking, "historical," sometimes
have altar rails and other elements that are fine examples of the
artistry, such as stone carving and metalwork, of earlier epochs. If no
other use can be found for them within a renovated church it is often
better to do whatever is possible to preserve them.
The other reasons offered for the removal of the altar rails are really
The fact that no other church in the city has altar rails makes no
difference if there were a good reason for preserving them in this
particular church, or even if there were no good reason for removing
Even less weighty is the third reason that was cited. The children's
activities that are described have no place in the sanctuary in the
first place, at least not during the celebration of the liturgy.
The sanctuary should not be confused with a stage and should not be used
as such. It is, as stated in the above-mentioned document, which itself
quotes the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, "the space where the
altar and the ambo stand, and 'where the priest, deacon and other
ministers exercise their offices.'" ZE05020121
Follow-up: Removal of Altar Rails [15 February 2005]
Pursuant to our reflections on the removal of altar rails (Feb. 1) some
readers asked for more information about the changes made on the
reception of Communion.
Specifically, they asked about the change regarding kneeling and
standing, and when Communion in the hand was allowed.
Regarding the first point, there is a distinction to be made: One thing
is the mode of approaching the sanctuary in procession, another is the
mode of receiving Communion.
The practice of approaching the sanctuary to receive Communion in a
loose (not formally organized) procession was already a custom before
the introduction of the reformed rite of Mass. But instead of the priest
staying in one place, the faithful would line up and kneel at the
The official norms regarding the approach to and reception of Communion
are contained in No. 160 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal,
which, in a literal translation, reads:
"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
faithful receive Holy Communion either kneeling or standing, as
established by the Episcopal Conference. When receiving Holy Communion
standing, however, it is recommended that the communicant make a gesture
of reverence before receiving the Sacrament, as established by the
This text basically repeats norms already issued in the 1967 instruction
The text of GIRM No. 160 approved by the Holy See for the United States
contains some variations:
"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."
From these norms we can deduce that the general liturgical norms
consider this a question of practicality and personal devotion and do
not show any particular preference for either kneeling or standing to
The controversy following the application of the U.S. norms (that
Communion be received standing) have shown that in this case the norm
issued by the bishops' conference is more an indication of prevalent
custom than a strict legal obligation. Thus, a member of the faithful
may still kneel if moved to do so by personal devotion.
Such a person, however, must be wary against judging those who follow
the general custom as being somehow less reverent.
The abandonment of the altar rail seems to be a practical consequence of
the permission to receive Communion standing and, later, from the indult
allowing Communion in the hand and a wider use of the Blessed Sacrament
under both species.
This change was never mandated in law. Indeed, there are still places
where the custom of kneeling at the rail has been preserved, above all
in countries where Communion in the hand is not yet permitted.
The indult allowing Communion in the hand was first issued in an
instruction, "Memoriale Domini," published May 29 1969.
This document allowed the bishops' conference to solicit an indult from
the Holy See in order to permit the reception of Communion in the hand.
Not all bishops' conferences have requested this permission, and the
traveling Catholic should be ready to adapt to local customs with
respect to posture and mode of receiving Communion.
Even when the bishops' conference permits receiving in the hand, the
faithful always retain the right to receive on the tongue if they so