Removal of Altar Rails

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Removal of Altar Rails

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 approval.

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 next.

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 functions.

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 not pertinent.

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 them.

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 Communion rail.

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 aforementioned norms."

This text basically repeats norms already issued in the 1967 instruction "Eucharisticum Mysterium."

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 receive Communion.

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 wish. ZE05021521

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field