Wednesday, September 15, 2010


There was a time in the seminary (times, they have a-changed) when the altar was in the center of the nave on an oriental rug, which constituted the sanctuary, with chairs placed around it for whomever was attending. One day a seminarian was giving the homily. I don’t remember the exact context of the message but he asked the question if everything is made by God, is one place holier than any another? Standing on the Oriental rug he asked, “Am in a holier place now than,” and he stepped off of the rug, “now?”

The situation was much the same way in my first assignment. The daily chapel was a room behind the main church. The place where the altar, tabernacle, ambo, and celebrant’s chair sat would have been a hallway passage between the two doors that let into the chapel with pews fanning back from there. In fact, it was used as a hallway. It had to be. It was the only way to get to the pews or pass from one side of the church to the other without walking across the main sanctuary. In essence there was even less of a distinction between sanctuary and nave here than in the seminary.

So is – or should – the sanctuary area be any more holy than any other part of the church building? What does holy mean? Holy means set apart for the use of the kingdom. Is not the whole church holy – set apart for use to further the kingdom of God? Of course it is. A whole church is consecrated, not just the sanctuary area. The whole building needs to be treated with a certain amount of reverence. This is not just another building.

But further, the sanctuary is not just another space in the holy space. Here is where the most important thing on earth takes place. Here the Word of God is proclaimed; here Jesus is made present Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. The altar is not just another table on which something grand takes place. Therefore the altar should never be used for anything unconnected to the liturgy. It is not a convenient place to set your scissors as you work on flowers, it is not place to set your papers or to lean against.

This does not make God happier or more holy. This practice is for our benefit. It reminds us not to become too complacent, too used to the miraculous and mystery in our midst. It says to us that something far too important happens here to be taken lightly. Set your scissors somewhere – anywhere else but here.

By extension also the sanctuary. This is not just another space. It is not even just another holy space within a holy space. There is something elevated here. We are to treat this space distinctly different than all other spaces. The general Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the sanctuary should be marked off from the body of the church by elevation or distinct design or architectural appointments. As one wanders around the church, it should be impossible to accidently find yourself here. In a terrible analogy it is like not walking on someone’s grave. Nobody is hurt by it. Not you, not the person who died, and not God. But not doing so reminds us of the dignity of the person buried there, of the reverence we should have for death, for the sensibilities of those who love the person, and remind us of our own mortality.

So we come to the altar rail which has had a fall from popularity that rivals that of Tiger Woods. Recently it was suggested by a parishioner that it be removed from the parish building. Besides making a terrible mar in the architecture would it harm anything to remove it? No. God wouldn’t be angry. Even the most orthodox liturgist would not think it a crime against the Church since the sanctuary would still meet the requirements for being distinctly set apart. But I think we would lose something.

One of the reasons people do not like altar rails is that it makes them feel distant from the altar. As if there is some barrier between them and the altar. Well – let’s be honest – there is. But if having an altar in a hallway is one extreme is having an altar rail the other?

One argument that I make over and over again is that symbols that were redefined in the 60s and 70s are being redefined once again. The things that were fought against represented by many symbols of the Church no longer exist and younger persons cannot connect them with what others see as oppressive signs of a bygone Church structure. Arguments to the contrary simply fail to move them and when we spend a lot of time arguing about them young people (here I mean approximately 45 and under) simply become disinterested, wonder what all the fuss is about, and, tragically, lose interest.

So we come to the altar rail. Quite frankly I think most people simply don’t register them. It is a bit of a non-issue. But looking back at being in church buildings with altar rails and not having grown up with what is now called the extraordinary form I find they have played a curiously opposite role in my life than that of which they are accused.

Far from making me think that I am somehow excluded or unworthy to approach the sanctuary, I find that they have always drawn me to the sanctuary. Stopping in a church on a visit I would always find myself kneeling at such a spot, not only getting one of the closest vantage points for looking at a beautiful sanctuary but also then (while I am kneeling) being drawn to prayer. As some people see them as off putting, they can also be an invitation.

Now, you certainly do not have to agree with my analysis. Except for the call for the sanctuary to be set apart from the rest of the church, everything contained herein is strictly my opinion (brilliant and humble, but just my opinion) and you will find scores of much more educated and professional persons who vehemently disagree. And that’s why it is a big Church. But be careful about completely ruling them out at least in such things as already exist as if it is a foregone conclusion that they should be wiped out from the face of the earth. In an age where sanctity is a dying concept it may be wise to not rail against such things.


Matt W said...

Nice post.

It is very trying for me as layman to see a priest use the Altar of Sacrifice in the same way I use the top of my microwave in the kitchen: a place to park stuff. I know that it makes not one whit of difference to Him, but it's what it does to us that worries me. With belief in the Real Presence on the wain, even little thoughtless actions repeated over time can make a big difference.

Cracked Pot said...

There are so many styles of church architecture in our diocese, from the very "traditional" to the very "modern." I think St. Sebastian's design is a great blending of the two.

If people don't like our railing, there is a church building not far from us without one. Why would one parish have to bear the expense of redesign just to make that church building look like the one down the road?

If we care about the poor, would not the cost of such "redesign" [either removing a railing or installing one] be better spent on ministries to those in need?

In my home diocese, two churches which were redesigned to be very bland and plain (in the "spirit of Vatican II) recently renovated again--this time bringing back more tradtional church architecture. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

dear Father---once again i loved your column---recently you have batted a thousand with--me,here i am, a lowly little lost sheep'who for years wandered in a dessert of prot. life--mixed with alittle dose of beiny an agnostic and/ or on a bad day an atheist--etc., i know you get the picture---but throughh the CONTINUING grace of our precious LORD and SAVIOUR, i found it into the fold---to stay grounded in this fold, i find i constantly need JESUS to be where i can quickly find him--uhmm that would, for me, not be in some "Special little chapel--i don't care how Special it is--i may be on my last breath--you know shot in the chest--dragging myself into the sanctuary,,no time to be searching for the "special little chapel"--but rather up front and CENTER--with an ALTER RAIL to fall on---i know my scenario sounds ridiculous, but hopefully my point is clear---please dear fellow Catholics, remember and start preserving what it was you once were---being more like protestants i fear is not the answer---i know it would have never assisted me in hopefully my final "journey Home"--sincerely, an EXTRAORDINARILY happy Catholic--

W.C. Hoag said...

As one who did grow up with the Extraordinary Form in the days when there was no greater high crime in the Church than celebrating or attending the "abrogated" usus antiquor, the altar rail wars of the 70s and 80s never played a part in my faith life. They were just...there. I knew why they existed, at least pragmaticly to assist in kneeling for communion. I learned later the more symbolic meaning of the rail as the frontier between heaven and earth in which the entrance to the sanctuary was truly "porta caeli".

Now many years later and in the service to the diocese as a lay ecclesial minister (Wow! How is that as a transformation for a childhood Lefebvrist!), I do find it unsettling to walk into a church without an altar rail. Indeed, it is not an oppressive symbol but rather one of comfort knowing that the Court of Christ the King is clearly present. There was never any ecclesial document that called for the removal of altar rails, in fact I am a little saddened that Trent actually ordered the removal of rood screens. Nor, as the late Michael Davies explained in his booklet "The Catholic Sanctuary and the Second Vatican Council", was there ever a document calling for the reordering and reorientation of churches and sanctuaries following the last council. He uses the Brompton Oratory in London as an example of a church fully in line with the norms following the reform of the liturgy, a place where NO CHANGES were made in sanctuary of nave--not even a wretched Cramner table brought in!

Great blog, Father V. Keep up the writing!

Anonymous said...

"Quite frankly I think most people simply don’t register them. It is a bit of a non-issue."

Yes, Father. My sister, who only visits our parish occassionally, couldn't recall if we had one or not!

The altar railing has many practical advantages, even if we do not kneel to receive communion.

Since I prefer to kneel at prayer, having an altar railing keeps me from falling forward! It's better than kneeling on the floor. I have a place on which to rest a prayer book.

How unfortunate that some people can't function in a church building that has an altar railing.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty much a matter of fashion and what a person likes based on what that person grew up with and what their comfort zone is. Then, if something like the presence or absence of altar railings helps somebody feel like she or he is back in the womb he or she will come up with a rationale for why the railing should or should not be there. It's not a rational issue, it's basically emotional, so there's really no point in trying to make excuses for it one way or the other.