Friday, December 18, 2009


If I had to take a guess at what three architectural features cause the most consternation among practicing Catholics, number one would be the placement of the tabernacle, just about everything concerning the altar of sacrifice (size, construction, orientation, material, placement), and lastly would be the altar rail.

Altar rails still exist in many church buildings as remnants from pre-Vatican II architecture as they were desirable as part of the celebration of the Mass. Also called a Communion rail, communicants would kneel at the rail in order to receive Holy Communion.

Another purpose was to separate the sanctuary from the nave of the church. There is something sacred and special about the sanctuary area and so it was demarcated so that only activities directly related to worship would take place there. It is something like the rail found in a courtroom. The area that has a particular focus of activity is set aside and in effect guarded as a way of reminding us of the sacred mysteries that take place there.

The altar rail is no longer called for but Vatican II never called for the removal of the altar rail either and later the Vatican restated that there is no automatic need to have it removed especially when it is of artistic or architectural value except when it was necessary for the expansion of the sanctuary area.

Today in pre-Vatican II buildings you will find parishes that have retained it, have remnants of it, and those who have removed it all together. Occasionally you may find modern church buildings that give a nod in remembering communion rails by using pieces that might look like parts of an altar rail but serve merely as markers of where Communion stations are.

There are basically two distinct views of altar rails. One is that it serves as an unnecessary barrier between what happens at the altar and what those gathered are doing in the pew. Many see it as an obstacle to full participation in the Mass and as giving far too distinct a symbol of the priest’s role as opposed to a non-cleric’s role.

For others it has the exact opposite meaning. The distinction in areas helps draw one’s attention to the sacred action happening beyond it. It draws them to the sanctuary physically providing them a place to be closer to and kneel before the Blessed Sacrament. The symbolic value of coming forward in the Communion line to receive Jesus is enhanced by the two words that architecturally meet – the straight and earthly lines of the nave and the often circular and heavenly lines of the sanctuary.


Adoro said...

One other thing I learned a year or so ago is this:

The altar rail was considered to be an extension of the altar itself, and was typically constructed of the same material.

That meant that those receiving at the rail were receiving at the altar itself; truly eating directly from the "tree of sacrifice".

What a shame to have lost such an important point of truly "participatio actuosa" as called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Anonymous said...

Well said Adoro. So much has been lost and so much triviality has been added. It saddens me to go into a modern church and the building and the liturgy give you the experience of going to a coffee shop. Not a very fitting place for our Lord to reside. And they are confused why Mass attendance is so low and why the young become apostate.