One of the first victims of the renovations that occurred in Catholic Churches after the Second Vatican Council was the altar rail. Today most new churches are built without any consideration for an altar rail. Older churches that boasted a substantial altar rail of gleaming marble or finely detailed wood often eliminated a central gate and widened the entrance to the sanctuary. A good number of parishes did away with the altar rail altogether. The common understanding of what an altar rail signified led speedily to this overhaul of Catholicism’s sacred places. Altar rails, at least in the recent past, were understood to be liturgical barriers, glorified fences, if you will, to keep the laity in their place and to accord the clergy unencumbered access to their sacred space. Recall that even the most devout lay women were only allowed into the sanctuary during Mass on their wedding day! And even then, some parishes tolerated a bride’s presence only if she were a member of the Sodality of Mary.
The altar rail as a guardrail or a balustrade shielding priestly services from interruption by lay believers is a complete misreading of this venerable item of hallowed furnishings. The altar rail was intended not as a hindrance to the altar but rather as an extension of the altar. Custom demanded that a church’s main altar and the church’s altar rail be made of the same substance: marble altar, marble rail; wooden altar, wooden rail. An altar rail, rather than keeping people at a distance from the celebration of Mass, actually invited people to approach the action of the Mass more easily. The altar rail facilitated the reception of Holy Communion along an expansive and easily accessed area rather than at a distant and elevated step at the main altar.
In the early Middle Ages, the reception of Holy Communion had fallen off so greatly that canon law was actually revised demanding that Catholics receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season, i.e., the Easter Duty. To encourage frequent Holy Communion all during the year the handy altar rail extending across the front of the church allowed a number of worshippers to kneel at the same time, receive Holy Communion, then depart the rail as the priest moved on to the next communicant. This process was much more efficient than receiving the Host singly at the main altar step! The rail also allowed elderly and infirm parishioners a bit of support when kneeling and while attempting to stand up. The altar rail was the product of sensitivity toward the laity, a visible invitation to approach Holy Communion easily and regularly. It was never intended as an obstruction or as a barrier to the full partition of the laity in the Eucharist.
Rather than separate the laity from the clergy, the rail was intended to bring together more easily the clergy and the laity so both could complete their respective roles as a priestly people in the Eucharist meal. This Sunday’s reading from Revelation happily reminds believers that a priestly role is accorded to each Christian both in church and in the world: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.” Christians are indeed a priestly people both in church and in the world!
The disappearance or modification of the altar rail was greatly occasioned by the decision of the American bishops to encourage Holy Communion in the hand while standing. “The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling,” reads the general instruction on the Roman Missal. Quite recently, Pope Francis mentioned standing for Holy Communion adding the words, “with devotion,” a reminder that folded hands and an attentive “Amen” are expected from all.
Standing for Holy Communion at Mass affirms the broader Catholic obligation to stand also for Christ in public life. The condemned Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel recognizes that his standing up for the truth publicly should impel his followers to do the same. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The scandal of those who stand boldly at the sanctuary step for Holy Communion and then cowardly shirk Christian responsibility in public life (and in private life) is shameful. Standing publicly in church for Holy Communion means standing publicly in society for the truth!