Saturday, February 14, 2015


From a 2011 National Catholic Register article:

Altar Rail Returning to Use
Architects, pastors and parishioners find it enhances reverence in church.
Article main image
In Tiverton, R.I., when some parishioners suggested returning altar rails to the sanctuary of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, Father Jay Finelli gladly accepted, little knowing shortly thereafter the Pope’s 2007 motu proprio letter Summorum Pontificum would follow and he would be interested in learning how to celebrate the extraordinary form of the Mass.
In Norwalk, Conn., when a groundswell of parishioner support encouraged pastor Father Greg Markey to restore St. Mary Church, the second-oldest parish in the diocese, to its original 19th-century neo-gothic magnificence, he made sure altar rails were again part of the sanctuary.
Altar rails are present in several new churches architect Duncan Stroik has designed. Among them, the Thomas Aquinas College Chapel in Santa Paula, Calif., the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., and three others on the drawing boards.
Altar (Communion) rails are returning for all the right reasons.
Said Father Markey: “First, the Holy Father is requiring holy Communion from him be received on the knees. Second, it’s part of our tradition as Catholics for centuries to receive holy Communion on the knees. Third, it’s a beautiful form of devotion to our blessed Lord.”
James Hitchcock, professor and author of Recovery of the Sacred (Ignatius Press, 1995), thinks the rail resurgence is a good idea. The main reason is reverence, he said. “Kneeling’s purpose is to facilitate adoration,” he explained. 
When Stroik proposed altar rails for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Cardinal [Raymond] Burke liked the idea and thought that was something that would give added reverence to the Eucharist and sanctuary.”
In Eastern Orthodox churches, there is an iconostasis — a wall of icons and religious paintings that separate the nave from the sanctuary — rather than altar rail separating the sanctuary. While the altar rail is usually about two feet high, the iconostasis veils most of the sanctuary.
“The altar rail is nothing compared to that,” he says, “and these are our Eastern brethren. We can benefit and learn something.”

Altar Rail History
They may be returning, but were altar rails supposed to be taken out of sanctuaries?
“There is nothing in Vatican II or post-conciliar documents which mandate their removal,” said Denis McNamara, author of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hillenbrand Books, 2009) and assistant director and professor at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. 
Cardinal Francis Arinze strongly affirmed this point during a 2008 video session while he was still prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments:  “The Church from Rome never said to remove the altar rails.”
So what happened?
“Unfortunately, democratic ideas came into the situation after Vatican II,” Hitchcock said.  
Stroik points some out of these ideas: a general iconoclasm that rejected the past, a desire to make churches into gathering spaces more like Protestant meeting houses, and the argument that kneeling is a sign of submission, which is seen as disrespectful to the modern person — we didn’t kneel before kings and queens, so it was more “democratic” not to kneel.
Added McNamara: “Some people called them ‘fences’ which set up division between priest and people.”
“Of course,” he said, “theologically there is a significant meaning in the distinction between nave and sanctuary. Just as there was confusion over the roles of ordained and laity at the time, so there was confusion about the architectural manifestation of those roles.”

Altar rails give “a clear designation as to what is the sanctuary,” Father Markey said. “The word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the word ‘holy,’ which means ‘set apart.’ The sanctuary is set apart from the rest of the church because it reinforces our understanding of what holiness is. The sanctuary is symbolically the head of the church and represents Christ as the head.”
McNamara traces church architecture roots to the Temple of Solomon: The large room corresponded to the church nave; the Holy of Holies, an image of heaven, corresponded to today’s sanctuary. They were separated visually by the great veil, which was torn when Christ died.
“[The altar rail] is still a marker of the place where heaven and earth meet, indicating that they are not yet completely united,” McNamara explained.
“But, at the same time, the rail is low, very permeable, and has a gate, so it does not prevent us from participating in heaven. So we could say there is a theology of the rail, one which sees it as more than a fence, but as a marker where heaven and earth meet, where the priest, acting in persona Christi, reaches across from heaven to earth to give the Eucharist as the gift of divine life.”

Reverence at Mass
Altar rails have an important role for the extraordinary form of the Mass where, Father Finelli noted, reception of Communion has to be on the tongue. He celebrates the extraordinary form weekly in Advent and Lent and monthly the rest of the year.

Communicants kneel at the oak railing that was crafted by a parishioner who is a professional woodworker. The rail was gilded by parishioners. They crafted a similar altar rail for the adoration chapel.
The presence of the rails has made an impression on the 2,000-family parish.  “So many people kept requesting to use the altar rail,” he recalled, “I decided at the beginning of Lent that people receive at the altar rail.” (The requirement is for all weekday and special feast Masses in the ordinary form too.)
Given the option to kneel or stand, many choose to kneel to receive Communion. While they can receive on the tongue or in the hand, more people are choosing to receive on the tongue.
As Father Finelli put it, “It’s a very strong sign for the love and respect for the Real Presence because it’s really Jesus we’re receiving.”
Father Finelli clarifies that for Latin Catholics to receive the Eucharist while standing and in the hand is an indult, a special permission granted by the Holy See, because the ordinary way by Church law is still to receive while kneeling and on the tongue. (The indult was granted at the request of the American bishops.)
While the extraordinary form is celebrated three times weekly at St. Mary’s in Connecticut, Father Markey says the Communion rails are used for all ordinary form Masses as well. In his 1,000-family parish, parishioners also have the option at the ordinary form to kneel or stand.
This is approved by Rome. He notes the Vatican directive: “In 2003 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments says in the ordinary form ‘communicants who chose to kneel are not to be denied holy Communion … nor accused of disobedience …’”
Stroik designed St. Mary’s renovated sanctuary incorporating hand-carved marble neo-gothic altar rails with brass gates that Father Markey purchased from a church that was closing in Pennsylvania. It beautifully matches the original white marble fixed altar and new marble free-standing altar, which brings another dimension to liturgical symbolism.
“When we gather at the altar rails, we symbolically gather at the altar,” Stroik said.
Making both altar and rails from the same materials — in this case marble — makes the connection even clearer.
Liturgical architecture expert McNamara agrees. He has found that some old church architecture books consider the rail the “people’s altar” and thus was made with the same marble as that of the altar.

To add to the symbolic connection, some churches cover the rails during Communion with linens similar to those on the altar.

Drawn to Prayer
There are yet more reasons for incorporating altar rails. Stroik finds where they have been removed in a cathedral, basilica or historic church receiving numerous visitors, many don’t know how sacred the altar is and wander around the sanctuary. The church has to put up ropes and signs like in a museum to do what altar rails were supposed to do: “create a real threshold so people can tell it’s a special place, a holy place set apart.”

Stroik says the altar rail is “an invitation for people to come close to the sanctuary, kneel and pray before the tabernacle, a statue of Our Lady or images of saints.”
Father Markey said returning the rails has been a great success.

Longtime parishioners who have attended St. Mary’s for 50 years or more regretted the magnificent altar rail being torn out in the 1960s. They now tell him, “Thank God you brought it back, Father.” 
He also notices worship is enhanced for adults as well as children: “Little children like to kneel and pray there while their mom and dad receive holy Communion,” said Father Markey. “There’s almost universal embracing. It’s one of the most popular decisions I’ve made as pastor.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.


Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

“[The altar rail] is still a marker of the place where heaven and earth meet, indicating that they are not yet completely united,” McNamara explained."

I think that heaven and earth meet at the door to the church. When we walk into the church we mystically leave behind this world and its cares and concerns and stand at the threshold of eternity.

In the body of the church, one is often surrounded/accompanied by the saints whose images line the nave. We are with them, mystically, in the heavenly presence of God.

Anonymous said...

Even the most Spartan, low-churchiest Episcopal churches I've seen have had altar rails...never see them in Catholic ones unless they are of the more ornate variety, except one that was built right before V2 but sadly is in disuse.

JBS said...

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh,

It's good that you think that, but the Church must choose symbols that reach a rich variety of Catholics, not just the learned elite.

Anonymous said...

If we want to split hairs on the where exactly the intersection of heaven and earth begins, then I might concede that heaven may begin at the church's door, but the sanctuary is where you have the right to meet and be in the presence of God and that privilege is permitted to only a few worthy to cross that threshold.

Isn't it true that the our modern sanctuary has some connection to the old Jewish temple arrangement and out of respect for that tradition we had distinct delineation, especially in the Orthodox and eastern rite Churches?

Isn't it also true that those accused by the state of crime, could seek refuge in the Church sanctuary from arrest? Wonderful that the sanctuary was afforded that level of respect by the secular authorities.


Tony V said...

I remember going to a church in Worcester, MA about 25 years ago. Somehow the altar rail had not only survived the fury of iconoclasm that had swept through the American church but was actually in regular use. The feeling of reverence at being able to kneel once more for Communion was overwhelming.

There are some beautiful altar rails in Catholic churches here in Kent, UK. Why on earth can't we use them?

Gene said...

Heaven and earth intersect in the Mass.

JBS said...


Yes, but not just in modern churches. Catholic churches have always included the three-part Temple layout, at least ever since the Church has been permitted to construct churches.

As for taking refuge inside a church, I don't know if this was in the actual sanctuary. The trouble is that in some languages the term "sanctuary" simple means a pilgrimage church, or even just the tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament. A better term is "presbyterium": the area of a church where the priests offer the Sacrifice.

Henry said...

Tony: "There are some beautiful altar rails in Catholic churches here in Kent, UK. Why on earth can't we use them?"

Can't "we" use them if we want to? I attend EF Mass on Sunday where of course the altar rail is used, but even at OF Mass on weekdays, those who wish kneel at the altar rail, and receive from priest when he's finished distribution to the standers.

John Nolan said...

Altar rails replace the Rood Screen in separating the nave from the chancel (or choir). There should not be rails between the choir stalls and the altar (look at the layout of collegiate chapels, for example).

In Anglican use rails were needed to fence off the Communion table to keep out dogs etc. The injunction in the Prayer Book for people to receive kneeling (the 'black rubric') also necessitated somewhere for them to kneel.

This is why you see, in Anglican churches, rails which separate the altar from the choir, which strictly speaking is incorrect.

In Charles I's reign Archbishop Laud ordered parish churches to move the table to the east end of the chancel, cover it and place candles and cross on it, so that it resembled an altar. During the Civil War the puritan soldiery removed these accoutrements and in addition tore out the rails. They associated them with popish and idolatrous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The post-Conciliar iconoclasts had their own reasons for removing altar rails, and I would suggest that these were not worlds away from those of the 17th century puritans.

Anonymous said...

“[The altar rail] is still a marker of the place where heaven and earth meet, indicating that they are not yet completely united,” McNamara explained." I agree with this statement because the consecration takes place in the scanctuary - the Holy of Holies. The tabernacle of the Jews was so sacred that only the priest could enter.

Under the old law the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the tabernacle in the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies and when Christ died he replaced the Ark of the Covenant and so it is fitting that the sanctuary, where Our Lord dwells in the tabernacle, should be enclosed by the altar rails as a symbol that we have something precious in our midst.

A Catholic doesn't need to be of "the learned elite" to understand that. I understood it as a child of seven. The average Catholic is far more intelligent than Fr Kavanaugh seems to appreciate. It seems to me that often these days Catholics are treated by some as simpletons with no understaning of anything. It is our patrimony and Catholics are entitled to know it.


Gene said...

Jan, You said, "The average Catholic is far more intelligent than Fr. Kavanaugh seems to appreciate."
Delete all after Kavanaugh...

JBS said...


Please. It's the Lord's Day.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Jan - I don't treat people as simpletons, nor do I treat them as children.

Yes, the Holy of Holies was entered only by the priest. In Catholic Churches, however, many people other than priests rightly may enter, so the comparison doesn't work.

Many things that are precious are not separated from anyone by railings, walls, screens, or other structures.

Catholics, who we agree are not simpletons, don't need a rail to tell them that the actions at the altar are precious and sacred.

Gene said...

JBS, So, the Lord knows it, too.

JBS said...

I've noticed that the priests who are most adamant about removing liturgical "veils and rails" are also to most insistent on protecting their own personal time and space. "All are welcome" in the sanctuary, but God forbid a parishioner rings the rectory doorbell for an unscheduled Confession or to have something blessed.

Jdj said...

Yes, JBS @ 8:06, we've noticed that too...

Anonymous said...

Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Nothing there about altar rails or sanctuaries or churches or cathedrals or gold or Catholics. We meet Christ when we gather with His people in His name....wherever it may be.

JBS said...


That's certainly true, in the spirit. However, if you want to be in the presence of the Substance of God, then you have to go to a Catholic church. "Do this in memory of me" requires more than just a casual gathering of two or three random people.

Are you aware that the whole Apostolic Tradition must be taken as a whole, and that you can't just pick a phrase at random and be done with it?

Anonymous said...

I guess you mean that you can't just "pick a phrase at random" like "Do this in memory of me" and "be done with it"?

Gosh, JBS, you make it all so clear.

Carol H. said...

Anon, you seem to think that having Christ in your midst is enough to get you to heaven. It takes a bit more than that. Try contemplating that for lent, you may find it beneficial.

Have a good lent and a happy Easter.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:39.

Sounds like you're making a case for no organized religion? If so, please let me know why Christ spent so much time in Temple from the time he was an infant until his crucifixion?
Thank you

George said...

When Christ walked the earth, He was often in the "midst of two or three" or more. Despite His physical presence among the people of the time, there were those who rejected Him and His teachings. So His presence, in and of itself, was not sufficient for some and that was because of their lack of faith.
Yet one doesn't have to become an expert in scriptural exegesis to become a good Catholic. So even an ignorant peasant girl such as Germain de Pibrac could become a saint.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father McDonald:

I find myself more often than not agreeing with Gene and disagreeing with Fr. Kavanaugh. However, the key word is disagree. Gentlemen disagree with each other in a civil manner. Reading these responses and finding some puerile provocation from Gene is getting quite old and distracts from an otherwise civil discussion, often turning it into a game of tit-for-tat. I would like to suggest that you place Gene on probation for a month and stop publishing his comments until he can act like an adult. I am increasingly finding myself embarrassed for him. If you are serious about discussing ideas and leaving personalities out of it, then please show us that you mean it.

Gene said...

Anonymous, I think FR. should suspend you for a month for being like the kid in class who tattles on other kids to the teacher. He should suspend mikey for…well, just being mikey. And, if he wants me to leave the forum, all he has to do is ask. Get a life.

JBS said...


Thank you. I'm glad to have helped.

Anonymous said...

There is no "tattling" here Gene. My request is out in the open, knowing you would read it and your response was predictable. You seem to be an intelligent person, but your impulse control seems to be lacking. Why don't you take responsibility for your continual taunting and just stop it?

Go ahead now, have the last word. You always do.

John Nolan said...

Children, children! Stop quarrelling amongst yourselves and take an example from me, whose comments are liturgically and historically impeccable and whose arguments are irrefutable. Lent is a trial for me:

'O God, it's hard to be humble
When you're perfect in every way ...'

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:54 PM, I'd love to hear more about the "so much time" Christ "spent in the temple from the time He was an infant until He was crucified".

I'm not an expert, but I can think of two times...It seems that He spent most of His time out among the people.

Gene said...

Anonymous, Jesus was likely raised in an Essene community. He probably spent a great deal of time in the Temple. You really should read a book now and then.

Gene said...

Anonymous (tattler), No, I don't always get the last word. But, you are singling me out. There are others here who would also be candidates for your suspension idea. The whiny Anonymous, who only makes catty remarks and taunts and has never, not once, contributed anything of substance, and certainly kavanaugh, for general obnoxiousness and deliberately twisting people's words and who is probably one of the most fundamentally dishonest people I have ever encountered. No, I will not let mikey off the hook because I believe unbelief should be called out everywhere and ridiculed and countered. BTW, what have you contributed of substance? Have you read any of the theological/Biblical posts I have made, largely in response to mikey's dismal NT theology ignorance? Maybe Fr. can make you a hall monitor or a lunchroom monitor and you can write people's name son the blackboard.

JBS said...


Even contemplative nuns don't spend most of their time inside a church or oratory. No one here has suggested that Christ did, either. I urge you to read a good book on classical logic, rhetoric and grammar, which will allow you to make better arguments in favor of your opinions, and to understand better the positions of others.

Carol H. said...

Anon @ 10:41, you illustrate the problem with "Bible alone" theology. You don't honestly think that every word and action of Christ is recorded in the Bible, do you? The Bible itself says that volumes of books cannot contain all of the works that Jesus did. To think that Christ only entered the temple twice is to neglect to use the intelligence that God has given us. He was raised a Jew, and worshipped accordingly.

I pray that God give you the gifts of knowledge and understanding, and the gift of wisdom to apply them to your life.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:41
Christ’s presentation in the temple, Mary and Joseph find Christ in the temple, He cast the money changers out of “His Father’s house” - the temple. The New Testament is replete with accounts of Christ teaching in the Synagogues as He traveled from town to town(Matt 3, Matt 9, Matt 13). Recall the account in Luke 4 when He read a prophecy about Himself in the temple?. Do you need more? Hope this helps you.

Anonymous said...

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Luke 19.

Every day!

In case you need more


Anonymous said...

Mark 14:49
Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled."

Yes from infant until crucifixion as I wrote. He cast out the money changers right before his death.


Anonymous said...

Y'all be careful about quoting the Bible. Carol H says that illustrates the problem of "Bible alone" theology. We should use the intelligence that God gave sort of fill in any blanks we may come across...

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Gene - I don't twist your words. I quote them, showing you, using quotes from the Catechism and from papal documents, bishops' conference documents, and other Catholic sources why your assertions are wrong.

You don't like being shown that you are wrong, so you react like a 3rd grader, calling names, bullying, and making false accusations.

Our exchange on Social Justice is
only the most recent example. You asserted that Social Justice isn't biblical or theological. In just one passage from Pope St. John Paul II you were shown to be wrong, so you fall into your humbugging and complaining.

You can admit your error and learn of what the Catholic Faith consists, or you can keep bellyaching, demanding the Faith be changed to fit your opinions.

Oh, and I'm not going anywhere.

Gene said...

mikey, show me one place in the NT or OT where "social justice" is mentioned. It simply is not a biblical concept. It is Enlightenment/progressivist mis-interpretation. The Church has, when talking about Biblical justice, unfortunately misappropriated the term "social justice" to describe the Biblical, theological justice spoken of in Scripture. If you think that the justice Amos and Hosea or Jesus were talking about is the same justice dispensed by the political powers and principalities in Washington or by the local welfare office, ACLU, or courthouse you have even less understanding of Biblical theology than I thought.
It is indeed unfortunate that the mouthpieces of the Church have been so co-opted by socialist/humanist ideology.

JBS said...


Yes, we should use the intelligence God gave us.

Carol H. said...

Anon, Don't twist my words!

I said that your assumption that Christ only entered the temple twice because that was all you could recall from your reading of the Bible was an example of the problem with Bible alone theology. I did NOT say that quoting from the Bible is.

Satan twisted God's words to Adam to get Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Twisting people's words to say something other than what they said is a horrible evil. Please examine your heart and try to determine who actually rules there.

I'll continue to pray for you and I forgive you.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Gene - I'll show you where "social justice" is mentioned in the OT and NT when you show me where the word "Trinity" appears in either or both.

My correction to you had nothing to do with Amos or Hosea. My correction to you had only to do with your false assertion that Social Justice is both non-Biblical and non-theological.

The quote from Saint Pope John Paul II indicates that your assertion that Social Justice is not biblical or theological is wrong. More importantly it shows that your assertions are contrary to Catholic faith, teaching, and belief.

As always, I am happy to stand with the Church while you are happy to depart from the Church.

Pope Benedict 16 on Social Justice: "It is necessary not only to relieve the gravest needs but to go to their roots, proposing measures that will give social, political and economic structures a more equitable and solidaristic configuration.” Message to Mexican Bishops, Sept. 29, 2005

And: "Peace, however, is not merely a gift to be received: it is also a task to be undertaken. In order to be true peacemakers, we must educate ourselves in compassion, solidarity, working together, fraternity, in being active within the community and concerned to raise awareness about national and international issues and the importance of seeking adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, the promotion of growth, cooperation for development and conflict resolution. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God’, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:9).” World Day of Peace message, 2012, #5

And: “To make a concrete response to the appeal of our brothers and sisters in humanity, we must come to grips with the first of these challenges: solidarity among generations, solidarity between countries and entire continents, so that all human beings may share more equitably in the riches of our planet. This is one of the essential services that people of good will must render to humanity. The earth, in fact, can produce enough to nourish all its inhabitants, on the condition that the rich countries do not keep for themselves what belongs to all.” Audience to seven new ambassadors to the Holy See, June 16, 2005

Gene said...

Do you realize that the words "social justice" appear in none of the quotes you posted…and your little quip regarding the Trinity is also duplicitous. There is ample evidence for the concept of the Trinity in the NT in a number of places. There is none for the ideology of "social justice." (Fr will not allow me to use the terms moron, tool, scoundrel, rascal, con man, or just plain liar on the blog. Too bad.)

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Gene - All of the quotes I posted refer to social justice. To save face and avoid admitting you are wrong, you simply refuse to acknowledge it.

There is ample evidence for the Church's teaching on social justice in the Old and New Testaments. Because you persist in your "individual ethic" mentality, a highly Protestant notion, you simply won't see it.

John Nolan said...

Fr Kavanaugh

I am prepared to concede that there is a specifically Catholic interpretation of social justice which would include working for the common good.

Perhaps in return you might modify your absolutist position that the so-called EF is 'not needed' since both Benedict XVI and his predecessor have made it abundantly clear that it is.