altar railings are a Protestant thing. They have not visited any Catholic Churches with altar railings and many of them did not know that St. Joseph Church had had an altar railing up until 2005 and that prior to Vatican II the altar railing was used to receive Holy Communion as the communicant knelt.
So this is my letter to the parish for the 5th Sunday of Easter a week from this Sunday:
I’ve had a couple of parishioners ask me about the restoration of our old altar railing. It was removed from the church around 2005 when we were undergoing a major restoration of the building. Why was it restored? What is the true purpose of the altar railing?
I found the question interesting because I simply presumed that everyone knew why there was once altar railings and why these were removed in many churches (not all) after Vatican II.
First and foremost, the altar railing traditionally was the demarcation of the sanctuary (where the altar is) from the nave of the church where the laity participate during Mass. Church law still requires some kind of demarcation, such as an elevated floor or even a railing.
In the Churches of the East both Catholic and Orthodox, this demarcation is called an iconostasis screen which completely blocks the view of the altar when the doors to the screen are closed. In the east the sanctuary (meaning the altar area, not the entire church) is the “Holy of Holies.” The same can be applied to all Catholic Churches even in the west.
In the west, the altar railing allowed the altar to be viewed rather than walled up. By the 6th or 7th century Catholics would kneel at the altar railing to receive Holy Communion and the altar railing itself far from excluding the laity from the sanctuary came to be seen as an extension of the altar itself, something the laity could approach, kneel to pray, touch and feel closer to the altar.
The Second Vatican Council never mandated nor has universal canon law ever required that altar railings be removed from older churches that have them or that newer churches not install them. However after Vatican II, liturgical theologians with their own academic arguments insisted that altar railings separated the laity from the altar and that the laity, like the priest celebrating Mass, should stand to receive Holy Communion rather than kneel as a sign of being “raised up” in Christ. I would suggest, however, even if a person who is dying receives Holy Communion on their death bed lying flat on their back, they are still receiving Christ “raised up” with Him in the resurrection.
These theologians also indicated that standing for Holy Communion is the oldest tradition of the Church of the west. It is, but it is not the longest tradition of the Church of the west, kneeling for Holy Communion is. For the Churches of the east to include the Orthodox Churches, standing has always been the norm for receiving Holy Communion.
With the liberal allowance of Pope Benedict XVI for the older form of the Mass, what is now called the Extraordinary Form, kneeling for Holy Communion is the norm. This Mass returned to Saint Joseph in 2007. So an altar railing or a kneeler of some kind is required for this Mass when receiving Holy Communion.
As well, Pope Benedict made it perfectly clear that kneeling for Holy Communion in the revised English Mass was not forbidden and that the choice of the communicant to either stand or kneel should be respected. Therefore it is incumbent on pastors to provide a way for those who choose to kneel to receive Holy Communion to do so comfortably and as a sign of hospitality to them.
Pope Benedict gave Holy Communion to the laity who knelt at a kneeler at all his papal Masses.
So far from being a separation of the laity from the altar, the altar railing is an extension of the altar for the laity to use to pray, touch and receive Holy Communion.
Oddly, many of our converts to Catholicism thought that kneeling for Holy Communion is a Protestant thing as most Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians continue to use the altar railing to kneel to receive their communion. However, Protestants maintained this Catholic custom after the Reformation and many continue this custom even after Vatican II which actually in other ways influenced their liturgies. Altar railings are a Catholic thing, not a Protestant thing.
I will have more on altar railings in the June newsletter. God bless you.
Fr. Allan J. McDonald