Friday, April 24, 2015


I've discovered that many of my parishioner who are converts to Catholicism think 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:

Dear parishioners,

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.

Your pastor,

Fr. Allan J. McDonald


Michael (Quicumque Vult) said...

All the Episcopal churches I've been to in my area still have, and still use, altar rails. If they, with their vague Eucharistic theology, see the value in kneeling to receive, how much more should we, who believe clearly in transubstantiation, feel the same way!

Lefebvrian said...

This is a sad indication of how effective the so-called reformers were in stripping away the Liturgical patrimony of the Church. I'd be interested to hear how your letter is received.

The fact that you've gotten such questions indicates that your flock needs some catechesis on Catholic worship from an historical perspective.

Anonymous said...

An outstanding parish bulletin statement, Fr. MacDonald. Hat's off to you.

PS. As a former Methodist, the first time I ever stood for holy communion was in a wreckovated Catholic church.

Rood Screen said...

As far as the Holy of Holies is concerned, it's worth mentioning that this Catholic practice keeps our churches in continuity with the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, and with the desert Tabernacle before that. It's a 4000 year journey of faith, ya'll.

"Aufer a nobis, quǽsumus Dómine, iniquitátes nostras: ut ad Sancta Sanctórum puris mereámur méntibus introíre."

P.S. Could the removal of altar rails be motivated by antisemitism?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about the kneeling. I go to a Byzantine Rite parish and have also been to Melkite, Maronite Rites as well, they all receive standing, on the tongue, by intinction. I don't think kneeling has ever been a part of the eastern Churches? Could intinction ever be used in the Latin Church?

qwikness said...

Father McDonald does a great job catechizing us, in homily and in bulletins. As Father has said, it is the PROTESTANTS that have these misunderstandings. That they have not seen this in other Catholic churches indicates that it is the other churches that need do the proper catechizing.

John Nolan said...

Protestant sects in the 16th century argued over how the sacrament was to be received - sitting, standing, kneeling?

The famous 'black rubric' of the Anglican Church asked the faithful to kneel but take the sacrament in the hand.

So in Anglican churches there is often a communion rail which enables the communicants to kneel, but it is in the wrong place - not between the nave and the chancel but just before the altar steps. I won't go into the problems that 'railing' engendered in the 17th century among the Puritans, but the fact that it has surfaced in the modern Catholic Church is rather strange, to say the least.

Do we have a different theology, a different ecclesiology, a different hermeneutic of the Mass as Fr Kavanaugh would have us believe? I tend to doubt it.

ND said...

That's an understandable misconception. I went to a cousin's wedding in a Methodist church, and the "sanctuary" (I'm not sure what it's actually called: the place with the pulpit and communion table?) had a very tasteful altar rail. I thought to myself, if Methodists can kneel to receive their bread-symbolizing-the-Last-Supper at a rail, why can't Catholics???

Paul (from a secret location) said...

Not calling out anyone/anything to blame but maybe along with the Catechesis a bit of good ol' fashioned history would help. I also think the history would help youth and converts put a face on His church, that real people are part of His Church, not a bunch of "goat herders" and not all men.

rcg said...

FrAJM, please follow up with the reaction of the converts. One of the most angry reactions to the new translation was from a Methodist convert.

gobshite said...

"SOME of my parishioners who are converts......"

"I've discovered that MANY of my parishioners who are converts......"

"I've had a COUPLE of parishioners ask....."

Confusing...which is it? Some? Many? A couple? Were some, a couple, many of the comments in the form of complaints? Just wondering...

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Everyone loves how it looks, toe people have asked the reason why, one a pastoral council member, herself a convert, who wondered and had others asking her. It was a result of her question and comment at a meeting that has resulted in my catechesis.

darkknight said...

Dear Father,

The rails are indeed a beauty! In a liturgical commentary I read, tell us that the rails are actually an extension of the table of the Lord. And as the communicant comes for holy communion, he \she kneels and receive Holy Communion on the tongue. He\she is actually coming to be fed at the table of the Lord. Thank you for restoring such beauty and theology!

Anonymous said...

John, with regard to the placement of the altar rail in the Anglican tradition, often the layout of an Anglican church has the pulpit on one side, lectern on the other (as Catholics often do---if they don't have an ambo), and then the choir stalls are behind the pulpit/ambo, with the altar, whether free-standing or "facing the east" in the distance. At Atlanta's (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. Philip, the choir is behind the altar (a screen partially shields them), as there would not be sufficient space for a choir facing each other given the small area around the altar (in part because of the bishop's throne---and kneeler!) Growing up here in Atlanta, our family would watch the St Philips Christmas service (televised every year by WSB TV since 1949) before the Vatican Mass came on at Midnight, and it was very ceremonial---the choir (maybe 40-50) processing up the long aisle of St Philips, acolytes, incense and clergy wearing the finest vestments (mixture of copes and chasubles) Incidentally, almost right across the street from St. Philips is the Catholic cathedral (Archdiocese of Atlanta), which still has an altar rail but I have never seen it in use when attending Mass there (I go to another parish a few miles from there usually).

Православный физик said...

Anon, yes, intinction can be used in the Latin rite, and I do know parishes where this is done. (It's my preferred way to receive)...

Rood Screen said...


Do you see how it is possible for "a couple" to ask a question directly, but for "many" to ask the question indirectly?

Anonymous said...

If we are going to be in continuity with the plan of the Temple in Jerusalem, we are going to have to install the Altar of Sacrifice outside the Holy of Holies.

We will need a separate Altar of Incense, a separate Court of the Women with separate entrances for them, a Treasury in every Church which must be located near the main entrance, and a Court for the Gentiles, however we will identify just who the Gentiles today might be.

We will need a place for the Showbread, the abattoir, and the huge bowl for washing up.

That's IF we want to be "in continuity" with the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. To have less than this might be motivated by anti-Semitism...

Jacob said...

Father I am VERY interested in how the new(or is it old) altar rail has been received by the other novus ordo parishes in the Diocese, are you now persona non grata????

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

I haven't had any negative comment from anyone. Many of our older churches still have their altar railings, such as the Cathedral (although the opening was widened) Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, Holy Family in Columbus and a number of other smaller parishes.

Bishop Hartmayer approved the restoration of the altar railing after I had worked through the Pastoral Council and a consensus there.

No negative comments, although they know I am traditional and high church when it comes to the liturgy, but I'm not and they know this, EF only, I love the OF but done in a high way.

Anonymous said...

Your restoration of the altar rail is a grand accomplishment that I wish could be (will be) replicated in parishes around the world, including my own in N. Ga. One note: Presbyterians commonly remain seated in their pews for communion, which is passed around by ruling elders (the minister is a teaching elder). Baptists do the same, again in most cases. Calvin had parishioners seat themselves around the "table" (there is no altar in Calvinist churches).

Anonymous said...

The fact many Protestant churches retained their altar rails bears witness to the fact we Catholics have been lied to and had something stolen from us when the altar rails were taken out. If folks that don't believe in the Real Presence/Transubstantiation can kneel, how much more can we Catholics kneel before the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords! Not only did Vatican II not call for the removal of altar rails, but instructed in Sacrosanctum Concilium that "Ordinaries should ensure that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or destroyed, for they are ornaments in God's house"!

Rood Screen said...


I suppose the best way to help you is to suggest that you look up the difference between "continuity" and "duplication".

Anonymous said...

I suspect you need to look at the items from the Temple that you want to "duplicate" (altar rails) and those you are willing (for anti-Semitic reasons?) to jettison (showbread, abattoir, etc).

If it suits your preferences today (altar rails) you wax eloquent about the need for continuity, while, if it does not suit your preferences (Court of the Gentiles) you dismiss it as needless "duplication."

How come?

Rood Screen said...


Thank you for complimenting my eloquence. As for liturgical continuity and innovation, it is the Church who discerns which elements of old are retained or discarded, and which elements are introduced or rejected. Since the altar rail is neither mandated nor forbidden, those deciding whether or not to employ it should evaluate its continuity with the past and its relevance for the present. Antisemitism should not be allowed to influence the evaluation.

Anonymous said...

Then why did you bring it up? Reminder: "P.S. Could the removal of altar rails be motivated by antisemitism?"

Your principle "'s worth mentioning that this Catholic practice (an altar rail) keeps our churches in continuity with the ancient Temple of Jerusalem..." seems to apply when that which is "continuous" suits your preferences.

And where was the altar rail in the Jerusalem Temple?

Unknown said...

How could not having a Courtyard of the Gentiles be anti-Semitic? If anything it's a sign of anti-Goyism.