Will the Church ever return to a sane architectural design for Catholic sanctuaries? Maybe brick by brick.
But with that said, please note where the altar railing is located. It is on the first step from floor of the nave.
This accomplishes two things.
1. The railing is precisely that, a communion or prayer railing. It does not act as a barrier to that which is beyond it but rather an extension of it visually speaking.
2. The railing is easily accessible to those with difficulty climbing steps.
At our cathedral the railing is up two steps. For the elderly or those with knee issues, it is a daunting climb and if you forget that there are two steps behind you when you get up to leave, a disaster in the making looms for the unsuspecting soul and body.
At Saint Joseph Church in Macon, the original altar railing was also three steps up. When I restored it we designed it exactly as the church in the photo above has it. It makes perfect sense.
"Will the Church ever return to a sane architectural design for Catholic sanctuaries?"
One can only hope. So many Roman sanctuaries have become difficult to distinguish from those of other denominations. The placement that you highlight does seem to be the ideal vis-a-vis easy entry and egress as well as sightlines to the altar. It creates a line of demarcation, serves a specific purpose but, does not look like a "barrier" by virtue of its placement. Last, when built, St. Joseph and your cathedral were perhaps focused on maximizing seating given the numbers of churchgoing Catholics that lived in urban areas at that time. This may be why neither building had that solea type walkway between the rail and the steps leading to the altar. Other churches of similar vintage did have this type of arrangement.
The altar rail is not primarily a 'communion or prayer railing'. It serves the purpose of the rood screen and separates the nave from the choir. That is why in seminary chapels where the choir is longer than the nave, there seems to be no rail at all (see the video of the High Mass at Ushaw in 1960).
Rails were removed in the 1960s and 1970s not so much to discourage kneeling Communion as to downplay the distinction between clergy and laity. Most modern(ist) layouts have the 'sanctuary' with its forward altar pushed out into the nave with the congregation on three sides of it.
John, St. peter’s At the Vatican as seating completely around the papal altar.
My seminary chapel built in the 40’s and never renovated after VII except for a faux altar in front of the original, has no railing as you describe.
Fr Allan, the layout of Roman basilicas is a special case since the apse is at the west end. The laity did not surround the altar, and all turned to the east at the 'Conversi ad Dominum'.
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