The Magic of the Altar Rail

To look at our diocese, you might assume it’s on the liberal side. Located in Northern Virginia and established in 1974, most of the newer churches (and there are many of them) are “in the round.” You know the ones—they look like spaceships. Needless to say, these triumphs of modern ecclesial architecture generally exclude altar rails. Even so, through only four bishops and a plethora of orthodox priests, much of the modern craziness passed us by. We didn’t even get girl altar boys until a few years ago. The reception of Holy Communion under both kinds doesn’t happen here.

Our pastor—a very conservative priest—told parishioners several months ago he was putting in an altar rail, and that we would begin using it. He said we could receive standing or kneeling, on the tongue or in the hand, but that we would be lining up along the altar rail. Rather than shuffling ever forward, staring at the neck of the person in front of us, Father thought we might be more recollected if we paused at the altar rail and raised our eyes and souls to the tabernacle, the Crucifix, and the sanctuary.

He published a lovely column about the “functional and sacramental purposes” of the altar rail. “It distinguishes between the sanctuary and the nave and the priest from the people. It harkens back to the Jewish understanding of the Holy of Holies where the people are invited to confidently step up to the very edge of the Holy of Holies in reverence.” Without an altar rail, he wrote, “the people approach the Communion station and, after receiving Communion, hurriedly depart. A panoramic devotional view of a beautiful sanctuary, like the splendor of decorations adorning a wedding feast, is thus unlikely. The reception of Communion is individualistic, not communal.”

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But something happened that I didn’t expect.  You would naturally think that those used to standing would continue to stand, and that those taking the Host in hand would continue with that, too. In fact, almost everyone began to kneel. What’s more—and this is quite remarkable—almost everyone now receives on the tongue.

It’s a magical sight. But how did this happen?

It made me think that the magic was in the altar rail itself. Put in an altar rail and, sooner rather than later, everyone will be receiving kneeling and on the tongue. But then I started thinking about other altar rails.

Not far from us is a very orthodox parish, St. Veronica. They put in an altar rail, but the priest still stands in the front and everyone lines up and shuffles along. He does stand behind the altar rail, and there is a cushion there for anyone who wants to use it. Some do. But almost everyone receives standing and almost everyone receives in the hand. Why doesn’t the magic work there?

I think also of the altar rail at St. Agnes Church in New York City. For years and years, when Communion time came, the priests would walk to one end of the rail and everyone would follow their lead, lining the altar rail on their knees. Then, some years ago, a new pastor announced they would use the center aisle. Ever since, the parishioners receive the Eucharist standing and in the hand. There are some die-hards (myself among them, when I’m there) who use the altar rail, kneeling. But I know for a fact that, if the priest still distributed Communion along the altar rail instead of standing in front of the center aisle, all those standers would be kneeling. And they’d be receiving on the tongue, too.

It seems to me that among the most harmful innovations that happened in the Church at mid-century was doing away with the altar rail and caving in to those who insisted on standing and receiving in the hand. I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe that the decline in belief in the Real Presence can be traced to the inevitable lack of reverence that comes with standing and certainly by handling the Sacred Host in our own grubby paws.

The decline in Eucharistic belief was also precipitated, I think, by doing away with other Eucharistic traditions like Adoration and Corpus Christi processions. Thanks be to God all these things are coming back. Hundreds now participate in Corpus Christi processions through the streets of our big cities. Adoration is popping up everywhere—usually attended by new altar rails.

I had thought there was magic in the altar rail itself, but I was wrong. There is a kind of divine magic, however, in a priest using the altar rail. It is like the Eucharist itself: the bread and wine do not become the Body and Blood on their own. The priest must confect them. Similarly, the altar rail is a dead thing unless and until the priest stands over to one side and says, “We are going to start using it. We are going to line up along the rail. You can choose to stand or kneel. It’s up to you.” Watch. Something magical happens. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.


tagged as: Art & Culture Liturgy

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