Altar Rails and Reverence


Altar rails are making a comeback and with their return so is reverence. It is becoming more common these days to see the installation of rails as an integral component of liturgical reform and church architecture. From dioceses as diverse as Charlotte, North Carolina to Madison, Wisconsin the rail has returned.

To be clear, there was never a requirement to remove altar rails (also called communion rails) in the years following the Second Vatican Council. However, there were many in the Church who aggressively sought to remove that which was considered traditional and sacred. Gone were the high altars, beautiful Catholic statuary, and of course, altar rails.

A liturgically misguided attempt at egalitarianism ruled the post-conciliar landscape, one which challenged the very distinction between sanctuary and nave. Overtones of anticlericalism were pervasive, as was a new type of Catholic worship, one intentionally structured for ecumenical purposes.

By their very presence altar rails hindered the march toward the profane desired by many. With such liturgical innovations as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and most particularly the practice of Communion in the hand, altar rails were an affront to the moderns. In the new, democratic, liturgy kneeling had simply become outdated and uncouth.

In his seminal work “The Spirit of the Liturgy” Cardinal Ratzinger noted that, “The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core.” In recent years, however, there has been a slow yet steady healing occurring within the liturgy.

Church designers, architects and historians such as Duncan Stroik and Denis McNamara have done their part in this effort. McNamara, who is a professor at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, addressed the theological significance of rails in a July 2011 interview with the National Catholic Register:

“(The altar rail) is still a marker of the place where heaven and earth meet, indicating that they are not yet completely united…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.”

Altar rails are contributing to the restoration of the sacred and the recovery of reverence within the Holy Mass. At my home parish of St. Ann’s in Charlotte, North Carolina the rail returned with the 2009 renovation of the church. The altar rail was installed to accommodate the Traditional Latin Mass which was offered weekly. Over time the use of the rail was expanded to include all masses, whether offered in the Ordinary form or Extraordinary form.

The altar rail has also returned to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Salisbury, North Carolina (also in the Diocese of Charlotte). While the new church was completed back in 2009, the rail was not installed until just last year in support of the weekly Sunday Traditional Latin Mass.

More recently there is also the story of St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff, Wisconsin. Father Richard Heilman, pastor, had the altar rail installed earlier this year following a $20,000 gift from an anonymous donor. Overall the return of the rail has been well received by his parishioners. Since Fr. Heilman was already offering the mass ad orientem, and using kneelers for the faithful at Holy Communion, the reintroduction of the altar rail made perfect sense. More importantly, Father has seen reverence for the Eucharist continue to grow. Much like St. Ann’s in Charlotte, the majority of parishioners at St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff choose to receive Communion on the tongue.

It is fitting to conclude with the words of our pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger noted that, “the practice of kneeling for Holy Communion has in its favor a centuries-old tradition, and it is a particularly expressive sign of adoration, completely appropriate in light of the true, real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the consecrated species.”

Pray that more Catholics are blessed to experience the return of the altar rail to their parish and to receive Holy Communion while kneeling.

(Photograph of the sanctuary and altar rail at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Salisbury, NC)

Posted on June 22, 2014, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. What a beautiful sanctuary! Unfortunately, in some dioceses, such as mine, there is still much resistance to communion rails. We can only keep praying….Thanks for another great post, LG. A blessed Solemnity of Corpus Christi to you and your family.

  2. I believe you are incorrect on one point. Altar rails and communion rails are two entirely different and distinct things. Altar rails are vestiges of the ancient “Rood Screen” which served a purpose similar to the iconostasis, separating the “holy of holies” from the nave of the church. This was never a universal practice. Kneeling for communion (I’m sure you know this) was a common practice before communion rails developed. churches at this time did not have a communion rail, people still knelt.

    Liturgists in seminaries would tell bold-faced lies about communion rails being a barrier to the people, including my own.

    • Thank you for your comment Basil. New Advent defines altar/communion rails as follows:

      “The railing which guards the sanctuary and separates the latter from the body of the church. It is also called the communion-rail as the faithful kneel at it when receiving Holy Communion.”

      In addition, the National Catholic Register and Professor Denis McNamara both utilize the names interchangeably. I simply followed their lead.

      In the post I am simply contending that the return of the rail leads to greater reverence. The difference between sanctuary and nave is obvious and distinct, and kneeling at Communion is more easily facilitated. Combined these two things help to restore the sacred.

      God bless and thanks for reading and commenting on the blog!

  3. This is an interesting topic choice, thanks for writing about it. Our church in Texas was built in 2001 without a rail. About two years ago an “altar rail” was installed. We were specifically told it was not a communion rail (I didn’t know there was a distinction). It wasn’t installed with a place to kneel, likely because they weren’t able to install a rail and still have room for kneeling due to the original design of the church. It is a lovely, reverent, and theological sound addition to the church.

  4. My 100 year old church still has part of its rail but it is not used. For a very brief time we did have a priest with us to offer the TLM–in the middle of a Monday morning–and the partial rail was used as was the high altar, both of which perhaps had not been used in over 40 years.

    A neighboring parish puts out kneelers during the week and the young people almost all kneel and the older folks mostly stand but it is headed more and more to kneeling and reception on the tongue. That parish also has a Sunday TLM and they use the front pew for kneeling. There is no place in the strange configuration of the ‘sanctuary’ for a rail.

  5. Thank you for this beautifully written post. At my home parish there is nothing that would tell you it is a Catholic Church and not a nondenominational church. My pastor and I have actually argued and when I kneel for communion he puts the host back down and will hold up communion until I am willing to stand up. His opinion is that people only kneel to show off, or because they are out of touch conservatives and enemies of the Church. I wrote to my Bishop who told me that he does not get involved in parish life.

    • Thanks for your comment. Remind your pastor that Rome itself reaffirmed the right of the communicant to receive kneeling in 2004 with the release of Redemptionis Sacramentum in which it stated:

      “…it is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling…”(RS 91).

      God bless!

  6. Would you even trust a priest like that to have the correct intention for consecration of the Host he is denying you for kneeling?

  7. Thank you for sharing this. I love the rail, and had a chance to grow in appreciation for it. Allow me to share my perspective in return:

  8. Liberty Prosper

    So sad…up until this year, the beautiful church of St Steven retained so much of its original grandeur….and then this year someone either at the Parish or Diocesan level punched Jesus sanctuary in the face…knocking out the original altar rail…which had no gate and did NOT obstruct anyone from ascending or descending the altar. Only God knows how painful this is to see in this day and age of revival and restoration. …especially when the parish is staffed by St Alphonse Liguori’s order, the Redemporists….from John Paul II’s home of Poland.

  9. Thank you for the information given in this post. We have three churches in our city (Abu Dhabi) but unfortunately none of them have ever had an altar / communion rail, so i have never had the opportunity to receive Communion that way. The same is the case back home in our parish India. But hoping to do so one day! The sanctuary has always remained open and at times I have seen the effects of the misuse due to this, but this is because of the ignorance of those particular lay persons! Holy Communion is not offered to people who prefer to kneel mainly due to two reasons: 1) We do not have kneelers in our parish and due to the inability of some of our senior clergy being unable to bend and offer communion due to their age. 2) And most importantly is the fact that we have hundreds of faithful gathering for even the daily masses making it an impossible task for the priests to cater to kneeling communion. We have around 21 masses (including other language obligatory masses) making it an impossibility due to the time constraints. However most of the faithful have been provided with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm. There are however a few who are unaware about these norms and still try to kneel while receiving Communion. We then instruct them to reverently bow or genuflect and then rise to receive the communion.

  10. A friend shared this article on Facebook, and it posted just the first paragraph about railings being installed. I wrote the following reply before reading the article and after reading the article was amazed at how similar our story lines were. The quote from Denis McNamara is a very good description. Very eloquent. My Facebook comment – “That’s nice to hear. Our one church retained about 75% of its railing and our other church has no railing, having been built after Vatican II. The railing gives it definition. It takes away the hotel lobby feeling and makes it feel like there is something really special happening beyond it. I had been a very young altar boy for 7 years when V II was implemented. I was not that thrilled with the changes but I did enjoy getting to do the readings during Mass from the altar area which has changed now to lay persons. I left school shortly afterwards and being the 60s, dove into the hippy lifestyle full swing. I left the Church, but not my faith, for over 40 years. In 2009 I remarried in a civil service. My new wife decided to attend RCIA immediately after. We had been attending Church without sacraments for a year or two. I joined her for all the sessions and remembered and learned a lot. One of the sessions enlightened me to drop my supermarket Catholicism and accept the faith 100%. The following year we were married in the Church and continue, and will always, to be firm Catholics. I have seen in the past couple of years a large resurgence, especially among the young, in the Traditional Latin Mass. I have always missed that Mass, the beauty, spirituality and mysticism. I am not sure my wife would like it, but there is no church within a 2 hour drive that has it, and that church has it at 8:00am on a weekday. I got side tracked from the railings but…”

  11. This is fine with me. Most churches (Catholic) that I’ve attended my parish included still have the rails. So it’s fine with me .


    That’s so fantastic and nice message and history. Thanks fr

  13. Father I was not Catholic when there were Altar Rails. Are the people required to kneel at the Rail? I am disabled making kneeling impossible. What would I do if they came back to our church?
    Thankyou for all you do.

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