On altar rails and sanctuaries and proper liturgical roles

At Pray The Mass Fr Evan Harkins has a reflection on altar rails. Per force, he digs into what a “sanctuary” is.

Here is an excerpt with my emphases:


Practically, the rail is a help to people, both physically and spiritually. The use of rail and the way Holy Communion is distributed with it sets a solemn pace for the reception of Holy Communion. On the part of the priest, more of his time is spent actually distributing the Blessed Sacrament and less time waiting. On the part of the person receiving, the hurried tone is removed; there is a great opportunity for quiet and prayer both a few moments before and after receiving our Lord. The rail also is a help to people in kneeling and standing back up.

On the psychological level, we all have a desire, built into us by God, to offer Him our love and worship, but all of our efforts will be imperfect. This is a truth we cannot escape. If we deny our short-comings and wrong-doings on our conscious level, we will feel it and suffer on a more subconscious level. Because we know that the ‘sanctuary‘ exists — we know that there is a realm that we are unworthy and unable to enter on our own. We know that our knowledge and power are limited. God, of course, knows this too and created a solution. God sent His Son — His Christ — as the perfect high priest, who in turn instituted the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which He allows and commands men to enter His sanctuary and offer His perfect sacrifice, so that we, the entire Church, may join our imperfect sacrifices to His. Having a sanctuary that is marked off by an altar rail is not a way of keeping people out of where they have a right to go, but it is more than anything a visible reminder to us of the reality of our situation — we need God to do what we cannot. Our worship of God is not something that we get together and decide to do; it is something that God enables us to do. We cannot worship perfectly, so Christ enables us to join in His perfect act of worship.


A lacuna is the lack of the term, presbyterium, the place marked out for the priest(s), but he definitely gets at the essence of that point in his piece.

A note about Communion rails and definition of the liturgical space of a church.

First, a church is a sacred place, made sacred by consecration.  The whole church is sacred.  Within the holy space, there is a “holy of holies”, just as there was in the ancient Temple.

From another point of view, it is useful to consider what St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) explained concerning Christ speaking in every word of the Psalms. For Augustine, sometime Christ speaks with His voice as Head of the Body which is the Church, sometimes He speaks as the Body. At times He speaks as Christus Totus, the Body with the Head, together.

The true Actor of the sacred action of Holy Mass is Jesus Christ the High Priest, who -through us His members, having different roles – raises words and deeds to the Father. Sometimes He acts and speaks in the person of the alter Christus the priest (Head), sometimes in the words and actions of the congregation (Body), sometimes when the priest and people act and speak together (Christus totus). Christ makes our hands and voices His own in the sacred action, but He is the actor and speaker.

The older, Extraordinary Form of Mass may demonstrate more clearly how the priest is the head of the liturgical body and can speak alone for the whole.  On the other hand, perhaps the Ordinary Form shows more clearly the three-fold dynamic of Head, Body, and Christus Totus.

The church building itself should manifest this three-fold distinction.

The sanctuary, at the head of the floor plan, is the place where Christ the Head of the Body speaks and acts, the nave is the place of the congregation, the Body. A communion rail is not only practical. It defines the holy of holies.  Some might claim that the Communion rail then becomes a barrier for the laity in the congregation to keep from away from the holy of holies. I don’t see it that way at all. That rail helps to point out that, in the church building’s layout, the congregation has its own proper character and dignity that must not be compromised or violated by “invasion”, so to speak, by the priest – except in those defined moments such as the Asperges or Vidi aquam we have now in Easter season.

The lack of a clear delineation of space blurs all our roles.

If the priest and people are invading each others space and roles, then proper worship is crippled.  Lay people receive mixed signals which erode their identity and the priest devolves into a mere “presider”.

The congregation has its own important role and this is defined in the building.  Dragging lay people into the sanctuary is a clericalism of the very worst sort.  It signals to lay people that they have to be given the duties and place that pertain to the priest in order to elevate their status.  “You aren’t good enough unless you are permitted – by me – to do what I can do.”  I hate that clericalist attitude.

Kneeling at the Communion rail is not only a sign of reverence in the Real Presence before reception of Communion, but – for that close encounter of priest (head) and congregation (body) – is a reverent acknowledgement of the Christus totus in action in the sacred mysteries.

This is a useful way to understand in a healthy way something more about the outward expression of “active participation” during Holy Mass, and the meaning of altar rails and sanctuaries.

This is yet another reason why Summorum Pontificum is so important.  We need its gravitational pull. We need what the older form of Mass offers – and all that goes with it – to revitalize our Catholic identity which flows first and foremost from our baptism and liturgical worship.

More altar rails! Define our sanctuaries!

Important for promotion of the New Evangelization?  I think so.

WDTPRS kudos to Fr. Harkins for writing on the topic.  Visit their blog.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Pete says:

    Sounds like some of the same reasons for an iconostasis!

  2. Brian2 says:

    Alas, “Built of Living Stones” makes building a new church with Altar Rails quite difficult to get passed the diocesean committees. While individuals priests might be able to force one through, for the most part diocesean building committee guidelines are final, and based, at least in part, on BLS. I would love if the USCCB, now that it is in better shape than back in the day, would revisit that document. Maybe… require or at least strongly recommend them. [Just put them in anyway.]

  3. Andy Milam says:

    That sounds an awful lot like some conversations I heard years ago between a young priest at one end of the dinner table and a kindly Monsignor at the other end. [Not, back when, with the reference to Augustine.] It is amazing that how things remain the same, even the face of change.

    In 1996 when I started hearing these conversations between that young priest and old Monsignor, it was hush-hush. Now it’s being blogged about in full sight of everyone. That young priest said then that once this movement gains traction, it will take off. It certainly has started. But we must be ever diligent and we must be ever mindful that the change must be clear, concise and very calculated. Sloppiness will not rule the day.

    I believe that this young priest, in 1996, saw in his daily work with Card. Mayer what would be. If I could question that young priest today, I’d ask him this: “Are we on track? Is the vision which Cardinals Mayer, Stickler, Oddi, Ratzinger, Casaroli, Gantin, Innocenti, Palazzini, and Tomko saw coming to bear?”

    I wonder what that young priest would say?

  4. Henry Belton says:

    Father Z – I think this may be appropriate for this topic. And it may be another blurred type case. I’d like to know your thoughts on churches at which both forms are celebrated. If the altar table used for the OF is movable, should it be moved for the EF to remove obstruction and distraction during the mass? And then, of course put back in place so as to accommodate masses for each form? [Absolutely not! Once the movable table altar is carried out, it should be carried out of the church, and down the block, and around the bend, and into a truck….]

  5. Bryan Boyle says:

    Henry Belton: Visit the Church of the Assumption in Houston TX, where the EF has been celebrated since (last I recall) Ecclesia Dei was promulgated. Both forms celebrated there. The OF altar is moved out of the way off into a side room for the EF celebration. Neither interrupts the flow of the other, because, in essence, the sanctuary is reconfigured in, oh, about 5 minutes, to accommodate BOTH forms of the Mass. (and the interior is absolutely beautiful…)

  6. Supertradmum says:

    Excellent post, and so many English churches have rails and the priest stands in front of them so that one has to kneel on the hard, stone floors. Duh.

    Anyway, we need to instruct seminarians on church architecture and why….

  7. Another incidental benefit to having an altar rail is that, when Catholics kneel to receive Holy Communion, instead of looking like they’re standing in a buffet line, perhaps fewer non-Catholics will come up and try to take the Host. Then we might have fewer incidents of Hosts discarded or otherwise desecrated through ignorance.

  8. JonPatrick says:

    This relates to a pet peeve of mine, the use of the word “sanctuary” to refer to the entire church interior (like Protestants do) rather than the area behind the altar rail (or behind where the altar rail would be if there were one).

  9. Important to the new evangelization?  I’d suggest that it is critical to the new evangelization.

    The presence and use of the Altar Rail defines, in a way, what we as Catholics believe. Its use – proper use at communion time – along with a return to ad orientem worship sets us apart (in a clear, physical way) from the various protestant sects. It is what defines us as Catholics to many people.

    Walk into a Church properly arranged, especially for Mass, but not only for Mass, and the protestant immediately notices the difference. That difference leads them to question why it is set up that way. The explanation of the rail and how it is a manifestation of our beliefs often leads to more, deeper questions, which lead to answers, and to more questions, and hopefully, eventually, to conversion.

  10. Clinton R. says:

    The priest, in persona Christi, feeds us the Body and Blood of Our Lord, as Jesus did at the Last Supper to the Apostles. This is much more apparent when done at the altar rail. When you have a horde of EMOCs giving Communion on the hand while the Communicant is standing up is not a good way of inculcating to the faithful the Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. Continued prayers for the return of the TLM as the ordinary form of the Mass. +JMJ+

  11. mysticalrose says:

    I’ve actually been wanting to broach the topic of alter rails with my pastor. Would it be overstepping to ask him if he would consider (re)installing the rail? Would it help to offer to run a fundraiser if necessary? [You can always ask. Sometimes raising far more than is necessary and then offering Father the whole account (provided he puts in the rail) is a good tactic.]

  12. teomatteo says:

    It seems more of a table than a rail. When i attended my first EF mass some time ago it was the first time the words “… they reclined at table..” resonated. If my vote mattered I’d say ‘bring back the rail’. Didn’t some VatII docs. emphasize the communal meal nature of liturgy… and so they ripped out the ‘tables’. Odd.

  13. Henry Belton says:

    Your awesome, Father. Thanks and lol!

  14. “””Once the movable table altar is carried out, it should be carried out of the church, and down the block, and around the bend, and into a truck…”””

    lol Father Z! That is too funny.

    Our parish has Altar rails that are actually used by everyone that attends Mass. Some may have to stand there due to some kind of ailment, but they are standing right between two people kneeling. Some parishes I have visited have rails but the laity are not allowed to use them. I have also noticed that the little children are always so excited to go up and kneel at the rail.

  15. Traductora says:

    I agree with all the significant spiritual and psychological reasons for bringing back the communion rail, but this is the first time I’ve seen another really important thing mentioned: it really is easier and faster.

    Even in the old days, when the formula that the priest said was much longer, it was a very speedy system. And since “speed and efficiency” seem to be the rallying cry of Vatican II liturgical practices, why not point out that it really was much faster and more efficient with people kneeling at the communion rail?

  16. Sissy says:

    Traductora said: “it really is easier and faster.”

    I suspect that may be one reason why there is so much resistance to the return of altar rails in certain quarters. The use of altar rails makes it crystal clear that the EMHCs aren’t really necessary most of the time.

  17. nykash says:

    I consider myself very lucky in that the churches in my cluster have the original altar rails in place. (Side note: the pic used in the post is of St. Josaphat in Detroit. There’s a low mass on Mondays, and the pastor has instituted EF masses for First Fridays).

    Miss Anita Moore’s comment about the ‘buffet line’ is spot on. Traductora is correct, there’s certainly an efficiency at EF masses. After seeing an altar rail used at a large NO mass, it can be important to have ushers to help people into position (e.g. wait here, then go there).

  18. JKnott says:

    This post by Fr Z and Fr Harkin says it all. Truth like this always inspires. Thank God for the EF. I just love those few moments of quiet time, gazing at the Crucifix and anticipating Christ coming to me in the hands of His priest, with my Catholic brothers and sisters beside me, all equal in a humble posture before our Maker.
    Stripping out the altar rails is a sad and profound loss.

  19. tioedong says:

    Altar rails? Good idea. Why not just an iconostasis?

    Kneeling at the rail would allow us ten seconds to swallow the host and maybe even receive it on the tongue easier. It emphasizes the holiness of the sacrament.

    But the thought of trying to walk my 87 year old husband up to the rail on Sundays makes me glad we have Eucharistic ministers: here in our Philippine parish, four up front and two halfway down the aisle, who work their way to the back to get those standing for lack of seats. And yes, I receive in the hand: I tend to be taller than those giving out the Eucharist…

  20. AnnAsher says:

    I’m certainly a fan of altar rails and moreso big tall gate like ones ( official term). But Tioedong said what I was thinking as well, the only thing I love better than altar rails is iconostasis. It clearly, visually, illustrates the holy of holies. I recognize it’s not Latin though.
    We have some elderly parishioners at TLM they kneel in their pew (or sit if they must) and Fr. Brings communion to them there.

  21. majuscule says:

    Thanks! The altar rails were never taken out of our little circa-1954 church. But now we are in need of a new floor and I’ve heard some hints (whispers for now) of taking out the altar rails. I’ll use these thoughts as ammunition to present before they have to pry my white knuckled hands off of the rails if they try to remove them.

    We don’t use them for communion. But we still have the original heavy wood altar against the wall, with the tabernacle on it–I think it’s much older than our church and was a hand-me-down from a larger church. We could just move out the newer OF altar that’s made of some sort of laminated wood and have EF Masses!

    Yes yes yes! Define our sanctuaries!

  22. mzanghetti says:

    Thanks for helping me find another great blog to follow!

  23. John Nolan says:


    The western equivalent of the iconostasis is the rood screen. There is a fine polychrome example in the Catholic church of St Birinus, Dorchester-on -Thames, which is in fact a fairly recent addition. Photographs can be accessed via the New Liturgical Movement website.

  24. Springkeeper says:

    Our priest has slowly but surely been moving the entire parish towards more traditional ways. He threw out the “folk/guitar Mass” (and the freaky 70’s music) and lost between 25-30% of the parish. He still carried on and had a new (and far more beautiful) church building constructed and he has quietly mentioned to some that it is designed in such a way that alter rails will eventually be installed. The more he brings in traditional ways, the more older sullen liberals we lose and the more younger happy conservatives we gain.

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  26. AnnAsher says:

    Thank you John Nolan!
    Rood Screen is precisely what I was trying to describe. The article at NLM is also enlightening. Ive learned the rood screen was precursor to iconostasis. I’ve learned “presbyterium”. Amazing. A “lost” word abs the whole theology of the space is lost. I’m in favor of rood screens ( aka chancel. That’s 3 new words for me today)

  27. Centristian says:

    I’m fairly certain that both the altar rail and the iconostasis have their origin in low dividing walls that were erected in ancient basilicas. These barriers were erected for a practical reason: to indicate to the teeming throng where they needed to stop teeming and thronging upon arriving in church after an outdoor procession so that the clergy could have plenty of space to continue leading the celebration, at the altar (there weren’t pews and center aisles back in those days; Christian worship was rather less dainty and Episcopalian back then). Worshipers would not have knelt at these dividing walls to communicate (they wouldn’t have knelt at all); the walls were too high for that, but short enough so that they didn’t obstruct anyone’s view of the altar and the area surrounding it, which today we call the sanctuary. That thing we call the “chancel” would have been on the other side of the altar (behind it); the altar was free-standing.

    The iconostasis, mentioned and even advocated in several comments here, began quite simply as just a matter of a few icons adorning that low dividing wall. They were displayed there as a great big old you-know-what to the iconoclasts once the iconodules finally got the upper hand. And just in case the defeated iconoclasts didn’t get the message quite loudly enough, more and more icons were added until, finally, that low barrier became a huge wall full of icons, with doors in it. If that’s what you want, by all means go to your local Ukrainian or Byzantine Ruthenian church instead of to your RC parish. Just don’t expect to kneel for communion (or at all).

    The Western Church doesn’t have that rich heritage of flipping the bird to iconoclasts that the East has, and therefore no iconostasis. Our raspberries were mostly directed towards puritanical Protestants, thus gold, marble, and shameless male nudity splattered all over the place. One wonders what the Gospel has really gained from all this glorious artistic spite, East and West, but in any event we have our altar rails…or had them, until some fool decided that they should either be ripped up or stop being built whenever a new church went up, in order to bring back standing for Communion.

    That was stupid. If they wanted to bring back standing, they should have ripped out the pews and erected the barriers again…and brought back the all night outdoor torchlit processional vigils and the courtyards and the solemn vesting of the bishop hailed by “Ton Despotin” and a liturgy that lasted for hours, followed by an agape meal. The dummies. Look what they went and did instead. Liturgical renewal my eye.

    I will say that I found it very amazing that at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville (at Mother Angelica’s monastery), where Mass is celebrated (with all due incense and Latin) in the Ordinary Form, Holy Communion is received kneeling, at the altar rail, and no other way…and they even have that long white veil that gets draped over the rail during the Communion of the Faithful. Why, they even have acolytes wearing white gloves (not to be confused with the Master of Ceremonies, the vested brother lector, the crucifer, and the torch bearers) who will put a paten under your chin as you communicate. It’s all terribly scandalous. The “Novus Ordo” ain’t supposta be like that, by guddddd, only the T.L.M. can have rrrrgh…why I oughta…

    Well, I suppose if we’re not going to pull out all the stops and really renew the liturgy like it really was back in Christianity’s golden years, then we should at least be doing what Mother Angelica’s place is doing, instead of what we usually end up doing. So, yes…until we can have the barriers back (with or without icons adorning them), I’ll settle for altar rails.

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  29. Pray The Mass says:

    Thanks for giving Pray The Mass a hat tip Father Z. -A Weber, Pray The Mass admin

  30. Midwest Girl says:

    Currently, I’m 8 months pregnant with my first child.

    As I continue to get larger (and progress into the “waddling” stage of pregnancy), I’m continually frustrated by the way kneelers are installed in the pews at church. Because of my large belly (and where the hymnals are placed, I’m not able to kneel during the consecration or Eucharistic prayer. While I understand that I don’t have to follow the correct postures for “health reasons,” I still find it frustrating that a situation that could be easily remedied is not.

    In addition, I do think it’s vital to follow the guidance of your pastor and/or bishop in placing altar rails in churches that do not have them currently.

  31. NoraLee9 says:

    I have been meaning to get back here and post this all week. Who knew retirement could be this hectic? I remember when the altar rails were ripped out in St. Francis Assisi on West 31st Street. The pastor was in the grips of wreckovation fever, followed by a dose of Vatican 2-itis. In any case, St. Francis is in lower midtown Manhattan. It has an active ministry to the homeless. The was at the beginning of the crack epidemic as well. The altar rail was gone one day, and the homeless found their way up in to the sanctuary the next day. Wandering around. Playing with the tabernacle door. Taking things. Shouting.

    The green bank rope went up on day three. It’s still there. Sigh.

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