For the New Evangelization: New Altar Rails!

I have written of Fr. Richard Heilman and the adjustments he is making to the sacred liturgical worship in his parish of St. Mary in Pine Bluff.

Remember how he hauled the table altar out of church and switched entirely to ad orientem worship?


He has installed an altar rail.

¡Vaya lío!

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I wonder why the communion rail goes all the way to both walls? Would one side or both have a side gap be better?

  2. teomatteo: When you build your church, you can put in the altar rails just as you like them. In the meantime, don’t rain on this parade.

  3. APX says:

    It’s been my observation in the churches I’ve seen that have never lost their altar rails that they span from wall to wall.

  4. jaykay says:

    teomatteo: there are two gates in the very centre, as is usual with this sort of arrangement. They just happen to be closed in the photograph, as they would be during an actual Mass, but if you look closely, or zoom in, you can see where the hinges are. When you think about it, having access at the sides would be completely impractical for many reasons, not least processions, asperges etc.

  5. ASPM Sem says:

    I need to visit my brother in Madison again…

  6. OrthodoxChick says:

    So beautiful! I love walking into a church and knowing that I’m in a house where the Lord dwells – vs. a “worship space” that looks remarkably similar to a living room in anyone’s house.

  7. john_6_fan says:

    Very beautiful. Thanks be to God.

    By the way, my wife purchased one of the silver combat Rosaries as a Christmas gift last year. I love it. It is large and has a bit of heft to it, which I like, and also very strong. I can let my twin infants handle with it with no fear of it coming apart. IMHO, I think it is difficult to find a Rosary with a masculine feel to it, but this is a Rosary every man could carry with them and use (and every man should carry a Rosary with them at all times and pray it daily).

  8. Netmilsmom says:

    I bought my husband one of the Silver Combat rosaries for his birthday.
    My younger daughter decided she was going to “borrow” it. She’ll be getting one for Christmas!

    Every time Father Rick posts pictures, I wonder why I don’t live in Wisconsin. The pictures of his parish Rosary garden made me tear up. Seriously.

  9. APX: “It’s been my observation in the churches I’ve seen that have never lost their altar rails that they span from wall to wall.”

    True, I don’t recall ever having seen a traditional older parish church without a wall-to-wall altar rail. Though some (like my present parish) also have gates in front of the two side altars, which can be convenient when they’re used for celebration of special Masses attended by just a handful of people–like a private Mass requested for a special family occasion, etc–or for more convenient and inconspicuous access to the side sacristies than transiting the sanctuary in front of the high altar and tabernacle.

  10. teomatteo says:

    Jaykay, thank you for responding. I am wondering how the altar boy who holds the paten would work over on the far left when he assists the priest at holy communion if someone is kneeling against the wall. I was simply wondering if a ‘slot’ over there would be practical that is all. I am looking into re establishing a communion rail in the small original church at my parish. I just wondered about a side entry/exit and whether the left side would make any sense. Please forgive my esoteric question.

  11. mschu528 says:

    Teomatteo, generally common sense prevails. In my experience holding the communion paten at hundreds of Masses, no one has ever been – for lack of a better word – stupid enough to kneel over so far that Father and I couldn’t comfortably reach them.

  12. jaykay says:

    teomatteo: it’s not esoteric at all, very practical, and may I say how lovely that you are looking into re-establishing the rail. We still have ours but they are never used now :(

    As regards your question, if the server is on the priest’s right then he will be preceeding the priest if the priest is going from left to right, as they always did in my memory, and so at the left wall the priest would be directly in front of the communicant, the server can still hold the paten without impeding, and it all works in a dignified manner. When they reach the right wall he could just stand back very slightly and extend his arm (patens in my experience always had handles anyway), and there’s no problem.

    Our church in fact has two small gates at the extreme right and left ends of the rail, at the side altars, in addition to the main ones in the middle before the high altar, and my memory is that people would kneel in front of these gates, right up against the walls, but there was never any awkwardness. And as Henry Edwards said, these side gates also serve other useful access purposes.

  13. Giuseppe says:

    Gorgeous. Such beautiful wood.
    As much as I love marble, there is something special about churches with wooden altars and rails.
    And this is in Pine Bluff, after all.

  14. wmeyer says:

    It was beautiful without the rail. Now it’s quite wonderful.

    I will add that I bought one of Fr. Heilman’s silver combat rosaries a few months ago, and so far, it has held up better as a pocket rosary than any other I have had.

  15. Priam1184 says:

    A beautiful altar. I am jealous and I hope that the parishioners St. Mary’s realize what a gem they have here.

  16. Robbie says:

    Wow, a beautiful church. It’s a shame so few look like this anymore.

  17. Pingback: Kindred Spirits: Pope Francis & St. Josemaría Escrivá - Big Pulpit

  18. iPadre says:

    Bravo Fr. Heilman – brick by brick, back to the future!

  19. Mike says:

    Outstanding! Thank you for this heartening post.

  20. Sulo says:

    New Evangelization? Come on…we had evangelization before VII. They were called “missionaries”. How many people believe we even ought to evangelize, especially non-Catholics? Practically, “new evangelization” seems to mean “social work”. This term (“New Evangelization”) is bothersome in that the description of it seems like sophistry.

    As for altar rails being a part of the new evangelization…that gave me a pretty good chuckle. How about this being a step in “restoring order”?

  21. wolfeken says:

    Wow, this is a rare, beautiful sight.

    Very, very nice work, Fr. Heilman. I can only imagine how many meetings, committees, and red tape had to be cut through to achieve this.

    May it serve as a model for other pastors — proving that there is no need to go halfway, or 3/4 of the way or even 90% of the way when it comes to restoring tradition.

  22. Magpie says:

    Beautiful. ‘Let the people kneel, do not stop them, for they wish to adore me.’ (Ok, so JESUS didn’t say that, but I am sure He would agree.)

  23. Priam1184 says:

    @Sulo It is sophistry, of the worst kind: the ‘New’ Evangelization.

  24. Charles E Flynn says:

    I think the altar rail is spectacularly well-coordinated with the rest of the design.

    Fr. Heilman’s next upgrade should be the pendant lamps in this design:

    “Whoa!” Brick by brick in the Diocese of Madison.

  25. acardnal says:

    You folks should hear the schola at St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff! Beautiful. Here’s a sample of their artistry at the recent men’s retreat held at the Bishop O’Connor Center in Madison where Bp Morlino celebrated an TLM/EF Low Mass.

  26. Acanthaster says:

    This altar rail wouldn’t happen to have electricity running through it, would it Father Z? ;)

    Echoing everyone else’s statements…very beautiful! I’m hoping to make it to one of their retreats or meetings over in WI someday…

  27. Absit invidia says:

    Now THERE is something Catholics can acclaim “Bravo!” for.

  28. RJHighland says:

    Happy to see he finished the renovation by removing the table and finishing the altar rail, most excellent, well done sir!!!!!

  29. Ben Kenobi says:


    I’m sure Father Z is well grounded. ;)

  30. JonPatrick says:

    Sulo, “new evangelization” generally refers to evangelizing the fallen away Catholics, rather than what happened pre-VII when we had missionaries evangelizing non-Catholics. Given that at least here in the US fallen away Catholics represent the largest “denomination”, it makes sense that the Church put here efforts there. Seems to me one way to bring them back is to offer the meat of authentic Catholic worship rather than the pablum that passes for it in many parishes.

  31. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Sulo, “new evangelization” generally refers to evangelizing the fallen away Catholics, rather than what happened pre-VII when we had missionaries evangelizing non-Catholics.”

    Well, they are fallen away for a reason: the Church didn’t do a good job of the Old Evangelization for these people. Seriously, if nothing has changed on the ground regarding misinterpretations of Vatican II, how is the New Evangelism supposed to succeed? Since the Church has had 2000 years of Evangelization to draw from and VII makes up a minuscule portion of that, in theory, one could evangelize using the teachings of the Old Evangelization and still make converts, since, in theory, VII added nothing dogmatic. Sin is still sin. What has changed? Has God changed? One might be tempted to think so, the way He is presented, these days. Does the Church present the Living God better than St. Teresa of Avila or St. Francis? When they spoke, you KNEW that they had a relationship with a real, one-and-only, God. I have no idea of the difference between the Old Evangelization and the New a Evangelization. Truth is truth. The Church has never been in the business of changing the truth to fit society. The Church may re-present the truth in different setting so that the society might understand it better, but even though one might have to say |sqrt(4)| in order for the people of Square-Root Land to understand the concept of 2, 2 is still 2. Tell young kids to stop fornicating or they will go to hell. There, what’s so hard about that? Tell people to stop using the Lord’s name in vain or they will go to hell. Tell women and men that they sin when they dress immodestly. What is so hard about that? Tell women to stop contracepting or they risk going to hell. See, it’s just not that hard. Speak the truth, boldly, argue persuasively, logically and doggedly, fast and pray for them, and if people don’t want to come back, then you’ve done your part. Superabundant grace will have to see them home after that, for you have done all you could with the graces you have at your disposal, but God is greater than your grace. The New Evangelization? I don’t really see it. Those altar rails look pretty Old Evangelization to me. Perhaps I need to go back and read the Papal documents on it. Would anyone happen to know what those are?

    I have a question for all you Church architecture wonks: are the arrangements of crosses atop the altar standard? Does it have a name? I have seen this arrangement before in a few places with old altars.

    The Chicken

  32. jaykay says:

    Chicken: yes, I’ve often seen that as well. The crosses atop the three gothic “spires” are really more in the nature of the decorative finials which you can often see on actual tower spires in the gothic style. They could equally well be in a floral motif, which is often seen as well e.g.

    They don’t have the significance of the real altar cross, of course, which is in any event a crucifix.

  33. JacobWall says:


    From what I understand, the only reason Blessed Pope John Paul II called it “New” was because it addresses an entirely new group of people – the vast numbers of fallen away Catholics. It doesn’t mean that we are teaching something new, but only that we are teaching something old (all those points you stated so nicely and clearly) to a special group. Fallen away Catholics have, for the most part, heard “that stuff” before.

    You tell a craddle Evangelical whose had no little contact with Catholicism about what we believe on birth control, they’ll probably be intrigued, and perhaps even excited by the idea, even if they don’t go sign up for the next RCIA class. But you tell a lapsed Catholic, they’ll say, “Been there, done that.”

    So, all those things you said so easily are certainly true and we have to start evangelization as you implied; straight-up, this is the way it is. Yet, it’s unlikely to stick with this group, precisely because of the been-there-done-that attitude.

    Now, as you correctly identified, the main problem is that these people have never heard these things being taught properly. While the problem existed before, it was multiplied a thousand-fold after VatII when our teachers decided that it was better to be “pastoral” (which is an abuse of the word pastoral, as we know) and tone down these teachings, couch them in soft language to make them sound not-so-bad, optional – “Maybe it’s a sin, but let’s not focus on sin; it’s OK if you contracept, let’s just focus on loving Jesus.”

    I’m sure there are cases where people never learned. But from my experience the biggest problem is those who heard kind of a rumour of Church moral teachings, presented in such a way so it looked like something bad. (Yes, it was our teachers who actively did this; this wasn’t just people walking away from hearing solid teaching and rejecting it.)

    So, the reason it’s a New Evangelization is because we need to say those same easy things you said, but we now have a new task; finding a way to convince these people that these things are true. The “Old” Evangelization was in many easier, since those who had never heard the truth are far more easily convinced than those who have heard a distorted/poisoned version of it.

    In fact, the New Evangelization requires that we are even more clear and direct about these things than in the Old Evangelization. In the Old Evangelization it was enough to tell a fresh convert that contraception was wrong. Chances are she didn’t even know what contraception was. Now, we are dealing with people who have been taught by Catholic leaders first of all what contraception is, and secondly that it’s OK to use it. “Contraception is wrong.” “Oh sure, that’s what they believed in the middle ages. Catholics don’t even believe that any more. It was my Catholic high school where they gave me my first condom.” (Of course, contraception is only one example, but it’s an easy one.)

    They have to beaten over the head with it (lovingly and pastorally, of course, but nevertheless, beaten over the head.) That’s why it’s a New Evangelization because we’ve never had to do this before.

    The problem with the phrase is that it makes it all too easy for dissenters to say that “New” means that we are teaching something new, that we have to avoid talking about morals because that will offend people, etc.

    For that reason, I also don’t like the phrase, but it’s the one JPII gave us. New Evangelization is essentially Old Evangelization but harder, with a HUGE new challenge and even a greater requirement to be true to the teachings of the Church.

    Michael Voris has a good video explaining it:

    At 2:03, he mentions the document and cites the passage (Redemptoris Missio #33.)

  34. JacobWall says:

    It’s also worth noting that JPII parallels “New” Evangelization to Re-Evangelization. So, “New” also means that they are being evangelized anew – a second time (which as I said, is considerably harder than doing it the first time.)

    As for the communion rails in the picture, seen from this light, they are definitely “New Evangelization” in addition to “Old Evangelization.” If lapsed Catholics are to be reached, they have to see that the Church is unchanging in its teachings and beliefs. Architecture that communicates the sanctity of the Eucharist is one of the best ways to do that.

    (As a side note, in my experience non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics are far more impressed by classic liturgy and church architecture than by the new modernish stuff.)

  35. Hans says:

    Just as a point of interest, the altar rail at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica only spans the presbytery and doesn’t go wall to wall across the whole church. However, the side altars (at least the two in the transepts) also have altar rails.

    That said, I suspect many here wouldn’t care for the odd stage that now sits in front of the altar rails. It has the perverse effect of pushing the people even farther away from the altar.

  36. oldaltarboy says:

    For years our parish in Nashville offered the altar rails to the faithful who wanted to use them as an option. Within the last two years, the option went away and the faithful only receive Holy Communion at the rails. Our parish has almost tripled in size over the last two years.

    Since we are downtown and close to Titan’s stadium, the Predator’s rink, the Ryman and a number of other attractions we have a lot of visitors. You should see the reaction as the visitors absorb the beauty of the church and figure out how to join us at the rails. Their demeanor becomes very prayerful, and they stick around to the end of Mass. After observing our period of silent prayerful thanksgiving, out come the cameras as they take pictures of the religious art on the ceiling, statuary and the sanctuary. Our parishioners love to tell them the history of the church.

    There is another beautiful old parish in the city that is also over one hundred fifty years old that has an altar rail that survived through the years, and they have started receiving Holy Communion at the rail. They even have the original altar gates in pristine condition! Ours suffered in storage over the last half century and are being rehabilitated.

    Oh yeah, our priest wears a cassock, and prays the Mass ad Dominum (Orientum if you prefer), and we chant a lot-in Latin and English.

  37. St. Epaphras says:

    Please, oldaltarboy, will you give the name of your parish? And is the other parish you mentioned Assumption?

  38. oldaltarboy says:

    Our parish is St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows and the other is the Church of the Assumption.

  39. St. Epaphras says:

    oldaltarboy: Thank you very much.

  40. jlduskey says:

    Not trying to rain on anybody’s parade, but I was comparing the Pine Bluff church with the church in Fennimore, Wisconsin—both photos were presented in the last few days.
    The church in Fennimore has an entrance/exit door along the wall on the gospel side, just in front of the communion rail. I do not see this kind of entrance/exit door in the photo of the church in Pine Bluff. It is wonderful that these churches have such beautiful altars and such beautiful communion rails, but I wonder about the public safety question. If there were a fire at the main door of the building, where would people be able to exit? If they would be expected to exit through the sanctuary and through an external door in the sacristy, then there should be an exit sign somewhere in the sanctuary to indicate this. Obviously, this is not desirable, even if there is an exit sign posted. I am afraid that many older churches would not meet today’s fire codes, but the main point is, how would people exit if there were a fire? How should an older church be modified to provide fire safety?

  41. tealady24 says:

    Instead of all these Bishop’s Appeals (where money is doled out to sometimes suspicious ministries) why not delegate some of the money to returning parishes to their pre-Vatican II beauty!
    Many parishioners will be surprised by what they see, having never seen it before.
    Seeing is believing!

  42. @jlduskey, the church has four exits: two front/narthex, one Gospel side (wheelchair-accessible), and one through the sacristy.

  43. Sulo says:

    Dear John Patrick, Masked Chicken et al.
    I can accept that “New Evangelization” refers to first, fallen away Catholic and second, those who have never known the Church.
    My problem with the so-called “new” evangelization is the tools with which people will be evangelized. Pre-Vatican II books were generally on the same page, at least from the literature I possess. Moral ambiguity was uncommon (at least, in my estimation). There was a sense of unity and basic theological homogeny.
    Would you say that about our current situation? What have people been taught over the last 40 or so years? Let’s not pretend things are going very well in this respect.

    We have a very wide range of acceptable theology in the Church, from the SSPX (who to my knowledge have made no theological error–this is another debate) and other traditional groups, to the common lot with the altar girls and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, to the charismatics, Neocatechumenals, etc. I reckon the teaching of the Faith would be different among these groups, yet all are accepted by the Church (or so we are told). I assume you would accept this statement, at least intuitively.

    So, this is my concern: pre-Vatican II, I believe converts worldwide were getting essentially the same teaching (I can only account for Europe and the U.S., but I don’t know of counter-examples elsewhere in the world, especially Asia). This is most definitely no longer the case, especially considering the paragraph above. I’m sure many paragraphs could be written with anecdotal evidence do disprove my thesis. I doubt that demographics–or anything quantitative–would disprove me.

  44. The Masked Chicken says:

    “We have a very wide range of acceptable theology in the Church, from the SSPX (who to my knowledge have made no theological error–this is another debate) and other traditional groups, to the common lot with the altar girls and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, to the charismatics, Neocatechumenals, etc. I reckon the teaching of the Faith would be different among these groups, yet all are accepted by the Church (or so we are told). I assume you would accept this statement, at least intuitively.”

    Not really. One has to separate essential objective truths of the Faith from subjective prudentially modifiable aspects, in other words, dogmas and doctrines from disciplines. Clearly, altar girls and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are permissible in extraordinary circumstances – let’s not quibble, even the SSPX would have to agree that there can be exceptional cases – so there is a difference in degree, not type, between the SSPX and the ordinary NO apologetics. What has not been done, by any means enough, is to clearly spell out the difference between dogmas and disciplines to the laity and some poorly catechized clergy. Unfortunately, many laity have misclassified some pretty essential things, such as marriage, making it a discipline instead of a dogma. In this sense they are unknowingly Protestant. They will not learn any different because their bishop swill not insist on it.

    There is a famous series of experiment in psychology known as the Asch Conformity Experiments which help explain how deviant thinking can become generalized as a norm within a society. After Vatican II, a series of influential prelates (not the laity!) caused the upheaval within the, until then, more-or-less homogeneous beliefs, of the Church membership. Had there been a counter-resistance at the time, theory suggests that this would not have happened. Sadly, the theory predicts that in order for the rapid destabilization of the Church to have occurred, prior planning had to have been involved. That a bunch of disparate liberals could have coordinated their efforts that quickly after Vatican II is hard to imagine, given how poor the lines of communication within the Church of the era were. One must conclude, on theoretical grounds, that an underground movement existed many years before Vatican II. The results are what we see, today. The Asch paradigm of conformity can be interrupted only in its initial stages, by people who challenge the call to the new conformity. This did not happen at the time immediately after Vatican II and social inertia will make it almost impossible to change without severe top-down management changes. Still, one must not look on the doctrinal distortion to be a part of authentic Catholic teaching. Sex among the civilly divorced (after a valid marriage) and re-married is still enough to send them to hell. No matter how much some prelates and laity would want to soften it (and even allow people to condemn themselves further by receiving the Eucharist!!), they cannot change the nature of mortal sin. To do so would mean changing the nature of a God and goodness knows, some prelates and laity have tried.

    As for the Charismatics (I cannot speak about the NeoCatechuminate Way movement), they are, not to be indelicate, wrong, but there has not yet been a developed theology of the phenomenon to show them how. I have been wanting to write something, but it has been hard because of health and finances to find the energy and time. It will be corrected at some point in history, but not until a lot of suffering has occurred. Their corpus of teachings can be ignored without any loss of salvation. Their teachings can be refuted fairly easily, if you know how to do it. Again, this was allowed to happen because essential gatekeeping prelates were asleep-at-the-wheel in 1967. As I mention above about the underground movements, what you might have read in the official Catholic Charismatic history about the Dusquesne Weekend when Storey and Keefer were baptized in the Holy Spirit starting the Charismatic Movement is wrong. We have eyewitness testimony that at least one prelate in the Vatican, prior to Vatican II, had 300 books on Pentecostalism in his apartment. This movement did not catch the Church unawares. Unfortunately, instead of doing the hard work they should have to understand the phenomenon, they accepted the Protestant explanation with no argument. Had they been scientific, they would have been able to fit the pieces together in 1985, when Robert Tuttle’s dissertation of Wesleyian mysticism came out, but not before. So, the Charismatic Movement is not acceptable as an apologetic. It is merely tolerated. It is a part of the faux restorationist mentality that permeated the Church in the 1960’s among certain liberals that had them grasping at straws for anything resembling early Church practices, including Pneumatic practices.

    There is only one Faith. Differences in discipline are prudential matters from time to time and place to place, but where imprudent changes in discipline have either been mistaken for or contaminated dogma, it must be rejected, forcefully. This may be the legacy of future generations, for it will not be ours. There is too much weakness of belief in our age. Well, the coming age will purge that and it will be done at the cost of much suffering.

    The Chicken

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