At Crisis Austin Ruse has a thoughtful piece about altar rails. He writes:
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.
Ruse says, rightly, that the priest should indicate by his own choice that people should and can use the rail.
I have another suggestion. Make and attach housling cloths. Have servers turn the housling cloths over the rail during the recitation of the Our Father and then turn them back after Communion.
At the parish where I am the visiting fireman on Sundays, after going ad orientem the pastor had a rail put in. The society I run, the TMSM, had housling cloths made and they were immediately put into use. It didn’t take long. As a matter of fact it was an astonishingly fast transition from people standing and receiving in the hand to virtually everyone kneeling and receiving on the tongue. It happened with very little urging. At the time, I explained in strong terms in sermons my thoughts and preferences but also stressed the law for the Novus Ordo and for the TLM. I did that maybe a couple times. I suspect the pastor did too. It seems to me that, once it was explained, and that once we highlighted the rail especially with the housling cloths (i.e. HINT HINT… KNEEL HERE… KNEEL HERE…) the transition was smooth and swift.
For you priests out there, and bishops, here are some notes about Communion rails and definition of the liturgical space of a church.
First, however, just for fun, here are some pics.
This is what the sanctuary and nave looked like after going ad orientem but without the housling cloths on the rail.
Not too bad.
This was taken during a Pontifical Mass with the Extraordinary Ordinary for the centenary of Our Lady of Fatima’s final apparition. Note the housling cloth behind the rail.
A server turning the cloth at the Our Father.
The turning of the cloths gives a powerful emphasis to the rail.
A screenshot from last Sunday’s stream:
Now, some thoughts.
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, in the Psalms sometimes 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 church building itself ought to 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. It underscores the dignity of the liturgical actors, priest and congregation.
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. That is false. The 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 or a procession with the Blessed Sacrament.
The lack of a clear delineation of space blurs all our liturgical 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 and indeed mysterious encounter of priest (head) and congregation (body) – is a reverent acknowledgement of the Christus totus in action in the sacred mysteries.
Consider what we profess that we believe is happening during Mass: there is a mysterious nexus of the divine and earthly. Sometimes we say that heaven comes down to Earth, or God is called down to our altars. How is that “easy”? This is hard, difficult stuff to get our heads around. We need the physical symbols of the delineated spaces that provide a concrete and defined point of contact between Christus caput with Christus corpus and that mystical moment of Communion, that connection and unity which is Christus totus. And I think that that is also more clearly underscored by Communion on the tongue rather than – admit it – self-communication by Communion in the hand.
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!
And just for fun, here is a shot of a beautiful altar rail in a church in Rome, which is actually carved like a housling cloth.
Here’s the Spada Chapel in San Girolamo della Carità.