Reflections on the symbolism of the altar rail or Communion rail and some practical suggestions

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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    In Christus Vincit, His Excellency Bishop Athanasius Schneider also presents a similar argument to “… 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.” His discussion in the loss of belief in the “supernatural” is very good!

  2. It used to also be customary, when there was a Communion rail, to kneel on it outside of Mass to pray. One could thus come up and pray close to the tabernacle and the altar, or to the Lady altar or the St. Joseph altar on either side. Ironically, when they tore out the rails, they distanced the laity from the sanctuary, since now we had nowhere to kneel up close.

    [Secondary consequences. To paraphrase Chesterton, it is a bad idea to tear down a fence until you know why it was put there in the first place.]

  3. The Egyptian says:

    Ah from my youth, MANY years ago, we always used two servers to turn the cloth, one on each end, first on Marys side then Joseph, woe to the server that screwed up and didn’t complete it in one motion, not from saintly Fr Stock mind you but from his fellow servers. Dear Fr Stock, someone should write a short bio of him, during the depression he was stationed in a small rural Kansas parish. He said morning mass then worked as an accountant at a local feed mill, and helped load feed at noon so the others could eat, 100 pound plus sacks mind you, time off for funerals and weddings of course, why did he do it, to earn enough money to pay the coal bill to heat the church, the parish was so poor. Plus he grew his own garden to save money and canned his own food, I can’t imagine many priests doing that kind of thing today, can you?

  4. JustaSinner says:

    The change from Communion Rail to standing took place when I was young, but what struck me at that time was how we went from kneeling–servile to the Eucharist, to McDonald’s customer with the Priest serving US…
    Why? I was told to “save” time. Like a 45 minute Mass versus 65? I wasn’t there, but I suspect from the time Christ was scourged at the pillar, to His death on the cross, that was significantly longer than 45 minutes.

  5. Luminis says:

    My local parish church is beautiful and the altar rails are still there. However we dont use them and Holy Communion on Sunday’s is not a pretty sight. It is unorganized and people dont know which direction to walk back after Holy Communion. I can not bear it anymore since my consecration to The Guardian Angel with Opus Angelorum.
    About a month ago we started attending a very reverent NO Mass in a parish in Philly run by the Mercerdarians. It is worth the 40 minute drive to kneel together as a family and be fed like children by Our Lord! We decided to join the parish to to support the pastor who is so obviously doing the right thing.
    Not to mention the beautiful music and the many babies and young families. I am so grateful to Almighty God for sending us here.
    I have really, really been struggling with the modern liturgies at our local parishes.
    My husband does not want to attend our local FSSP so I prayed fervently to find a Mass like this. Last week I met with some resistance from my husband and youngest son about driving there and how the local church is good enough etc.
    So I was quiet and prayed first to my own guardian angel and then to my husband’s dear guardian angel.I asked his guardian angel to persuade him and show him why this is so important.
    Well let me tell you not only did he change his tune within the hour, he went with us and we had a lovely afternoon together afterwards . Like I said we joined the parish and our hope to have our son serving on an altar with no girls !

  6. Ellen says:

    I grew up in the 1950s and we never had a cloth. I had never heard of it until I went to a small church for the TLM one Sunday a couple of years ago.

  7. Mike_in_Kenner says:

    The architectural spaces of the church are symbolic. The priest, the alter Christus, is the one who can process from the nave of this world into the sanctuary of heaven. The priest does not go to the altar to be the hostess of a tea party! He goes to the altar to work, which is why he has a sweat rag (a.k.a. maniple) tied around his left arm. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). A sweaty face and the work of the sacrifice of Calvary go together, as Veronica witnessed. The priest goes to the altar to work. He is the father of our spiritual family. He is the Breadwinner. The priest, as a collaborator in the ministry of the bishop, is a co-pontiff, a bridge-builder. He can bridge the gap between earth and heaven. He goes from the nave into the sanctuary to the altar. He returns from the altar to the boundary between heaven and earth, symbolized by the rail, and reaches across that boundary to feed us with the Bread from Heaven. The rail is an important symbol. The spaces within the church and the movement between, and through, and across those spaces mean something. We need to recover a better understanding of that.

  8. Ages says:

    Let’s not stop with altar rails–Rood Screens! I would love to see their restoration.

  9. Fr. Kelly says:

    Thank you , Fr. Z for this reflection.
    I agree with you wholeheartedly about the significance of Altar rails for the structure of the Church as well as of the church building.

    And I was struck by Anita Moore, O.P.(lay)’s observation that the rail provides a place for the laity to pray near the sanctuary. This is undoubtedly and manifestly true and a wonderful effect of its presence.
    Another consideration that has grown on my reflections over the years, is that the rail is, as it were, the altar of the Laity. It is the place where the laity receive their sacraments (and sacramentals, too) And how many times as a boy did I go to the end of the rail where the Christmas Creche was set up to pray to the Christchild at Christmas?

    At least Holy Communion and Matrimony, also certain blessings, scapular enrollment etc. are specified at the rail. It is the place where Christ who has come to be on our altar at the consecration, descends further to be received by His people.

    And JustaSinner points out that we were told that a communion line up the center aisle would “save time”…. Not only is that a dubious benefit. It has proved not even to be true at all.
    Speed is not the most important consideration in the distribution of Holy Communion, but in fact the use of a Communion Rail is much faster and more secure than multiple lines. the priest comes to each communicant in turn at rest and prepared to receive, and then moves on to the next. In the line, he must wait for each one to step up after the previous communicant has moved away, get settled and determine whether to place the host on the tongue or in the hand of the communicant. The rail is much quicker and more secure. In a crowded church, two priests distributing at a rail can, without rushing, can easily complete the distribution in much less time than 4 at the heads of the aisles.

  10. ChesterFrank says:

    I will agree that altar railings should be installed because they do define the sanctuary. I will say that only people who belong in the sanctuary belong in the sanctuary. It is about both order and dignity. Regarding the housling cloths, I don’t recall ever seeing them used . I especially don’t recall their instillation pre-Vatacin 2. Were they only regionally popular?

  11. robert hightower says:

    My family and I just moved to a new area and parish that is just on fire for the faith! While the church is beautiful and edifying, as are the people and the pastor, there is no altar rail, unlike our old parish. I would guess that a little less than half receive communion kneeling, and that the vast majority at least receive on the tongue. Not having an altar rail makes it physically difficult for parishioners, especially those with children and pregnant women, to kneel to receive our Lord. After Mass I always take my 2 year old toddler to kneel at the place where the altar rail should be to say goodbye to Jesus. I’m always surprised more people don’t come to pray at that area, but I suppose not being used to an altar rail would make it so that most people don’t think to do that. I hope we eventually decide to put one in.

  12. joekstl2 says:

    I don’t think any non belief in the Real Presence, if true, is due to communion in the hand or the lack of altar rails. As to the former I resent the reference to “grubby paws.” I can’t think of anything potentially more demeaning than sticking one’s tongue out in the presence of our Lord.

    As to standing vs. kneeling, in our Western culture standing is our sign of respect vs. the old kneeling in the presence of feudal royalty.

    Lastly, the reference to a sanctuary as the “Holy of Holies” – no! Our Church refers not to the building but the assembled people. “Ecclesia” means gathering or assembly. Presider and assembly “invading spaces” is specious at best. And “dragging” us poor lay people around the altar is not clericalism, but denial of same is. Our Catholic identity is an assembly sharing in the Jesus meal led by a presider.

  13. Charles E Flynn says:

    The church I attended as a child and in which I served as an altar boy had a beautiful altar rail. It was removed when the Novus Ordo began its hopefully limited engagement.

    In the years since, the church has undergone a simply spectacular renovation, overseen by our now retired pastor, of French descent, who had unfailing taste in art and architecture. There were simply no mistakes made in the renovation. I simply could not believe my eyes when I saw it.

    So, I wonder if the original altar rail is in storage somewhere, or if it was destroyed. I suspect that the answer might be “classified”.

  14. veritas vincit says:

    I absolutely agree that restoring alter rails is a good thing, making the reception of the Holy Eucharist orderly and reverent. But strictly speaking, that is a different matter than the Novus Ordo itself. So far as I am aware, nothing in the NO rubrics required removing altar rails. And 2 of the parishes where I attend Mass during the workweek have altar rails and reverent NO Masses.

  15. bookworm says:

    Personally, I would vote for “moving the tabernacle off the main altar/to the side” as the #1 worst thing that diminished reverence for the Eucharist — worse than Communion in the hand, eliminating altar rails, or even “altar girls”. That more than anything else took the Eucharist out of its literal and symbolic central place in the liturgy, and also made it no longer necessary to genuflect or make some kind of gesture or reverence when entering a church (I know some would argue that this is not the case, you still have to reverence the altar, but it’s just not the same).

  16. The Astronomer says:

    Pardon my wording, Father, but since the altar rails were removed, and the concomitant decline in belief in the Real Presence and laity no longer going to Confession the way it was once customary, it has fostered a robotic “gimme my cookie” attitude. I mean no disrespect, but when 99% of the congregation line up to receive on Sunday for the Blessed Sacrament, yet there are only 4-9 folks each week for Confession on Saturday afternoon, how can the vast majority of the congregation truly believe that they are receiving the real Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the King of Heaven and Earth each Sunday?

    Lex orandi, lex credenti on steroids.

  17. Question on how it’s done. Anecdotal. It was 1963 that I would start walking up in the Communion line in St Mary’s Cathedral in central Minnesota – at a mere 3 1/2 years old – with my dad and then the rest of the family behind us. I recall the housling cloths being turned by the altar boys and then the priest with altar boy going from side to side. I remember imitating my dad by putting my hands under the housling cloths, that is, between them. If I remember correctly, they were tied in front, flipped over the top, but then folded back over the top just to the front edge, so that the one kneeling there could put his hands underneath, but not touch the actual altar rail. Is this described in any commentaries on the rubrics? Are there oldsters reading who remember something like this? There seem to be two individuals at the altar rail in one of the pictures above who are aware of something like this practice…

  18. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Joekstl2 – The priest has his hands consecrated to touch the consecrated Host, and the rest of us don’t. So spiritually, yes, we have “grubby hands” that are not the designated Communion vessels and instruments, whereas the priest’s hands are the equivalent of such vessels, or of Christ’s hands.

    Now, if we all had our hands anointed in the same way as priests, and we all had our hands wrapped up when we got buried like a priest’s hands are, then fine. But we don’t.

    As for sticking your tongue out at Jesus, that is a terrible way to.look at baby birds or nursing babies. “The hand of the Lord is filled with blessing for every living creature… He gives us food in due season.”

  19. Cincinnati Priest 2 says:

    joekstl2 :

    I’m not sure if this is a hoax or not, but in case not, your comment is a striking compilation of cliches promulgated in the 1980s by Notre Dame liturgist types. I am saving your comment to pass on to the young seminarians who are mystified by the peculiar justifications of Baby Boomer Catholics and their specious reasoning justifying the deliberate desacralization of the liturgy. I mean that sincerely. They do not understand why the liturgy was desacralized and what the reasoning behind it was. This helps reveal to them some of the catchphrases they will have to counter among a certain generation of Catholics once they begin the sometimes arduous task of resacralizing the liturgy, as pastors.

    A few brief points:

    * As a priest of many years, I have literally seen “grubby paws” often. People putting out hands with writing on them, or worse, dirty cuffs of garments covering their hands, expecting me to put the Sacred Host there. As to “sticking out your tongue” that is just plain silly. It is not a gesture of offense, but more like a child opening his mouth to be fed by his mother. We are fed Holy Communion by Mother Church but many are not humble enough to do so.

    * As for the old canard about “standing being a sign of respect,” really? So when you go to McDonalds or Wendys and stand at the counter, this is perceived as a sign of respect? The kneeling or prostration is not merely medieval. The magi did this at the manger at Bethlehem.

    As to the Church being (only) the assembled people, how about reading what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal chapter 5 here:
    or an intelligent commentary on sacred architecture such as this

    Unfortunately, these very thin cliches that I have heard so often by those formed in the 1970s and 1980s have done a great deal of damage to the celebration of the sacred liturgy. Fortunately, the seminaries of today go much deeper than the cliche level and the next generation of priests have a rich rooting in the tradition of the Church to rely upon.

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  21. joekstl2 says:

    To Subarbanbanshee: I understand your comment on priests’ anointed hands vs lay peoples’. But your tongue is not anointed either. [Oh, brother!] I assume you are not against lay people with unanointed hands bringing Communion to hospitals and nursing homes every week and without whom they could not receive regularly. [Which is done only because there are not enough priests and deacons.]

    To Cincinnati Priest 2: my comments are not a hoax. Nor am I a Notre Dame liturgist type. Nor am I a Baby Boomer formed in the 70s and 80s. I am 77 years of age and my reasoning is not specious

  22. TonyO says:

    As to standing vs. kneeling, in our Western culture standing is our sign of respect vs. the old kneeling in the presence of feudal royalty.

    @ joekstl2: this is a matter of societal custom that is verifiable as historical fact, it is not a matter of intentional design that we can change at will. And as a matter of historical fact, from ancient Hebrew times forward, standing was (one) posture of speaking to the Lord, and being spoken to by him. It is a posture of respect. We preserve that custom quite clearly when we are required to stand when a judge speaks his verdict. Less intensely, we display that respect when we stand up when company comes in (and the – now fallen by the wayside – custom of men to stand when a woman enters the room, or raises his hat to her when passing on the street). I think it is most clear in the NO Mass when we stand for the Gospel.

    However, also quite clearly, kneeling is customarily a posture of supplication, and receiving a gift or blessing, its use as such is present throughout the Bible and throughout ancient (and medieval) art. Somewhat less universally but quite commonly, kneeling also became a posture of prayer, because it is even more reverent than merely standing, it is by nature (and not merely custom) a posture of profound respect, and there is nothing wrong with a posture of profound respect when praying to the Lord. It is not like kneeling to pray is LESS APPROPRIATE than standing – as to the meaning of the posture, standing implies respect and attention, but kneeling implies the same attention and still more respect.

    When we receive the Lord in Communion, we are not primarily praying to him or receiving his words, we are receiving Him entirely, as a divine gift. Kneeling to do so is a far more symbolically appropriate sign than standing.

    To JustaSinner: I too remember telling us standing would be quicker. I have doubted this theory ever since it was first proposed, because in sheer mechanics, the priest has to take the time to pull the next host out of the chalice and prepare to deliver it no matter what, and generally that time is going to overlap either his moving to the next communicant, or the next communicant moves up. It should be largely irrelevant, with at most a 10% differential overall. Anybody who thinks 10% of the total 5 to 7 minutes matters needs to have their head examined.

    But the funny thing is that later on they added Communion under both species as a regular occurrence – in some parishes it is daily, in others it is just on Sundays. But that uses up FAR MORE time, as people wait the vastly longer time it takes for each communicant to receive the chalice. So…the “time saved” really was just an excuse all along, they really didn’t care how much time it was taking, they had quite another agenda than timeliness.

    I am relatively confident that the practice of offering Communion under both species regularly – either at all daily masses, or all Sunday masses – is (a) entirely contrary to the norms issued by Rome, and (b) a move designed by enemies of the Church to undermine the ministerial priesthood. If (a) is true, any bishop who actively approves his pastors engaging in the practice is either criminally ignorant of the law, or criminally disrespecting of the law – and either way, that would seem to represent a very worrisome sort of cooperation with the formal enemies of the Church who pushed the idea. At least, that’s what I think it implies – am I wrong?

  23. Suburbanbanshee says:

    “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” but “a peaceable tongue is the tree of life.” Yup, it is important not to approach the Lord with lies or nastiness on our tongues.

    But in a lot of ways, the power of rational speech is a supernatural or preternatural power, given to us by God and setting us above the animals and different from the angels. Even humans who are not part of the Body have the Word in their mouths, potentially or actually, as part of their created nature. We alone can teach words to animals, and we have performative words that act a God does. Human tongues really are special.

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