Paul Kokoski
The altar rail and kneeling
By Paul Kokoski
September 24, 2012

A few years ago Pope Benedict XVI decreed that all his communicants should kneel and receive Holy Communion on their tongues. This practice was the universal norm before Vatican II but was widely rejected by most bishops after the Council. The present option or permission of receiving Holy Communion standing and in the hand has largely contributed to a crisis of faith and a loss of the sense of the sacred. The pope is now trying to reverse this trend by calling all Catholics back to a strong sense of their own identity.

Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFM , has said "the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is one of those wonderful truths by which Christianity shines forth as a religion of mysteries far exceeding the capacity of the human mind. The Catholic Church has defined the dogma of the Real Presence by stating that Jesus Christ is present whole and entire under the appearances of bread and wine following the words of consecration at the Eucharist."[1]

The reception of Holy Communion at Mass has always been a moment of tremendous reverence and awe, traditionally preceded by the ringing of the bells, incense and silence. Sadly there are many Catholics who no longer believe in the Real Presence. No doubt this has been due to the toning down, and in some cases the deletion, of these and many other symbols and signs of adoration. One such symbol of adoration that has been removed is the architectural feature called the Communion rail.

The Communion rail or altar rail was introduced into Catholic churches in the ninth century to set off the sanctuary from the rest of the church and to separate those whose duty it was to perform the sacramental action from those who formed the celebrating congregation — a separation which was always taken for granted as essential to the Church's constitution. This was in keeping with the idea that the priest is the appointed intermediary between God and the people. The altar railing became better known as the Communion rail in the Middle Ages when the faithful more widely began to receive Communion kneeling. This organic developed grew out of a pressing sense of reverence and humility toward the Eucharist.

For those unfamiliar with the communion rail — and there are no doubt many today that have not experienced it — the rail is an architectural feature that separates the sanctuary from the body of the church and is usually made of marble or some other precious metal. A clean white cloth of fine linen, which was usually fastened on the sanctuary side of the rail, would be extended over the length of the rail before those who receive Holy Communion to act as a sort of corporal to receive any particles which may by chance fall from the hands of the priest. The communicant would thus take the cloth in both hands and hold it under his chin. There is evidence to suggest that something in the nature of a corporal was used even in the earliest days of Christianity. In more modern times an altar boy held a paten under the chin of the communicant.

At the moment of Communion one can almost visualize the rail as a long table, existing alongside of and in front of the Altar of Sacrifice — a table where the people of God can come to share in the banquet of Our Lord as if present at His Last Supper — a table where one can, at the same time, feel present at Our Lord's Passion; as if one were actually kneeling before Our Lord on Calvary, ready to receive Him and share in His Sacrifice. How Awesome!

Compare this with the rubrics of today that permits standing for Communion. What do we notice. At the moment of Communion the communicant takes the host from the priest with his own hands — as if to negate the meaning behind the consecration of the priest's hands at his ordination. He then leaves the front of the church without so much as even acknowledging, in posture, that he or she has received something — or Someone — sacred. No safety precautions are taken to ensure that particles of Our Lord's Body and Blood are not lost. Absolutely scandalous! Yet this is what many of our liturgical experts and bishops allow and even promote today. It is as if to them, the Mass was little more than a social gathering or place to meet new friends.

Sadly, the decision to remove Communion rails came shortly after the Second Vatican Council and seems to have been an initiative taken at the local level to introduce architectural changes that were believed by those involved to be necessary to implement the liturgical reforms of the Council. While some churches left the altar rail in place, they have fallen into disuse, and new church constructions generally do not include them.

Liturgical theorists argued, in conjunction with Vatican II's call for a "full and active participation by all the people" in the liturgy, that the altar rail separated the activity of the clergy from the passivity of the laity whom they incorrectly believed were all but excluded from the celebration. Hence its removal was deemed necessary in order to form a single integrated or unified space that would remove the focus from the priest and redistribute it equally upon each member of the assembly. This means, incidentally, that although the Church continues to feel that altar boys are conducive to producing priestly vocations, girls must now be included among their ranks since any form of discrimination could be seen as being divisive.

At this point, however, everything essential to Catholic faith in the Mass — begins to deteriorate. In such a scenario, for example, the priest is no longer seen as an intermediary but rather as the "presider" who must now "face" the people rather than, together with the whole congregation, face the cross of Christ[2] — as was the case in the Latin Mass. Pope Benedict XVI, argues in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, that this "turning of the priest toward the people no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above [but] has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle."[3]

Without this "opening out and up" to God, the Sacrifice of the Mass becomes little more than a communal meal whereby it is also important for us to "self -communicate" when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, using our hands. This is especially true whenever- as is often the case — a member of the laity takes the Hosts from the tabernacle and gives it the priest and other members of the laity to distribute. This, we are told, helps " awaken in the Christian a sense of his personal dignity."[4] As a further testament to this egalitarian "dignity" it also becomes necessary to stand when receiving Holy Communion which in turn eliminates any further reason for keeping the altar rail. Many will recall how the practice of standing for Holy Communion was rigorously and arbitrarily enforced after Vatican II until it became uniformly ingrained in the laity.

How often have we heard since Vatican II that "kneeling doesn't suit our culture... It's not right for a grown man to do this...he should face God on his feet." Or again: "It''s not appropriate for redeemed man — he has been set free by Christ and doesn't need to kneel anymore." It is highly presumptuous, however, to assume and act as if we have already received our heavenly reward before we have actually earned it. Though many in the Church deny that pride is eminent I believe this is nonetheless the Catholic "sin of presumption" rearing its ugly head. St. Paul (Phil 2; 12) tells us that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling.

Pope Benedict has said that "the kneeling of Christians is not a form of inculturation into existing customs. It is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian culture which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God."[5]

Kneeling actually comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. As the Pope reminds us, "the word proskynein alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own liturgy."[6]

Pope Benedict also relates a striking example of the importance of kneeling, the practice of which in recent years, like the Sign of the Cross, has eluded many within the Church. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy the pope speaks of a "story that comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with frightening thin limbs, but, most strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical."[7]

It is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude from what the pope has said about kneeling that those who have abandoned kneeling during the reception of Holy Communion have in fact abandoned the Bible — for if one does not kneel before the Lord, when does one kneel? The pope has also said of kneeling 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."[8]

Though modern liturgical theorists, designers, and consultants claim that their new theology reflects the mind of the Church, there has been no ecclesiastical document that has come out against the Communion rail or one that sanctions its removal from churches. What the Vatican has said is that "When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling itself is a sign of adoration. When they receive communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Blessed Sacrament."[9]

Bishop John Keating of Arlington, Virginia, has stated in his pastoral letter on Eucharistic reverence: "No bodily posture so clearly expresses the soul's interior reverence before God as the act of kneeling. Reciprocally, the posture of kneeling reinforces and deepens the soul's attitude of reverence."[10]

Kneeling, therefore, is the ultimate posture of adoration, submission and surrender. In the Catholic Church we genuflect and kneel to indicate, by bodily attitude, a total submission of our minds and hearts to the true Presence of Christ. It is an exterior manifestation of the reverence inspired by His Presence. The Communion rail is the partition that separates the sanctuary from the assembly. Insofar as it thus allows one to visualize that distance that separates heaven and earth, Creator and creature, it is an architectural feature that helps one overcome one's human pride enabling one to approach and receive Christ in the Eucharist with the proper disposition and reverence. In an additional sense — to the extent that the bride and groom are consecrated in the sanctuary, the altar rail may also be seen as a powerful visual reinforcement of the sacrament of Matrimony.

The removal of communion rails caused great pain for many in the Church. It disoriented many people, who with real justification — especially in light of the recent and overwhelming loss of faith in the Eucharist as the Real Presence — feared that the very heart of Catholic belief had been compromised. Since the Mass culminates in the sharing of communion, the Communion rail should be seen again as it once was, as a place of the highest importance for the faithful. From an authentically Catholic standpoint the ancient architectural feature should return for the greater salvation of souls.


[1]  Father Regis Scanlon, O.F.M., Cap., "Eucharistic Piety: A Strong Recommendation" (Theotokos, the newsletter of the Auraria Catholic Club).

[2]  Or, more accurately the East. To quote Mgr. Klaus Gamber: "What in the early Church and during the Middle Ages determined the position of the altar was that it faced East. To quote St Augustine, "When we rise to pray, we turn East, where Heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from other directions on earth..., but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God." Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, Una Voce Press, California, 1993, p.80 in chapter, "Mass Versus Populum."

[3]  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 80. (Hereafter cited as The Spirit of the Liturgy).

[4]  Internal Communication of The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, March 23, 1970.

[5]  The Spirit of the Liturgy. p. 185.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  Ibid., p. 193.

[8]  Ibid., p. 194.

[9]  Eucharisticum Mysteriumis, 1967.

[10]  Pastoral Letter on Reverence for the Eucharist, December 4, 1988.

© Paul Kokoski


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