Bring back the altar rail – an appeal from The Deacon’s Bench

“It’s not about architecture. It’s about attitude”, writes Deacon Greg Kandra from “The Deacon’s Bench”.

He then gives these reasons for his change of heart:

Hey, I’m as surprised as anyone else that I feel this way.

Two years ago, I rhapsodized on the Feast of Corpus Christi on the theology behind standing to receive communion, and defended it. And why not? I’ve received that way for most of my adult life; I even remember the Latin church’s experiment with intinction back in the ’70s. Standing and in-the-hand always seemed to me sensible, practical and—with proper catechesis—appropriate.

But now, after several years of standing on the other side of the ciborium—first as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, now as a deacon—and watching what goes on, I’ve had about enough.

I’ve watched a mother receive communion, her toddler in tow, then take it back to the pew and share it with him like a cookie.

At least four or five times a year, I have to stop someone who just takes the host and wanders away with it and ask them to consume it on the spot.

Once or twice a month I encounter the droppers. Many are well-intentioned folks who somewhere, somehow drop the host or it slides out of their hands and Jesus tumbles to the floor.

A couple times a year I get the take-out crowd. They receive the host properly, and then pull out a hanky and ask if they can take another one home to a sick relative.

Beyond that, I’m reminded week after week that people have no uniform way to receive in the hand. There’s the reverent “hands-as-throne” approach; there’s the “Gimme five,” one-hand-extended style; there are the notorious “body snatchers” who reach up and seize the host to pop into their mouths like an after-dinner mint; and there are the vacillating undecideds who approach with hands slightly cupped and lips parted. Where do you want it and how??

After experiencing this too often, in too many places, under a variety of circumstances, I’ve decided: it’s got to stop. Catechesis is fruitless. We’ve tried. You can show people how it’s done; you can instruct them; you can post reminders in the bulletin and give talks from the pulpit. It does no good. Again and again, there is a sizable minority of the faithful who are just clueless—or, worse, indifferent.

The fact is, we fumbling humans need external reminders—whether smells and bells, or postures and gestures—to reinforce what we are doing, direct our attention, and make us get over ourselves. Receiving communion is about something above us, and beyond us. It should transcend what we normally do. But what does it say about the state of our worship and our reception of the Eucharist that it has begun to resemble a trip to the DMV?

Our modern liturgy has become too depleted of reverence and awe, of wonder and mystery. The signs and symbols that underscored the mystery—the windows of stained glass, the chants of Latin, the swirls of incense at the altar—vanished and were replaced by . . . what? Fifty shades of beige? Increasingly churches now resemble warehouses, and the Body of Christ is just one more commodity we stockpile and give out.

Can kneeling to receive on the tongue help alleviate some of this? Well, it can’t hurt. And for this reason: to step up to a communion rail, and kneel, and receive on the tongue, is an act of utter and unabashed humility. In that posture to receive the Body of Christ, you become less so that you can then become more. It requires a submission of will and clear knowledge of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what is about to happen to you. 

Elsewhere the author adds:

Frankly, we should not only be humbled, but intimidated enough to ask ourselves if we are really spiritually ready to partake of the sacrament. Kneeling means you can’t just go up and receive without knowing how it’s properly done. It demands not only a sense of focus and purpose, but also something else, something that has eluded our worship for two generations.

It demands a sense of the sacred. It challenges us to kneel before wonder, and bow before grace. It insists that we not only fully understand what is happening, but that we fully appreciate the breathtaking generosity behind it. It asks us to be mindful of what “Eucharist” really means: thanksgiving.

I don’t see that much today. It’s gone. We need to reclaim it. Pope Benedict XVI seems to agree. He has decided he will only give communion at papal Masses to those who kneel and receive on the tongue. He was gently making a liturgical point. Are we paying attention? 

After what I’ve seen, I agree with him. We need to get off our feet, and on our knees.

Bring back the communion rail. It’s time.

You can read the rest of Deacon Greg’s post here.

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15 Responses to Bring back the altar rail – an appeal from The Deacon’s Bench

  1. malcolm says:

    A great article. Of course the holy Eucharist should be recieved kneeling and at the altar rail

  2. Kassey says:

    Bring back the altar rail.

  3. The world’s changed. We have to bring our purses up with us now to avoid theft. Lots of us have walkers. Fewer are young enough to kneel and still get up. If we bring back the rails, all these factors will have to be taken into account in the design. If it could work, though, I’d like it.

  4. rebrites says:

    If you like to see people kneeling for communion, you will enjoy the service at your local Anglican or Episcopal church. In my last three visits I have seen Communion celebrated with beauty, grace, and dignity. And, egads! women priests!

  5. Louise says:

    The rail HAS GOT to come back…………no doubt about it………no ands if’s or but’s……Jesus deserves no less !!!

  6. malcolm says:

    Kneeling at the altar rail gives one an entirely different attitude and feeling as regards receiving the Holy Eucharist. The kneeling position eviokes both reverence and humility before the Lord who comes to be our heavenly food. It takes more time, but this too enhances the solemnity of the rite.

  7. Greg Kandra is absolutely right.

  8. kathleen says:

    Yes, a timely article. As Louise so rightly says, “Jesus deserves no less”.

    There are more and more Catholic parishes that are now embracing this devout practice once again. It should never have been abolished. Of course at Mass in the Tridentine rite it has always been this way.

  9. Kathleen………….I sure would like to know where those parishes are, because here in Hawaii there isn’t any that I have ever seen. There is one parish that celebrates the Tridentine Mass 1x a week, but I don’t know how/where they kneel because there isn’t an altar rail there. One day I’m going to check out that mass.

  10. mmvc says:

    Deacon Kandra has a follow-up post about a priest’s experience of introducing altar rails to his church in 2010: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/deaconsbench/2013/01/speaking-of-altar-rails-one-priests-experience/

  11. Thanks be to God, at the rural parish I just started attending — meeting in a building they inherited from a defunct Methodist congregation — the altar rail came pre-installed. :)

  12. johnkonnor72 says:

    …found this great quote…”Material food first changes into the one who eats it, and then, as a consequence, restores to him lost strength and increases his vitality. Spiritual food, on the other hand, changes the person who eats it into itself. Thus the effect proper to this Sacrament is the con­ver­sion of a man into Christ, so that he may no longer live, but Christ lives in him; conse­quent­ly, it has the double effect of restoring the spiritual strength he had lost by his sins and defects, and of increasing the strength of his virtues.” St. Thomas, Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, d.12, q.2, a.11″….rail or no rail if we are properly disosed interiorly then we will reap the benefits..however an inner disposition will flow out an be evident in our exterior reflectiveness..i must say in the african congo they may not have the beneift of a proper church or a proper rail…elephant bamboo no doubt

  13. shieldsheafson says:

    …. It makes subservient to the end it seeks, and soon transforms my soul into itself.

    St John of the Cross

  14. kathleen says:

    Hi Louise,

    One is the lovely St.Teresa Catholic Church in Dublin that never ripped out its altar rails.
    Then there are some dotted around the countryside of Kent (notably St. Mary’s at Chislehurst), Sussex and Surrey – the parts of the UK I know best. London has the beautiful Brompton Oratory, and others in London suburbs. France has many beautiful old churches with altar rails, a few of which are coming back into their proper use again. Spain too, especially in the northern parts (and Toledo, south of Madrid) that were not demolished by the Moors, or destroyed by the communists in the civil war. But here they are slower still it seems in the bringing back of the altar rails.

    Little by little, this is the trend though, and most of us rejoice at it.

  15. Thanks Kathleen………..it’s nice to hear that the use of altar rails is actually coming back in some countries. I’m curious about the U.S. though ??? I will be ‘really’ shocked if there is any parishes with alter rails here, and, of course, I will also praise God if there is.

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