It’s been a few months since I explored a topic from my nerdy Catholic perspective.
Why were Altar Rails part of the structure of a Church in the first place?
The Altar Rails encircled the altar on all sides. There was often a gate through which the bishop, priest, deacon or acolytes would enter in order to say the Mass. The gate was small – narrow if you will. The Sanctuary houses the Tabernacle – the “Holy of Holies” where our Lord remains after Mass. The Altar Rails provided a boundary indicating the end of one space and the beginning of another. As we are still here on this Earth, the boundary is a visual reminder of the holiness we still hope to attain and the Grace we still need in order to end up in Heaven.
When I mentioned yesterday that our pastor is planning to install altar rails into our “modern” church, I thought…why did churches ever remove them in the first place? According to last year’s article in the National Catholic Register, there is nothing in Vatican II documents mandating their removal.
One reason given was the idea that kneeling was a position of submission and seen as disrespectful to the modern person. I find this strange. But maybe that’s why I’m a Catholic nerd, haha. I get that “the modern person” doesn’t want to kneel before any mere man…but we’re talking about God, the One who made us, the One without whom we do not exist, inside His house. I mean, if you don’t believe you’re there in the presence of God, then you probably aren’t approaching to receive the Eucharist anyway, and if you are a Catholic disposed to receive the Eucharist, then, you should believe you’re approaching God, and I’m not sure why a person in such a state does not want to kneel in His presence and pay Him the homage and reverence due to Him as the Creator of all.
The idea of making Catholic sanctuaries to look and feel more like Protestant worship spaces is confusing to me. Why would Catholics want to be more like Protestants? I will never understand this. Catholics have the source and summit of our faith – the Eucharist – and for 40-plus years now, so many Catholics in our country have turned their own backs to it and tried to encourage all of us to do so.
There are some people that may not like the idea of a distinction between the nave and the sanctuary. Interestingly enough, the article discusses the root of the word sanctuary, it comes from the word “holy” which means “set apart.” The sanctuary is the holy place where our Lord comes to be with us, and I think it makes sense to set it apart because we are not yet in Heaven.
Perhaps I am alone in thinking I need that barrier between myself and the Holy place of Heaven? I mean, I know I am not worthy to receive our Lord, I say so every Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Where does this idea come from that we are on a plane with Jesus while we are still in this world?
It seems to be the case that many Catholic churches are returning to the use of Altar Rails, many with swelling parishioner support. Even with my parish’s “modern” structure, I look forward to the day when there is a distinction between the sanctuary and nave of our church. It’s nice that we have kneelers currently so that those of us who feel drawn to do so, may kneel in front of our Savior to receive Him. How wonderful it will be when there is simply a rail all the way around the Altar?
I think it’s beautiful to consider the Altar Rail as the meeting point between Heaven and Earth.
Perhaps with a greater distinction between what is holy and what is not, there might be greater consideration and reverence when approaching to receive the Holy Eucharist. I believe it would help me and my children. There is so much confusion, I fear, in our broken world. I sometimes wonder how deep the belief runs in us (yes, myself included) that we truly are receiving our Lord – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the Eucharist. As fallen human beings, it is truly something difficult to wrap our heads around, that our Lord would humble Himself to be with us in this way. I like to kneel to receive because it helps me focus on this aspect and puts me in a better frame of mind. And I’m fortunate to have this option at my parish.
Perhaps a visual reminder, such as an altar rail, will cultivate that sense of awe, wonder, amazement and evoke the reverence that is due as one approaches the edge of Heaven to receive His Holy Grace.
What do you think? Do you have Altar Rails in your church? Do you have a preference with regard to their presence?