Catholicism Nerd: The Return of the Altar Rails

It’s been a few months since I explored a topic from my nerdy Catholic perspective

Photo Credit

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?  

Photo Credit

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?  



Why I Kneel to Receive the Eucharist

As you most likely know if you’re a Catholic (especially if you’ve been to Mass this Liturgical year) there’s a new translation that we are all adapting to.  With respect to the reception of Communion, there used to be some language in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) that made it seem as though it were in the very least strange, if not outright wrong to kneel to receive Holy Communion.  I found this blog post to discuss what has changed with regard to the GIRM and the gentler language around this particular point of emphasis.
Kneeling has always been the Universal Church’s posture for the reception of Holy Communion.  An exception was made in the United States insofar as in our country, it is “the norm” to receive while standing.  The fact that the exception is spelled out as such lends an understanding to the fact that the norm EVERYWHERE ELSE outside of the United States is not standing.  Americans have this funny knack of thinking the way we do something is the way EVERYONE in the world does something.
I didn’t always kneel to receive Holy Communion.  As a matter of fact, I never had the option until almost 2 years ago when our current priest and pastor arrived at our parish and installed a kneeler at the base of the altar and explained it was there for the purpose of kneeling to receive Holy Communion.
It has been about 10 years since I began receiving the Eucharist on the tongue, as opposed to in the hand.  From the reception of my First Holy Communion until the age of 29, I received in the hand.  It was the way most people receive, I think (I try not to watch most people receive Communion and really try to focus on my prayers at that time).  One would think they’d have a bit more control and take care in this form, but I am not so sure.
When my reversion to a deeper commitment to my faith took place when I was 28, I began looking up to other Catholics who could help me on my way to being a better Catholic.  One of the things I noticed about them was that they all received our Lord on the tongue.  They went to a more traditional parish than I did, but when I visited their parish for Mass, I felt a bit out of step receiving in my hands.  Over time, I began to feel as though I didn’t want to touch the Eucharist with my fingers for various reasons, but the most practical one was that I became convicted about the fact that Jesus is truly present – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the Eucharist.  And because I believed that with my whole heart and soul, I began to worry about things like dropping the Eucharist and spilling the Precious Blood.  If the Eucharist is placed directly on my tongue which brings our Lord directly into my mouth, the opportunity for bungling is pretty small.

As my reversion was occurring, I was commissioned as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (EMHC), and as such had never felt comfortable distributing the Host anyway, but I watched with horror (at times!) that most people approach the Blessed Sacrament as though it is no big deal, and I would have to take great care to ensure the Precious Blood was not spilled as people sometimes jerked the chalice from my hands!  It troubled me so much to see how irreverently many faithful would approach the Blessed Sacrament.  (Shortly into my reversion, I asked to be removed from this commission.)

I began receiving on the tongue in a standing position in the spring of 2002.  It made sense anyway since I was usually carrying Sarah in my arms in the Communion line and this, again, made it less likely that I would drop the Holy Eucharist.  Over time, it has become the only way I feel comfortable receiving our Lord.

This can make it awkward when visiting other parishes, because most Catholics do not receive this way.  I’ve had awkward moments face to face with EMHCs and even a couple of priests.  But all in all, it’s gone off without a hitch and I’m happy to report that I have never dropped our Lord in the process and while the EMHCs (and a couple of priests) have given me awkward looks or seemed to feel uncomfortable, they have always been able to accommodate, as they should.

When our priest installed the kneeler and welcomed us to kneel to receive the Holy Eucharist, I was almost in tears with joy.  Receiving on the tongue would be so much simpler from the kneeling position.  From the kneeling position, I need only look up to view the Eucharist, my mouth would be in the perfect position and height for the priest to be able to say, “The Body of Christ” and still be able to see me answer “Amen” and then place it on my tongue.  No awkward reaching up (should I be taller than the priest) and he would be able to see that I consumed the Host fully and immediately.  Being able to witness this is necessary for the priest as it is his responsibility to ensure the entire Blessed Sacrament is fully consumed by the Communicant.
But because logistically, it is easier to kneel to receive Communion on the tongue, that is not why I do it.  I kneel because that feels like the perfect posture when a person believes they are about to receive the Lord Jesus Christ, Body, Blood Soul and Divinity into their own body.  I am receiving God.  I think that if I truly believe I am receiving God…I don’t see how I could believe I should stand shoulder to shoulder with Him.  Jesus is my Lord and Savior.  He is my King.  To Him all my homage and adoration is due. 
Kneeling is a humble position.  When a person is kneeling, they are unable to get up quickly to run or walk away.  When a person is kneeling, they are in a position of submission.  And where should we be the most humble, than when we are receiving the greatest Gift our Lord makes present for us in the Holy Eucharist?
I kneel and receive the Holy Eucharist on my tongue because I do not feel worthy to stand toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye, with God.

I realize I will not have the option to kneel in every parish (I’m most likely not going to kneel on the floor…I have seen some folks do this…I’m not sure I’m ready to do it if it looks like it would cause a scene.)  I feel very blessed to attend a parish where this is accommodated easily.  I love that my children will be allowed this accommodation for their First Holy Communion as well as going forward (it’s the expectation at our school that this is how the children receive at the weekly all-school Mass).

How do you receive and do you have any particular reasons for doing so?

Catholicism Nerd: Questions Answered

It dawned on me recently that perhaps I have become somewhat of a Catholicism Nerd.  
I have decided to give you the option to become a Catholicism Nerd, too!  This will be the first (of many, I hope!) posts tackling something little (or big) that Catholics do and why.  I might explain a bit how I learned because…truth be told…I had 8 years of Catholic education and I didn’t learn most of what I know until I was in my late 20’s!
Just for some reference,’s definition of the word, NERD, follows:


[nurd] Show IPA

noun Slang.

1.a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.  (Nah, I don’t think I fit THIS part of the definition –Pipe Down in the cheap seats!) intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer Catholicism nerd.

I was recently asked by another lifelong Catholic (Catholic school educated and everything…just like me!) “Why do some people bow down during the Creed at Mass when we say, ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’?”
I know I am not the only Catholic to have actually read in whole, or in part, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) in an attempt to teach myself and my children the proper way to attend Mass.  It came in handy that I’d studied it though.

You see, I am one of “those people” who makes a profound bow at that point in the Creed.  

The first time I consciously noticed someone (a priest) bowing at that point in the creed, I was 28 and I wondered why he was doing it.  At first I thought that I should do it even if I don’t know why simply because the priest was doing it.  But then I remembered that there are some things the priest is supposed to do that the congregation is not supposed to do.  
So…then I was confused.  
Back then, whenever I was confused, I had a Catholic co-worker friend that I turned to whenever I needed answers.  I asked him about it and he directed me to the GIRM.  
While it’s intimidating to tackle the GIRM, it is helpful to understand some of the things we do during Mass.  I highly recommend you put the GIRM on your list of reference materials if you’re interested in learning more about Catholic Mass.
The GIRM addresses many details of “Mass With A Congregation.”  Since I’m sticking to the one question, I’ll only mention that part.  You can go to the site linked above and read through the GIRM on the Vatican website.
And now…
Why do those crazy Catholics bow during the Creed at Mass when saying “by the power of the Holy Spirit?”
The first (and easy) answer is:  Because the GIRM says so.  Really.  Item #137 under “Mass With A Congregation” states:

137. The Creed is sung or recited by the priest together with the people (cf. no. 68) with everyone standing. At the words et incarnatus est (by the power of the Holy Spirit . . . and became man) all make a profound bow; but on the solemnities of the Annunciation and of the Nativity of the Lord, all genuflect.

A more detailed answer is given here.  

The profound bow is to show reverence to the Incarnation.  We begin the bow at the words, “by the power of the Holy Spirit” and rise back up after “and became man.”  The profound bow shows that we understand and respect the importance of this event, of God becoming man.

So the profound bow occurs while saying the following (bolded) part of the creed:

…For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried…

Furthermore, this article (137) of the GIRM mentions two times where you’re actually supposed to GENUFLECT at those words. If you’re at Mass on March 25 (solemnity of the Annunciation) or December 25 (Nativity of the Lord), you are required to genuflect as you say those words of the Creed.

On every other day that you are at Mass, if you see someone bowing at that point in the Creed…they are not doing anything wrong.  In fact, you should probably consider joining them.

And as you make your profound bow, you can join the rest of us Catholic Nerds when someone asks you why you are doing that!