Reflecting on the (Altar) Rail: Catholic communicants and the changes of Vatican II

I had an interesting conversation on Twitter the other day during which the topic of the communion rail came up. James wondered why Catholics eliminated the communion rail when it was “non-controversial” among Lutherans and Episcopalians. I claim no particular expertise on the question, but here are a few thoughts from having grown up during the transition and the other changes that immediately followed the Council.

I made my first communion kneeling at the altar rail, receiving on the tongue. I now routinely receive standing, in the hand. I occasionally feel nostalgic for receiving at the altar rail, though I wouldn’t like to go back to it as a regular practice. But I think each practice embodies an important aspect of the sacrament, and that both are valid.

Receiving communion while kneeling at the altar rail was an odd and unpredictable mixture of leisure and haste. How long you waited from the front of the line, to kneeling at the rail, and how long you knelt at the rail before receiving, depended on where you were with respect to where the priest was. The priest went from side to side, and I always had a sense that he was moving hastily to expedite the process as much as possible: there were so many of us, and only one of him. Likewise, I felt a good bit of pressure to pay attention and step up promptly when a place at the rail opened up, so as not to mess up the priest’s cadence (or slow down the people behind me).

Today, I like being part of the communion processional, that flows steadily through the pews, down the aisles, and back to the pews again. The rhythm is more predictable, and the exchange in which I actually receive communion feels like a grace-filled, joy-ful pause in that flow. I am conscious of being part of the Body of Christ, as I move in the procession and pause to receive his sacramental Body at the hands of another member of his ecclesial Body. Our eyes meet as s/he professes The Body of Christ and I affirm Amen in an act of shared faith in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It is this lively sense of full, conscious, and active participation in the eucharist that was the goal of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. For decades, the church had been trying to encourage Catholics to receive communion more often than the annual obligation.

The lowering of the age of first communion to the age of reason by Pope Pius X in 1917 was an earlier attempt to encourage frequent communion among laypeople who went to “hear Mass” said by the priest and only rarely actually received communion. During the Middle Ages, eucharistic devotion took the form of a “cult of looking”: the high point of the Mass, literally, was the elevation of the elements during the words of institution. Bells were rung at this moment so that the faithful, who were busy with private silent prayer since they often couldn’t hear the priest and wouldn’t have understood him if they could, would know it was time to look up and see the Body and Blood of Christ. Although it was less extreme in modern times, this kind of eucharistic spirituality persisted.

Often, prior to Vatican II, only the priest would actually receive communion; between the eucharistic fast (no food and only water after midnight) and the (theologically dubious) requirement that one must be in a state of grace to receive communion, many Catholics typically erred on the side of caution (or perhaps hunger, or constrained schedules), and did not take communion on anything like a regular basis.

The Council, emphasizing that the eucharist was the “source and summit” of the Christian life, was intent on tearing down every possible barrier to full, active, conscious, and regular participation in the Eucharist. The liturgy was proclaimed in the vernacular, so that we could hear, understand, and be nourished by the word of God and the liturgical texts. The eucharistic fast was significantly reduced, so that we didn’t have to come to mass light-headed with hunger if we wanted to receive communion. We were encouraged to come forward for communion even if we hadn’t been to confession the night before, as long as we weren’t in a state of serious (mortal) sin. We were told that we were not only allowed to, but were supposed to, actually chew and swallow the host, rather than simply letting it gradually dissolve in our mouths.* We were taught to reverently receive in the hand, and to receive both bread and wine.

In this context, it makes perfect sense that the altar rails were removed. The church was tearing down barriers, inviting and welcoming and urging us to come to the table of the Lord; and the altar rail is a literal barrier, a metal or marble fence whose sole visible and historical purpose was to keep the laypeople away from the altar. It would have made no sense to leave the literal barrier in place while tearing down the others.

There was a practical concern as well. When I was very young, perhaps 10-20% of the people at Sunday mass would receive communion. The Council was aiming for close to 100% participation every week, and by the time I was in my teens, they’d achieved it. But nobody wanted the distribution of communion to take five to ten times longer than it had before, especially in large parishes that had several hundred people at mass. Changing the norms so that people could receive while standing, from as many stations as the physical layout of the church could support, allowed the communion procession to move smoothly and quickly but not hastily.

So, it seems to me that the removal of the altar rail was prompted partly by practical, but largely by pastoral and liturgical reasons. It was part of a larger effort to address problems that existed in the Catholic church but not, I suspect, in the Anglican or Lutheran churches at the time.

*While preparing for my first communion, I practiced this with cornflakes (specially bought for the occasion, as no one in the family much cared for cornflakes). A couple of weeks before our first communion, we were permitted to practice with an unconsecrated host.

A few years later, when we went to visit my great aunt, she warned us before Mass that her parish had adopted rather large, thick, whole-wheat hosts that simply would not dissolve and would have to be actually chewed. I fondly remember her chuckling as she commented, to allay any lingering concerns that this might be disrespectful, that “After all, our Lord said Take and eat, not Take and gum to death!

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15 Responses to Reflecting on the (Altar) Rail: Catholic communicants and the changes of Vatican II

  1. Jordan says:

    Many Anglicans and Lutherans still use altar rails. I worshipped in an Anglo-Catholic parish for a few years. Their choice to continue using the rail is not motivated by an inertia of tradition but rather a conviction of the Real Presence.

    Two local Roman Catholic parishes have returned to using the rail. At one parish, almost everyone uses the rail, at both the EF and OF. At the other, about a quarter to a half do (this parish celebrates the OF exclusively). In the second case, at daily low Mass the priest-celebrant first stands at the rail doors and administers to standing communicants. He then walks up and down the rail to kneeling communicants. On Sundays, one priest walks the rail and two others administer to standing communicants.

    I suspect that Pope Paul VI permitted standing communion and communion in the hand as both were abuses in Europe perhaps even before the Council. Ironically, it’s easier for a priest to drop a host into a kneeling communicant’s mouth than to place a host on a standing person’s tongue. A standing communion is much more conducive to communion in the hand.

    Pope Paul was an indulgent father — he wished most earnestly to save the soul of the “modern man”. I suspect this is why he approved so many previous acts of disobedience, as he thought that it would bring more people to Mass and to receive. A noble sentiment, perhaps, but one that did not bring fruit in due season.

    • [The Anglican and Lutheran] choice to continue using the rail is not motivated by an inertia of tradition but rather a conviction of the Real Presence.
      Or rather, by a particular response to their conviction of the Real Presence.

      There are many ways to show reverence, and there are many responses to a conviction of the Real Presence that do not involve reverence. Not everyone finds that reverence is a natural element of their relationship with God.

      Since many more people do receive communion now than 50 years ago, the changes clearly did bear fruit.

      • Jordan says:

        I don’t consider quantity to be quality. Sure, more people receive today, but there are other ways to explain this phenomenon other than an appeal to liturgical diversity. The fact that most of a Mass congregation today recieves at that Mass tells nothing of spiritual preparation or the worthiness of the soul. It’s true that the use of an altar rail also tells nothing of internal disposition. Still, in my experience, parishes which have reintroduced the rail have many more in-depth catechetical sermons. Coincidence fallacy? Perhaps, but I do think that rail re-adoption leads to a certain receptivity to an unflinchingly orthodox environment.

        The rise in every-Sunday communions has to do in some small part with the rebellion against Humanae vitae. Everyone receives communion now because to not do so places a person in an awkward social position. The sensus fidelium is that the Church is not listening to the faithful about birth control, so therefore birth control is not a sin but discretionary. Therefore, communion can be received without compunction even if a couple uses birth control. This phenomenon, coupled with extremely poor catechesis after the Council, has led to a compulsion to receive the sacrament but without knowing Who it is. A shift to the altar rail, though only one way to show devotion, appears to lend a great solemnity and introspection to the communion.

        A communion taken “because it’s there” and not out of an examined penance is the withered fruit of a tree.

        • waywardson23 says:

          None of us are truly worthy to receive communion (“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”)

          As for when it is and is not proper to take communion on any given Sunday, if you ask five different priests, you’ll probably get six different opinions. :-/ I’d love to see more guidance in this area.

          As for whether rail re-adoption leads to orthodoxy, I would say such parishes do avoid certain common errors but may stumble on some less common ones in reaction.

        • This comment seems to conflate a whole host of issues to conclude by asserting “withered fruit.” I’m not really interested in engaging with it.

          I like your description of parishes that support both reception in procession and at the rail, though: that’s a great example of unity in diversity.

  2. waywardson23 says:

    Interesting perspective. I grew up in the 1980s, well after the council. Everything had been changed long before I could remember. I have never received at an altar rail in a Catholic Church, but I have when I attended an Episcopal Church. (No experience with the Lutheran Church, except for weddings.)

    A couple of points on the altar rail:

    It seems like a large part of the discussion is really about whether many people should receive communion or whether few people should receive. I understand the council’s intent of having people receive more often but sometimes I wonder if things have gone too far, leading to a far too casual attitude toward the sacrament. Many people receiving also leads to the problems that it is difficult NOT to recieve and that people who are unable to receive, specifically the divorced and remarried, feel disproportionately excluded compared to what is in their life. Perhaps there is a happy medium?

    The Anglicans and Lutherans do not believe in the Real Presence in the same way that Catholics do, but do have enormous respect for Holy Communion. My experience is that Catholics get antsy if mass runs long, while Episcopalians are far less concerned with how long it takes. From what I have seen, the epidemic of leaving after communion is virtually non-existant in the Episcopal Church. Of course, the Episcopal parishes I have attended have been much smaller than most Catholic parishes.

    But even this difference points back to another issue. The Episcopal Church does not attach the same obligation to attend worship as the Catholic Church does. Everyone in an Episcopal worship service is there because they want to be there, not because they feel like they HAVE to be there under pain of Mortal Sin. As my priest once said: “In the old days, Catholics had two choices: Go to mass or go to hell. Most people chose mass.” When worship is full of people who don’t want to be there or are attending out of fear, then you are going to have rushed liturgy, bad music, disrespect for the sacraments, and a bad experience all around.

    • The Anglicans and Lutherans do not believe in the Real Presence in the same way that Catholics do,
      Just to clarify, Lutherans believe in the Real Presence: they just don’t hold with the Aristotelian metaphysics that underlies transubstantiation. Luther taught consubstantiation: that Christ was really present in, with, and under the forms of bread and wine.

      Anglicans are not bound to a particular belief about the eucharist because it is their prayer book that defines them: the Anglican tradition is truly one in which the law of prayer is the law of belief. But many do believe in the Real Presence.

      Many people receiving also leads to the problems that it is difficult NOT to recieve and that people who are unable to receive, specifically the divorced and remarried, feel disproportionately excluded

      It’s only difficult not to receive because of the traffic flow in our churches. I attended mass at a church in Spain where there was a lot of space between the pews, so much so that you had to actually take a step or two after standing up to get to your kneeler. I was very much struck by how much more freely people moved to receive communion. There was no need for the regimented row-by-row filing out of the pew that I’m accustomed to: there was enough room that people could just flow from their seat into the aisle without impeding or being impeded by what anybody else was doing.

      That said, I don’t think most Catholic churches will ever have that kind of physical freedom, so the problem remains for us to grapple with. I like the practice of having people who are not receiving for whatever reason come up for a blessing.

      I don’t think that addressing this problem will help the situation of the divorced and remarried, though.

      Must run for now, more later.

    • I’ve thought a lot about the leaving-after-communion thing:

      – Until about 10 years ago, 99% of the motivation I heard people say for leaving right after communion was to get out of the parking lot before the massive snarl of all-cars-trying-to-leave-simultaneously, especially when the masses are scheduled closely enough that there are new cars arriving at the same time.
      My suspicion is that Episcopal churches have smaller services, have fewer services scheduled further apart, and have more actual socializing at coffee hour after mass: all of which would mitigate the horrid parking lot snarl.

      – As of about 10 years ago, I started to also see and hear motivations involving other time commitments: often involving children who needed to be brought to some lesson or rehearsal, sometimes involving people trying to get to work on time. But parking lot is still about 90% of the motivation.

      – The biggest contributor outside the parking lot is an overly narrow, vertical, and personal understanding of the eucharist: I got my Jesus, why should I bother sticking around till everyone else gets theirs too? All we’re going to do after that is say a 2-sentence prayer and have the closing blessing: it’s not like I’m missing much.
      Culturally, the rise of the drive-through and the demise of the family dinner due to overly scheduled kids and adults who need to rush off in all directions each on their own schedule have certainly contributed to this. Pastorally, I see a lot of priests who place too much weight on we must respect people’s time and not enough weight on what we’re doing here is important. But there are a lot of liturgical-theological problems that contribute as well: it really can’t all be blamed on “disrespect for the sacrament.”

      • waywardson23 says:

        Pastorally, I see a lot of priests who place too much weight on we must respect people’s time and not enough weight on what we’re doing here is important. But there are a lot of liturgical-theological problems that contribute as well: it really can’t all be blamed on “disrespect for the sacrament.”

        Perhaps my language was not as precise as it needed to be about disrespecting the sacrament. I agree with this completely that in many parishes there is a sense that liturgy is not important and that this is a major part of the problem. I see a lot of catering to people who don’t want to be there as opposed to building a community of those who do.

  3. waywardson23 says:

    The other difference between Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church (and presumably Lutheran as well) is that the “barriers” to reception, as far as I know, never existed in the Episcopal Church.

    Anglicans may act like Catholics, but make no mistake, they are theologically Protestant. (Read their catechism in the Book of Common Prayer.) There was no theological reason or justification for keep laypersons off the altar. Their theology of the clergy is far more Protestant than Catholic. The altar rail, as far as I could tell, is simply a matter of respect and tradition.

    Those of us who grew up post-Vatican II also have no concept of the altar rail being a barrier to keep laypersons off the altar or away from the Eucharist either. But some of us feel the respect and tradition has been lost with the changes.

    • I’ve found that Anglicans are a very interesting mixture of Catholic and Protestant: I find their claim to offer a via media to have significant validity.
      I agree that many of the barriers I describe above never existed in the Anglican church, or were significantly mitigated by having the liturgy in the vernacular for the past five hundred years. Anglicans also have a much more lively tradition of praying the liturgy of the hours than Catholics do, which I suspect informs their liturgical spirituality in ways that would matter to this discussion.

      As I said at the beginning of the post, I think that both practices for receiving communion embody aspects of Catholic sacramental theology of the eucharist, so it’s not that I think one is right and the other is wrong. I can understand where you’re coming from.

  4. Andrew says:

    Based on my experience, receiving communion at an altar rail is sometimes done at Methodist churches (though in recent years, I’ve most often received via intinction).

    • Thanks Andy, that is interesting. But do Methodists call it an altar rail? I thought you had tables, not altars. 🙂

      I was at an ecumenical worship service a couple years ago, led by a Lutheran pastor, at which communion was offered by a form of intinction: the communicant tore off a piece of the offered loaf of bread, then dipped it in the offered cup.
      What was most interesting to me was an announcement before communion suggesting that those who did not drink wine (whether for religious, personal, or health reasons) should nonetheless mime the dipping of the bread in the cup as a sign of communion.

      • Andrew says:

        It’s been a while, so I don’t quite remember whether it was referred to as an altar rail – but it was a rail at the altar, certainly (even though in the liturgy we were invited to the table). The form of intinction you mention (in which the communicant dips the bread in the offered cup) is the form I’ve seen at Methodist churches.

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