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!”