ASK THE LITURGIST (9) – The Communion rail

Enrico Finotti

In many of our churches the communion rail no longer exists and the presbytery lends itself to the access of all, who do not always respect the altar, making it hold the most varied things: sheet music in concerts, cleaning garments, projectors in recitals, etc. Every observation on this subject bothers and attracts the irony of some priests too.

One of the most extensive blunders of the post-council was the elimination of the rails. A considerable error on the historical, liturgical, doctrinal, artistic and pastoral level. The distinction between the nave and the sacred area of the altar has always been present in all the liturgical tradition both Eastern and Western: the pergula, the plutei, the gates, the barriers in the early Christian period, the iconostasis in the east. The rail is the last expression of this element made universal by the Council of Trent. It is absolutely false to support its elimination by recourse to the Second Vatican Council. In fact also the recent introduction to the third edition of the Roman Missal (2000) at no 295 states: “The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation.” The rail is also ‘the table’ which the faithful — kneeling — approached to receive the Most Blessed Sacrament. Now this way of approaching communion has always been foreseen by the Church and is also proposed again in the 3rd edition (2000) of the Roman Missal, no 160: “The faithful communicate on their knees or on their feet …”; so also in the Instruction of the Congregation of Divine Worship Inaestimabile donum (1980) no 11: “The faithful can receive it either kneeling or standing.” So removing the rails involves a fault on several counts:

1. Liturgically, the altar must be protected and defended so as not to allow easy and banal access and the sense of its sacredness must be adequately protected (Ceremonial of the Bishops, 1984, no 50). The way must also be opened for other ways of receiving Holy Communion, such as to stand or to kneel at the rails.

2. Historically, churches must maintain the characteristics of the various eras and the subsequent development of the various ways of celebrating the liturgy, avoiding the destruction of the signs of the historical expression of the liturgy, imposing practices which have not been sufficiently tried and without adequate maturation.

3. Artistically many balustrades have been designed in harmonic composition with the altar, with high monumental artistic level. Their removal often implies a serious alteration of the spatiality and of the different architectural plans. Many accomplishments in historical churches are of dubious value and reveal thoughtless haste and unpreparedness: these presbyteries cluttered with indefinable forms and masses await only their future removal.

4. The hierarchical nature of the liturgical celebration must be theologically evident in the architecture of the church: the ordained ministry is essentially different from the assembly of the faithful before the Mystery, acting in persona Christi Capitis. Therefore not only by means of the liturgical habit must we distinguish the ordained ministers, but, according to tradition, also by means of their proper place (the presbytery), evidently distinct from the nave. Reducing this architectural expression means reducing the doctrinal identity of the faith and making the hierarchical nature of God’s people less intelligible to the eyes of the faithful.

(From Il mio e il vostro sacrificio. Il liturgista risponde, 2018©Chorabooks. Translated by Aurelio Porfiri. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved)