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In defence of the altar rail and kneeling.

Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFM, has said, The doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is one of those wonderful truths by which Christianity shines forth as a religion of mysteries far exceeding the capacity of the human mind. The Catholic Church has defined the dogma of the Real Presence by stating that Jesus Christ is present whole and entire under the appearances of bread and wine following the words of consecration at the Eucharist."

The reception of Holy Communion at Mass has always been a moment of tremendous reverence and awe, traditionally preceded by the ringing of the bells and silence. Sadly there are many Catholics who no longer believe in the Real Presence. No doubt this has been due to the toning down, and in some cases the deletion, of these and many other symbols and signs of adoration. One such symbol of adoration that has been removed is the architectural feature called the Communion rail.

Communion rail

The Communion rail, or altar rail, was introduced into Catholic churches in the Middle Ages as the faithful began to receive Holy Communion kneeling. For those unfamiliar with the Communion rail--and there are no doubt many today that have not experienced it--the rail is an architectural feature that separates the sanctuary from the body of the church and is usually made of marble or some other solid material. A clean white cloth of fine linen, which was usually fastened on the sanctuary side of the rail, would be extended over the length of the rail in front of those who receive Holy Communion to act as a sort of corporal to receive any particles which might by chance fall from the hands of the priest. The communicant would thus take the cloth in both hands and hold it under his chin. There is evidence to suggest that something in the nature of a corporal was used even in the earliest days of Christianity. In more modern times an altar server held a paten under the chin of the recipients.

At the moment of Communion one could almost visualize the rail as a long table, existing alongside of and in front of the Altar of Sacrifice--a table where the people of God would come to share in the banquet of Our Lord as if present at His Last Supper--a table where one would at the same time reel present at Our Lord's Passion, as if one were actually kneeling before Our Lord on Calvary, ready to receive Him and share in His Sacrifice. How awesome!

Compare this with the Canadian rubrics of today which permit standing for Communion. What do we notice? At the moment of Communion the communicant takes the host from the priest with his own hands--as if to negate the meaning behind the consecration of the priest's hands at his ordination. He then leaves the front of the church without so much as even acknowledging, in posture, that he or she has received something--or Someone--sacred. No safety precautions are taken to ensure that particles of Our Lord's Body and Blood are not lost.

Why remove the altar rail?

The decision to remove Communion rails, after the Second Vatican Council, seems to have been an initiative taken at the local level to introduce architectural changes that were believed by those involved to be necessary to implement the liturgical reforms of the Council. While some churches left the altar rails in place, they have fallen into disuse, and new church constructions generally do not include them.

Liturgical theorists argued, with reference to the Council's call for the "full and active participation by all the people", that the altar rail separates the activity of the clergy from the passivity Of the laity, whom the altar rail systematically excludes, they believe, from the celebration. Their idea, which essentially reduces the meaning of the Vatican II term "active participation" to something physical, was to form an integrated or unified space in order to remove the focus from the priest and redistribute it equally upon each member of the assembly. This also, for example, means that although the Church continues to feel that altar boys are conducive to producing priestly vocations, girls must now be included among their ranks since any form of discrimination could be seen as being divisive.

In such a scenario the priest becomes merely the "presider," who must now "face" the people rather than, together with the whole congregation, face the cross of Christ--as was the case before 1965. The Sacrifice of the Mass, according to some, has now been reduced primarily to a communal meal, which arguably is the case with the Novus Ordo or New Mass. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explains in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, this "turning of the priest toward the people no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above [but] has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle." Cardinal Ratzinger has written extensively on the idea that a reform of the 1970 Reform is now in order. (See Fr. John Mole, "Cardinal Ratzinger's pastoral concerns with the liturgy," Cath. Insight, March 2004, pp. 6-19; April, pp. 34-37.)

Since, as some say, we are no longer at a sacrifice but rather a meal, it is also now important, according to the liturgical theorists of today, that we "self-communicate" when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, using our hands. An Internal Communication of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops dated March 23, 1970, regarding the implementation of this practice, states that to show forth

"very closely the symbolism of Our Lord's Last Supper ... the communicant receives the host in his hand and brings it to his mouth. The action emphasizes an active personal involvement, one of the goals of the liturgical renewal. It awakens in the Christian a sense of his personal dignity."

One notices in this regard how in most parishes today it is a member of the laity who takes the Hosts from the tabernacle and gives it to the priest and other members of the laity to distribute.

No kneeling

In the further interest of this perceived egalitarian "Agape Feast" along with its advancement of human dignity, it is also required, we are told, that the communicant must now stand when receiving Holy Communion. Kneeling, they say, notes Cardinal Ratzinger, "'doesn't suit our culture'.... 'It's not right for a grown man to do this--he should face God on his feet'. Or again: 'It's not appropriate for redeemed man--he has been set free by Christ and doesn't need to kneel anymore.'"

Many may recall today that the practice of standing for Holy Communion was, after Vatican II, rigorously and arbitrarily enforced without choice until standing for Communion became uniformly ingrained in the laity. Even today, especially in my own personal experience, priests routinely and actively discourage kneeling among those members of the faithful who prefer to kneel during both the consecration and the reception of Holy Communion--though all members are, as they have always been, perfectly within their ecclesiastical rights to receive while kneeling. Traditionalists who prefer to kneel are thus made to feel as if they possess a self-centred resistance to change; some priests tell them it is contrary to Vatican II. This is a falsehood. There is in fact a growing struggle on this very issue in the diocese of London, Ontario (see Challenge Magazine, September issue, page 27). It might be prudent to add here that the Communion rail also offered a support, without which those who wish to receive Communion kneeling, such as the sick and elderly, cannot do. Hence the removal of the Communion rail was instrumental in helping enforce the new posture of standing.

Cardinal Ratzinger has said, "The kneeling of Christians is not a form of inculturation into existing customs. It is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian culture which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God."

Kneeling actually comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. As the Cardinal reminds us, "The word alone occurs fifty-nine times in the New Testament, twenty-four of which are in the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly liturgy, which is presented to the Church as the standard for her own liturgy."

Cardinal Ratzinger also relates a striking example of the importance of kneeling, the practice of which in recent years, like the Sign of the Cross, has eluded many within the Church. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, the Cardinal speaks of a "story that comes from the sayings of the Desert Fathers, according to which the devil was compelled by God to show himself to a certain Abba Apollo. He looked black and ugly, with frightening thin limbs, but, most strikingly, he had no knees. The inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical."

It is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude from what Cardinal Ratzinger has said about it that those who have abandoned kneeling during the reception of Holy Communion have in fact abandoned the Bible--for if one does not kneel then, when does one kneel? The Cardinal has also said of kneeling that "the man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core."

Though modern liturgical theorists, designers, and consultants claim that their new theology reflects the mind of the Church, there has been no ecclesiastical document that has come out against the Communion rail or one that sanctions its removal from churches. What the Vatican has said in Eucharisticum Mysterium, 1967, is: "When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling itself is a sign of adoration. When they receive Communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Blessed Sacrament."

Bishop John Keating of Arlington, Virginia, stated in his pastoral letter on Eucharistic reverence: "No bodily posture so clearly expresses the soul's interior reverence before God as the act of kneeling. Reciprocally, the posture of kneeling reinforces and deepens the soul's attitude of reverence" (A Pastoral Letter on Reverence for the Eucharist, December 4, 1988).

Kneeling, therefore, is the ultimate posture of submission and surrender. In the Catholic Church we genuflect and kneel to indicate, by bodily attitude, a total submission of our minds and hearts to the true Presence of Christ. It is an exterior manifestation of the reverence inspired by His presence. The Communion rail is the partition that separates the sanctuary from the assembly. Insofar as it thus allows one to visualize that distance that separates heaven and earth, Creator and creature, it is an architectural feature that helps one to overcome one's human pride, enabling one to approach and receive Christ in the Eucharist with the proper disposition and reverence. In an additional sense--to the extent that the bride and groom are consecrated in the sanctuary--the altar rail may also be seen as a powerful visual reinforcement of the sacrament of Matrimony.

The removal of Communion rails caused great pain for many in the Church. It disoriented many people, who with real justification--especially in light of the recent and overwhelming loss of faith in the Eucharist as the Real Presence--feared that the very heart of Catholic belief had been compromised. Since the Mass culminates in the sharing of Communion, the Communion rail should be seen again as it once was, as a place of the highest importance for the faithful. From an authentically Catholic standpoint, the ancient architectural feature should return for the greater salvation of souls.

Mr. Kokoski's previous contribution to Catholic Insight was "Why Jesus suffered?," Sept. 2004.
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Author:Kokoski, Paul
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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