In many parishes, a once-standard sanctuary staple is making a comeback: the altar rail.
“Having an altar rail has really brought back a sense of reverence,” said Laurie Biszko, a parishioner at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Tiverton, Rhode Island.
Receiving Communion this way, she said, “You have a chance to focus, make an act of contrition, make an offering, and think about what’s going on. It contributes to making this a much more holy occasion.”
At Immaculate Conception Church in Westerly, Rhode Island, where altar rails were installed this spring, Paul E. Servideo has found receiving Communion kneeling makes him “recognize the level of importance that we should be placing on this particular sacrament.”
“Just by having to kneel — your posture, your body manner — it’s impossible to deny the importance of the sacrament and the truth to be found in the sacrament when you’re receiving the Eucharist,” he said.
For parishioner Barb Kohout at St. Mary Church in Fennimore, Wisconsin, this practice “brings so much reverence back into our church. People realize we’re before God, before Our Lord, because we’re on our knees receiving him.”
This trio are among a growing number of parishioners who understand how the return of altar, or Communion, rails restores reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.
Appearing with Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa on EWTN Live during Advent 2008, Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, spoke about receiving the Holy Eucharist at Mass.
In part, he said, “Kneel down. Adore your Lord. It is logical. [T]he angels in heaven … prostrate in front of the Lamb. But we have the Lamb of God in the Host. They prostrate themselves. We’re not. Why not?”
During this year’s chrism Mass in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, Bishop Robert Morlino spoke to his priests about the crisis of faith and prayer. He mentioned his concern regarding liturgies that are less than reverent, especially in the reception of Communion: “It’s hard to believe that some people actually believe that that’s the Body of Christ the way they handle it. You’d think it was an M&M.”
To turn the tide of the crisis and move towards greater reverence when receiving Holy Communion, he asked that “people be encouraged to receive Communion on the tongue and kneeling.”
As pastor of Holy Ghost Catholic Church (HolyGhostCC.org) in Tiverton, Father Jay Finelli’s major renovation of the church included the installation of altar rails. A number of parishioners themselves had requested this return to reverence.
He said that after the Second Vatican Council, altar rails were removed or destroyed, although this was not the Council’s directive.
“The Church from Rome never said to remove the altar rails,” Cardinal Francis Arinze explained during a 2008 video conference while still prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
The results of returning the Communion rail have been fruitful, according to Father Finelli.
“The vast majority of the parish receives on their knees, whether on the tongue or in the hand,” he reported. “And I noticed more also now receiving on the tongue.”
Parishioner Biszko observed: “Kneeling [for Communion], a person knows that Christ is present.”
And Biszko said, “The people in our parish feel more comfortable receiving on the tongue.”
Of course, people have the option of receiving on the tongue or in the hand while kneeling or standing. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in Redemptionis Sacramentum, instructs that the faithful can receive Communion “kneeling or standing” as the bishops’ conferences will have determined (90).
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (160), the “norm established for the dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling. … The consecrated Host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant.”
At Immaculate Conception Church (ImmCon.org), the Communion rails put the finishing touch on the restored sanctuary that Father Giacomo Capoverdi, the pastor, turned from a plain space to a restored sacred space. A parishioner-carpenter from Italy fashioned the wooden railing with spindles and columns that wrap around the sanctuary in a half-oval.
“This altar rail is the pièce de résistance, the culminating point to everything he has done to the sanctuary,” said lifelong parishioner Servideo. Attending with his wife, Adrienne, and their 2-year-old, he perceives an important connection between postures at Mass and at the altar rail.
“We kneel frequently throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist and [are] expected to kneel to show that reverence,” he explained. “It seems to follow that level of reverence when we’re actually receiving the Eucharist.”
He added, “When we’re all at the Communion rail, it feels like we’re all together there at the Lord’s table.”
Father Capoverdi explained that we as a Church kneel for the epiclesis, when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit, as well as for the consecration, the “Behold the Lamb of God,” and when the Blessed Sacrament is consumed. “Why not kneel?” for Communion, he said. “They’re kneeling all these other times when in the presence of the Eucharist.”
Though the option remains to receive Communion standing and/or in the hand, the pastor said the overwhelming majority — 98% — kneel. Some of the elderly faithful want to kneel but can’t, understandably.
Similarly, Queen of All Saints parish (QueenofAllSaints.net) in Fennimore, Wisconsin, comprises three churches — St. Mary’s being the main one. After Father Miguel Galvez, the pastor, completed a major restoration to its original glory, St. Mary’s was featured on the EWTN series Extraordinary Faith.
Restoring the altar rails “was one of the best aspects of the renovation,” said Father Galvez. At the first Mass he celebrated in the renovated church, he explained to the congregation the use of the Communion rail, how he never touched the Blessed Sacrament until he was a deacon, why a paten is used, and more. He gave the parishioners the option to kneel when receiving Communion. Many people chose to kneel, including very little children.
“It’s beautiful to see very little ones come to the Communion rails with their families and kneel and know this is something very special,” Kohout said. “It returns the sacredness to our Mass.”
Spiritual Benefits Multiply
Kneeling undoubtedly brings positive change, contended Father Capoverdi.
“I noticed an incredible difference,” he explained. “I see the expression on their faces being much more emotional kneeling, excited about Communion, more than receiving standing.”
Sharon Burges at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Salisbury, North Carolina, shared, “This is a totally different experience.”
The parish’s previous pastor added altar rails to the church (SalisburyCatholic.org), which was built in 2009.
Father John Eckert of Sacred Heart Church introduced the use of the altar rail first at daily Masses and then at all Masses more than a year ago.
“You have that opportunity to prepare as the priest approaches; and then as he goes on to the next person, you have an opportunity to recollect, make a brief thanksgiving and then move on,” he said.
Burges told him, “Being able to kneel there for a few minutes and get yourself prepared means so much more to me … to get everything else out of my mind, be quiet and reflect on the Body of Christ.”
Father Eckert added, “It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Father Galvez encourages fellow priests to explain the value of kneeling when receiving Communion. “I would encourage any priest: It’s easy to explain when people have their minds and hearts open to the truth. They want a liturgy that is supernatural.”
On EWTN, Auxiliary Bishop Schneider made an observation about joining kneeling and receiving Communion: “I’m kneeling now because here is Someone who is greater than I, even this little Host, and so I open my mouth like a little child to receive the Kingdom of God like a child — even more than the Kingdom of God, the Lord of the Kingdom of God.”
In June 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI began distributing Holy Communion only to people kneeling and on the tongue.
“The form adopted by Benedict XVI is meant to highlight the force of this valid norm for the whole Church,” the master of pontifical liturgical celebrations, Msgr. Guido Marini, said in L’Osservatore Romano June 28, 2008.
Msgr. Marini, who wrote Liturgical Reflections of a Papal Master of Ceremonies, explained “the [Pope’s] preference for such form of distribution, which, without taking anything away from the other one, better highlights the truth of the real presence in the Eucharist, helps the devotion of the faithful, and introduces more easily to the sense of mystery: aspects which, in our times, pastorally speaking, it is urgent to highlight and recover.”
Father Galvez emphasizes that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our life of faith. He noted St. Mary’s was the first parish in the diocese to institute perpetual adoration 17 years ago and believes that is why it was easy to renovate the church and for people to understand the reverence of kneeling and receiving on the tongue, since they well understand “Who the Eucharist is.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.