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Altar rails making a comeback? July 6, 2011

Posted by Tantumblogo in awesomeness, Basics, Dallas Diocese, disaster, episcopate, Eucharist, foolishness, General Catholic, Latin Mass, North Deanery, sadness, scandals.

Unfortunately, I don’t see this as a major trend, certainly not locally, but I will certainly pray that this return to proper church design accelerates!

Altar (Communion) rails are returning for all the right reasons.

Said Father Markey: “First, the Holy Father is requiring holy Communion from him be received on the knees. Second, it’s part of our tradition as Catholics for centuries to receive holy Communion on the knees. Third, it’s a beautiful form of devotion to our blessed Lord.”

James Hitchcock, professor and author of Recovery of the Sacred (Ignatius Press, 1995), thinks the rail resurgence is a good idea. The main reason is reverence, he said. “Kneeling’s purpose is to facilitate adoration,” he explained.

When Stroik proposed altar rails for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Cardinal [Raymond] Burke [yay Cardinal Burke!] liked the idea and thought that was something that would give added reverence to the Eucharist and sanctuary.”

In Eastern Orthodox churches, there is an iconostasis — a wall of icons and religious paintings that separate the nave from the sanctuary — rather than altar rail separating the sanctuary. While the altar rail is usually about two feet high, the iconostasis veils most of the sanctuary.

“The altar rail is nothing compared to that,” he says, “and these are our Eastern brethren. We can benefit and learn something.” [This is a key point.  The distorted view of ‘ecumenism’ that predominated during and after Vatican II in many circles was focused very heavily towards protestantism, especially in the areas of the <sigh> reform of the Liturgy and the church design that went hand in hand with that.  Many of the changes to the Liturgy and our churches were and are baffling, even offensive, to the Eastern Orthodox, with whom we as Catholics have far more in common than with the protestants.  A case in point, is the heightened in closer ties from several Orthodox churches since the pontificate of Benedict XVI signaled something of a return to Tradition, and especially since Summorum Pontificum was released]

They may be returning, but were altar rails supposed to be taken out of sanctuaries?

“There is nothing in Vatican II or post-conciliar documents which mandate their removal,” said Denis McNamara, author of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hillenbrand Books, 2009) and assistant director and professor at the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.

Cardinal Francis Arinze strongly affirmed this point during a 2008 video session while he was still prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments:  “The Church from Rome never said to remove the altar rails.”

So what happened?

“Unfortunately, democratic ideas came into the situation after Vatican II,” Hitchcock said. 

Stroik points some out of these ideas: a general iconoclasm that rejected the past, a desire to make churches into gathering spaces more like Protestant meeting houses, and the argument that kneeling is a sign of submission, which is seen as disrespectful to the modern person — we didn’t kneel before kings and queens, so it was more “democratic” not to kneel.

Added McNamara: “Some people called them ‘fences’ which set up division between priest and people.”

“Of course,” he said, “theologically there is a significant meaning in the distinction between nave and sanctuary. Just as there was confusion over the roles of ordained and laity at the time, so there was confusion about the architectural manifestation of those roles.”
Altar rails give “a clear designation as to what is the sanctuary,” Father Markey said. “The word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the word ‘holy,’ which means ‘set apart.’ The sanctuary is set apart from the rest of the church because it reinforces our understanding of what holiness is. The sanctuary is symbolically the head of the church and represents Christ as the head.” [A local priest I highly respect mentions that, during this time of liturgical upheaval, “many mistakes were made.”  Mistakes like tearing out marble altar rails paid for at great expense by our forebears, and then using them as curbs in the parking lot.  Many beautiful churches were horribly disfigured in a fervor of ‘renewal’ that mirrored the protestant desacralization of many churches during the early stages of their revolt]

“[The altar rail] is still a marker of the place where heaven and earth meet, indicating that they are not yet completely united,” McNamara explained.

“But, at the same time, the rail is low, very permeable, and has a gate, so it does not prevent us from participating in heaven. So we could say there is a theology of the rail, one which sees it as more than a fence, but as a marker where heaven and earth meet, where the priest, acting in persona Christi, reaches across from heaven to earth to give the Eucharist as the gift of divine life.”

There have been some, perhaps even many, in the Church who have tried to claim that altar rails and many other elements of church design that had been in place for centuries were mere contrivances of medieval piety, with no real theological or liturgical basis for their existence.  Certainly, the main architect of the new Mass, Anibale Bugnini, tried to argue thusly.  But, as the article briefly illustrates (for there is much more depth of reason, theologically and liturgically, for the presence and use of altar rails), altar rails have a profound role to play in the Catholic Liturgy.  There is nothing in the conciliar documents that specified their removal.

There is much more gold in the NCR article.  Check it out. 

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