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Liturgy: Removal of Altar Rails

2/2/2005 - 7:00 AM PST

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ROME, FEB. 2, 2005 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: A statement, on behalf of our parish priest, supporting the removal of the altar rails, states that "removal of the altar rails is consistent with the changes of the Vatican Council's 1963 Constitution of the Liturgy. To the writer's knowledge, altar rails no longer separate the congregation and the celebration of the Mass in churches throughout Sydney. [R]emoval of altar rails was undertaken 'to make the layout more suitable for the modern liturgy and particularly the involvement of school children coming onto the altar [sanctuary] at several times during various liturgies [to perform liturgical dance] and due to concerns raised by the Principal of the school about safety issues arising from the restrictions imposed by the altar rail during children's liturgies.'" Is this statement correct? -- S.R., Bondi Beach, Australia

A: The decision in whether to remove altar rails falls basically upon the pastor although, as with any major renovation, it should be done in consultation with the local bishop and often requires his explicit approval.

Before the liturgical reform the Communion rail, or balustrade, was required in most churches.

It served both to set off the sanctuary from the rest of the church and to facilitate the administration of Communion, which generally was received kneeling, while the priest moved from one communicant to the next.

Since after the reform, Communion is frequently received standing and in processional form, the people approaching the priest while he remains in one spot. Hence, the Communion rail has often lost one of its principal functions.

Likewise, where Communion is often distributed under both species and by more than one minister the rail can sometimes be an obstacle.

In this sense your parish priest's comment that the removal of the rail is consistent with the liturgical changes is broadly correct. Yet, no document explicitly mandates or even suggests that the removal of altar rails is required by the liturgical reform.

Most recent official guidelines regarding the sanctuary, while maintaining the distinction between sanctuary and the rest of the church, no longer mention the Communion rail.

For example, the recent guidelines for church buildings published by the U.S. bishops' conference, "Built of Living Stones," recommends the following regarding the sanctuary in No. 54:

"The sanctuary is the space where the altar and the ambo stand, and 'where the priest, deacon and other ministers exercise their offices.' The special character of the sanctuary is emphasized and enhanced by the distinctiveness of its design and furnishings, or by its elevation. The challenge to those responsible for its design is to convey the unique quality of the actions that take place in this area while at the same time expressing the organic relationship between those actions and the prayer and actions of the entire liturgical assembly. The sanctuary must be spacious enough to accommodate the full celebration of the various rituals of word and Eucharist with their accompanying movement, as well as those of the other sacraments celebrated there."

That said, the above guidelines, and documents on the preservation of sacred art published by the Holy See, do suggest that great care must be taken before altering churches of certain historical value or even particular elements of a church that may have particular artistic merit.

Even churches that are not, strictly speaking, "historical," sometimes have altar rails and other elements that are fine examples of the artistry, such as stone carving and metalwork, of earlier epochs. If no other use can be found for them within a renovated church it is often better to do whatever is possible to preserve them.

The other reasons offered for the removal of the altar rails are really not pertinent.

The fact that no other church in the city has altar rails makes no difference if there were a good reason for preserving them in this particular church, or even if there were no good reason for removing them.

Even less weighty is the third reason that was cited. The children's activities that are described have no place in the sanctuary in the first place, at least not during the celebration of the liturgy.

The sanctuary should not be confused with a stage and should not be used as such. It is, as stated in the above-mentioned document, which itself quotes the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, "the space where the altar and the ambo stand, and 'where the priest, deacon and other ministers exercise their offices.'"

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