Why are altar rails returning to our churches – including some newly constructed ones? There are quite a few reasons. For starters, the once common myth that the removal of communion rails was required by Vatican II or other Church documents is rapidly losing support. What of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship? It was never a binding document. On the USCCB website, there’s a brief statement from which the following is taken: “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship is a 1978 statement of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. The purpose of the document is to provide principles for those involved in preparing liturgical space. The committee statement received the approval of the Administrative Committee in keeping with Conference policy. Because the document was not proposed as a statement of the whole conference of Bishops, the full body of bishops was never asked to consider it.
“Environment and Art in Catholic Worship does not have the force of law in and of itself.” Quoted from the USCCB website
A second reason is a renewed appreciation for the historical treasures of the Church. Various forms of railings, walls or barriers have been used between the nave and the sanctuary for centuries. Saint Augustine referred to one in 5th century Carthage. Some older churches whose historic furnishings were destroyed by misguided attempts to “update” the sanctuary wish to rebuild. Some who are constructing new churches wish to utilize centuries of progress in religious architecture and art. Genuine progress comes from building upon the solid foundation of the past. Unfortunately, the prevailing theme of the 70’s and 80’s seemed to be to cast away our heritage and hastily concoct something trendy to replace it. Trends quickly become dated while time-honored traditions often outlive them.
Third, there is genuine cause for concern over the loss of faith in the Real Presence over the past fifty years. In the Index of Leading Catholic Indicators, Kenneth Jones documents the decline of Mass attendance and belief in the true nature of the Blessed Sacrament. A return to a profound and public display of reverence to Christ in the Eucharist is important and is being promoted by our current pope, Benedict XVI. He has made the decision to distribute Communion on the tongue to kneeling communicants. Read more here
Altar rails have long been used to facilitate reverent distribution of Hosts while communicants kneel. When they were removed, only those physically fit enough to move from their knees to standing without support could adopt the posture. With the rails installed, physical limitations are seldom an issue.
On a final note, people tend to act upon what they see. Even though the Church has never forbidden kneeling and has never changed Her teaching on the Real Presence, many people have assumed the removal of kneelers and altar rails amounted to a ban on kneeling or a declaration that the Eucharist is mere symbolism. Nothing could be further from the truth yet many fail to do the research to learn otherwise. For this reason, uniformity in doctrine, architecture, art and devotions are of the utmost importance.
An historical study of altar rails, iconostasis, ciborium (balduchin), chancel screens and rood screens will be made available at some point in the future.
For those that missed the National Catholic Register article regarding altar rails, it can be read at the following link: Altar Rail Returning to Use