Removal of Altar Rails

And More on Televised Masses

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ROME, FEB. 1, 2005 ( 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.'»

* * *

Follow-up: Televised Masses

There were several interesting addenda to our column regarding televised Masses (Jan. 18).

An extraordinary minister of holy Communion in Virginia who attends a homebound person asked if it were permissible for him to «to record a Sunday Mass to be used when I take Communion to a person unable to go to Church. I record the Mass from EWTN while I attend Mass at my parish church and obtain the sacred Host. I retrieve the tape and immediately go to the homebound person. Then I play the tape which includes everything from the entrance procession, prayers, readings, homily and petitions of the faithful. At that point I stop the recording and say the Our Father with the person and give her Communion. I only use it on the same day that the Mass was being said. The person understands that it is a recording of that Sundays Mass.»

I think that some distinction needs to be made. As an extraordinary minister of holy Communion you should always fulfill the rites of the Church just as they are set out in the liturgical books.

Therefore while you do a good thing in bringing the tape, it may not substitute the rites of introduction and the reading foreseen in the rite of Communion to the sick, and the two things should be kept separate although you would probably be justified in using the briefer form of the rite.

Perhaps you would save time and complications if you were to make it possible for the person involved to watch the Mass on EWTN herself and time your arrival toward the end of the transmission.

Another two questions involved not so much the transmission of Mass on television but within the context of a celebration.

From the Australian state of Victoria a correspondent wrote: «Masses at one large local church are now ‘telecast’ to the congregation on several large video screens, including one on each pillar at either side of the altar. The view and angles are continually altered for best position, and prayers and hymn words are displayed at the necessary times. I find the intrusion enormous, and its spectacular nature distracting and disappointing. Are there any recommendations for the level of appropriate technological intervention?»

Meanwhile, a U.S. reader asked: «What about Masses that have the overflow crowd across the parking lot at a parish hall, watching the Mass on closed-circuit TV? Someone brings Communion over at the appropriate time, but does this count as participating in the sacrifice of the Mass?»

The two situations, while apparently similar, are actually very different.

The general principle is that one must physically assist at Mass as part of a cohesive assembly. The assembly may be very large but must in some way form a recognizable whole.

The first situation, that of enhancing visibility via the use of large screens, may be useful and even necessary on some very special occasions when many participants are at some distance from the altar or some special rite, such as a priestly or episcopal ordination, is carried out.

This is usually done during papal Masses in St. Peter’s Square, although I don’t
remember ever having seen it done within the basilica itself despite its being the world’s largest Church.

This may also be because the lateral naves are never occupied during Mass, so everyone can see the altar even though, frankly, one sees little from the back.

Because we are almost all children of the television age, it is necessary to rein in the cameramen so that they concentrate on the essential rites and avoid special effects, such as zooming in on children, which only cause distraction and dispersion.

My own experience is that one’s attention is naturally drawn toward the projection even when the altar is clearly visible.

The danger is that one adopts the passive attitude typical of television gazing in such a way that the spiritual exercise of active participation in offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass with and through the priest is impeded.

In this way one may be mentally in the same situation as those who follow a Mass on television, even though from a formal point of view one is present at the celebration.

For this reason I do not think that it is pastorally prudent to habitually use these projections. Yet, since they are a relatively new technology, I do not know if any official declarations have been made.

From what we have said, it should be clear that the second situation, that of following the Mass from the parish hall, is incorrect and is not sufficient to fulfill the Sunday precept.

Some other solution should be found to cater for the overflow, either adding Masses or seeking an alternative venue.

It might even be permissible, as an extreme solution, to set up television screens outside the church, which would in some way preserve the unity of the assembly. But they may not be in another location.

For example, I remember that for the beatification of (now Saint) Pio of Pietrelcina, logistics made it necessary to divide the assembly between two Roman sites: St. Peter’s Square and St. John Lateran.

On this occasion a cardinal celebrated Sunday Mass for the pilgrims at St. John’s before the beatification ceremony began and then all present followed the ceremony at St. Peter’s on television screens.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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