Did Vatican II recommend the removal of altar rails?

Did Vatican II recommend the removal of altar rails?

M. Cassey

Since Vatican II, churches everywhere have undergone extensive 'renovations' at the hands of liturgical experts, whose seemingly innocuous first step of 'sanctuary re-ordering' was the code word for the removal of altar rails and all that followed.

This has included the removal of statues, the crucifix, the introduction of 'butcher block' type altars, and finally the re-positioning of the tabernacle in any one of a myriad of places except where liturgical laws prescribe it should be kept - 'in churches with the greatest honour and in the most distinguished position', as Pope Paul VI instructed in Mysterium Fidei.

Sadly, churches even today are currently undergoing such 're-ordering' - or being threatened with it.

Perhaps the saddest fact of all is that there is no mandatory legislation within the Church today requiring that any changes be made to Catholic sanctuaries. Indeed there is not a single word in the entire Liturgy Constitution of Vatican II requiring a single change to be made in a single sanctuary anywhere in the entire Catholic world.

Active participation

Yet, the Council and 'spirit of Vatican II' are still cited as the authority by liturgists, priests and bishops for the updating of Church sanctuaries in accordance with so-called modern needs and the spirit of active participation.

As early as 1994, in an interview with an American Catholic newspaper, Cardinal Sanchez, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, stated that 'the removal of the altar/communion rails from churches was the result of a mistaken interpretation, one of the many things that were rashly done.'

In 1997 Archimandrite Boniface Luykx went even further - and he was one of the consultants on the composition of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the Sacred Liturgy. He said: 'The destruction of the separation between the altar and the people by doing away with the Communion rail was not meant. They destroyed many good churches - beautiful churches - in the name of the people they destroyed the inner logic and dynamics of many churches because of a misunderstanding.'

What of the need to facilitate 'active participation' so greatly emphasised by many liturgists? Again, we have it on the authority of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that this, too, has been misunderstood; that participatio actuosa (active participation) has been taken to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity from as many people as possible.

According to Cardinal Ratzinger, there is only one action in the liturgy, the action of God, and we 'should be clearly aware that external actions are quite secondary here'. If the liturgy 'degenerates into general activity, then we have radically misunderstood the 'theo-drama' of the liturgy and lapsed almost into parody'.

The declared need for 'active participation' that so often heralds the removal of altar rails in a church is, ironically, the very reason why we should seek to keep altar rails in place. Rev Michael Carey in A Theology of the Sanctuary explains that the active participation of the laity lies in the relationship between 'the sacrificial action of the laity and the self-sacrifice of Christ'.

The Mass is something that Christ, not us, does by offering Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Our active participation is only possible through union with Christ. This is intensified by the reception of Holy Communion.

What better place then, to receive Christ's Body and Blood than from the hands of the priest, kneeling at the altar rails? Kneeling ensures the reverence due to so great a sacrament. ('When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence is required since kneeling itself is a sign of adoration', states Eucharisticum Mysterium.)

The concept of altar rails as a barrier between God and His people is peculiar to liturgy experts of our times. Generations of Catholics have grown up in the Faith and worshipped in churches with altar rails; they have felt neither distanced nor shut out by them. On the contrary they are a symbol of order and a tangible expression of place. On the one side we, the worshippers, kneel; on the other God reigns supreme.

Bridging the gap, acting as intermediaries on our behalf, are Christ's priests whose anointed hands will offer the Sacrifice and distribute the Sacrament. The altar rails maintain the status quo of heavenly aspiration and earth-bound endeavour, the distinction of sanctuary from nave, the hierarchy of the priesthood, the protection of the Holy of Holies.


To strip a sanctuary of altar rails leaves vulnerable the core of our beliefs. It is akin to declaring that everything within our churches is of equal value, no area or artifact deserving of special treatment or sign of its significance or importance.

This is in sharp contrast to the modern world where we pay a premium for personalised number plates, for fashion labels and lifestyles as status symbols and generally make every effort to stand out from the crowd. It is a curious anomaly then, that there are still those within the Church who appear intent upon demoting Catholic beliefs, reducing our Faith to the lowest common factor.

It is in the powerful presence of the Lord in the Tabemacle, and the Blessed Sacrament bestowed upon us in Holy Communion that altar rails fulfill their true purpose. They are the embrace of the faithful, the protection of the Divine, and the threshold at which we will pause to offer our reverence and our adoration, and attempt to contemplate with our limited human understanding the unfathomable and sublime mysteries which lie beyond.

M. Cassey is a Sydney Catholic writer with a special interest in church architecture and Liturgy.

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