Since Kathryn and I spend a lot of our weekends away from Phoenix, it’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves visiting another parish for Mass on any given Sunday. It is far less common for us to visit the same parish two Sundays in a row, although that’s exactly what happened the past two Sundays. On both occasions, we traveled to St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Some of Kathryn’s family were surprised we’d make an hour-plus drive each way from Ipswich, Massachusetts. There’s a Catholic church in Ipswich and in every town that borders Ipswich. However, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we’ve become drawn to the so-called extraordinary form on the Roman Rite, the Mass as it is celebrated according to the norms set forth in 1962. To attend Mass in this form, the only reasonable choices from Ipswich are Nashua or Boston. We chose the Nashua church because it’s staffed by priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a group with whom we’re already familiar.
We showed up at St. Stanislaus this past Sunday and took our seats, just like the previous Sunday. And until the priest began his sermon, we didn’t really notice anything different about the church from the week before. Then the priest mentioned the new altar rail. My eyes shifted slightly downward and to the right, and I literally gasped.
My mind flashed back and remembered kneeling to receive Communion at St. Stanislaus just a week earlier. There had been no altar rail at all at the time. There was only a makeshift row of kneelers in front of the first step of the altar. Now there was a breathtaking work of art in its place.
Some of you, even if you’re Catholic, may be reading this and wondering if I’m making too big a deal about a piece of carved wood. Consider this: When was the last time you saw a new pay phone? Nobody installs new pay phones anymore because almost nobody uses them. At best, you might find an existing one has been updated.
In modern Catholic churches — if you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world where they’re still building Catholic churches — the altar rail is often omitted from the design. One of the principal outward functions of the altar rail is to provide a place for faithful to kneel at the edge of the sanctuary to receive Communion. Since the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, most churches distribute Communion outside the sanctuary to faithful who are standing in a queue. As a consequence, the altar rail has, to some church designers, become more an object of aesthetics and less an object of function.
Sadly, in older churches, quite a few administrators have ignored the aesthetics too. Believing, perhaps, that the altar needs to be opened up to the faithful, beautiful altar rails have often been removed from churches where they had once formed an integral part of the architecture.
Indeed, I think this is part of the reason I didn’t notice the altar rail when I entered St. Stanislaus last Sunday. Even though it was sparkling new, it looked like it had always been there, even in this older church with cracked plaster on the walls. I have to believe there was an altar rail there at some point in the past. Someone committed a crime against beauty by removing it.
The pastor of this parish, who was celebrating the High Mass last Sunday, used his sermon not only to draw attention to the beautiful new altar rail, which apparently had taken five months to craft, but also to remind us of the particular holiness of the sanctuary, which is why an altar rail visually separates it from the nave of the church. One might legitimately wonder why it should ever be omitted.