We are taught from a young age that barriers and walls exist to be overcome. And for the most part, this is a good thing. In this piece however, I am writing about the altar rail, an actual barrier, a wall of sorts within a church that separates, that sets apart (sacred in its Latin root means that which is set apart). I am arguing in favor of retaining, or in many cases restoring the altar rail to its traditional place of honor in Milwaukee-area churches. Yes, it is a barrier. But in this case, it is a positive one.
An altar rail is located at the entryway to the sanctuary in a Catholic church. Usually about three feet in height, it stretches the width of the church, setting apart the nave (symbolic of earth) where the faithful gather, and the sanctuary (symbolic of heaven) where the priest offers Mass and where the Blessed Sacrament resides. The altar rail symbolizes the gateway to heaven from earth below. To receive Holy Communion, the faithful kneel at this threshold to heaven in order to receive the Bread of the Angels, the very Body of Christ.
As you can see, when it comes to the theology of sacred architecture, symbolism runs deep in the Catholic Church. While the entire church building is sacred, the most sacred space, the sanctum sanctorum, is undoubtedly the sanctuary. As Catholics, we believe that there is a distinction between heaven, our final home, and earth, our stop along the way. So why shouldn’t the symbolic representations of that divide, that distinction, be honored in our churches?
Here in Milwaukee, as is well-known to readers of Cream City Catholic, we are exceedingly fortunate to boast a number of historic, beautiful Catholic churches. (We just featured a gallery of Holy Trinity, one of our city’s oldest churches.) These buildings, some well over one-hundred years old, are homes to remarkable works of art. Sadly, some of these treasures, in the form of exquisitely carved and chiseled altar rails of wood and marble, have been dismantled over the past several decades. You don’t even have to be Catholic to see what a crime against art and beauty this iconoclasm represents. It is important to point out that this regrettable phenomenon wasn’t the result of a Vatican directive. And it certainly did not come from Vatican II, despite endless rumors to the contrary. In fact, back in 2008, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, explicitly stated that the Vatican did not order the removal of altar rails. He went further and sharply criticized their removal from churches. So what happened?
Well, let’s wind the clock back. The idea of sacred space, that which is “set apart” out of a finely tuned sense of reverence toward the transcendent, was erroneously construed as an attempt by a patriarchal church to exclude the laity with a particular, misogynistic “No Girls Allowed” mentality. You can see the all-too predictable narrative taking shape, can’t you? The altar rail came to be viewed as one of the primary instruments of this oppression and exclusion. It unfairly kept the people out, like one of those foreboding “No Trespassing” signs posted around private property. The “opening up” craze that overtook the Church in the “spirit of Vatican II” era necessitated the removal of “offensive” barriers like the altar rail. Distortions of the meaning of “active participation” on the part of the laity accompanied and justified the swift removal of countless altar rails in churches.
Those who should have known better (priests and bishops) happily went along with the narrative. They glossed modern, politically loaded concepts of division, segregation and discrimination onto ancient symbols like the altar rail. Egalitarianism took root in a misguided attempt to bridge the divide and blur the line between clergy and laity. Questions started to surface and take hold: “What is so special about the priest?” and “Why does he get VIP status in the church, with exclusive access to the sanctuary, while we have to stand out in the rain?” And so the argument went.
Many priests bought in to this. Local church leadership, out of woeful ignorance or willful intent, failed to hold the line when it came to fulfilling their duty as educators in the richness of our Catholic traditions, including the symbols. (This is somewhat ironic considering that this formational neglect came from the same people who discuss the glories of archdiocesan schools.) In an odd twist of clerical narcissism and under the guise of openness and inclusivity, many priests went along with the radical reconfiguring of the sacred space in the church. In the process, they made the liturgy more about their role as performers on a stage, acting before the crowd and less about their role as fathers, leading the faithful in prayer. The long-excluded laity got their VIP admission to the sanctuary, and the priests got their starring role in the show. It was a tit for tat. One enabled the other.
Why was this so wrongheaded and dangerous?
Well, beyond the obvious fact that is crystal clear to even a first-grader enrolled in finger painting that hacking antique works of art to pieces is a bad idea, there are significant theological and philosophical reasons to object. Classical and Scholastic philosophy tell us that we come to know through our senses. We are deeply formed by the physical world around us. Our interior disposition ought to manifest itself externally. Our interior prayer life manifests itself in the ways that we position our bodies. Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this at length in The Spirit of the Liturgy. What happens when we airbrush visible reminders of the sacred, those things set apart, in our holy places that were clearly intended to serve as visible and tangible instruments of instruction? Is it too much of a stretch to say that gradually, our interior dispositions will be altered? For centuries, altar rails served as conspicuous reminders to the faithful of the holiness of the sacred space around the altar. In the East, the iconostasis is still major part of the church’s layout. There is didactic symbolism at work here, but it goes even deeper than the symbolic because ultimately, we are talking about the Eucharist, about Jesus present in the Host on the altar and in the tabernacle.
Like many Milwaukee parishes, the historic Oratory of Saint Stanislaus, located on Milwaukee’s South Side, fell victim to the iconoclastic ravages of the past forty years. Its refined altar rail, crafted in white marble with inlaid gold screening, was ripped out long ago.
You have to ask: What was the purpose of this attack on art? What could possibly warrant such a radical move? What on earth were the perpetrators thinking? Why would priests want to eviscerate embellishments that underscore our Catholic theology?
Thankfully, the present caretakers of the parish, priests from the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, are implementing a methodical project of beautification within the building. In the coming months, a new, beautiful marble altar rail from Italy will be installed. So there are signs of hope. But it’s up to the laity to be informed on these important subjects. If you’ve noticed that your parish’s altar rail has been furtively dismantled and moved to a dark cobwebbed corner of the church basement, don’t be afraid to inquire as to the reasons why with your pastor.
Be informed. This is one of the goals of Cream City Catholic.