Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I’d like to share another lesson called to mind by a recent exchange with a child in our parish. In the course of giving a tour of the church to our First Communion students, I asked if any had visited other Catholic churches in the area. One girl was excited to say that she had been to St. Thomas Aquinas. I asked her what was different between the two church buildings. “They have a big painting of Jesus on the wall,” she said, referring to the mosaic of the Sacred Heart in the sanctuary at St. Thomas. I asked her if there were any other differences. “It’s bigger.” Anything else? “Yes! They have that” – she pointed to the altar – “but they also have it here” – she pointed to the first step of our sanctuary. She was referring to the altar rail that surrounds the sanctuary at St. Thomas, and though she lacked the vocabulary to say what it was, she correctly intuited its nature. Without any prior knowledge, she sensed that the altar rail and the altar are connected.
Indeed, we are meant to understand the profound connection, between the altar and the rail, for the altar rail is an extension of the altar toward and for the faithful gathered for Mass. I was struck by the girl’s ability to intuit this connection and was reminded of the real purpose of church architecture and artwork. Throughout history, the design and decoration of churches was meant to teach the faith at an intuitive level. The lessons were meant to be simple and call to mind topics for deeper reflection. Stained glass windows, statues, altar rails and more, all can be understood on an intuitive level. That intuition ought to lead to questions, study, and increased, ongoing formation in the life of faith.
The problem arises for us as adults. We often discount the intuitive because, unlike children who usually have no preconceived notions, our minds are full of ideas and prejudices. When it comes to altar rails, many people (myself included) were taught a combination of things: the altar rail is meant to be a barrier that keeps people out of the sanctuary; the altar rail tells people they are not good enough; the altar rail separates the priest from the people; Vatican II mandated the removal of altar rails. Of course, none of those things are true! There is not a single document from the Church that calls for the removal of altar rails, nor is there any instruction that prohibits them, nor does the Second Vatican Council say a single word in relation to altar rails. An altar rail is not, nor has it ever been, intended as a “keep out” sign. The rail does not separate the priest from the people any more than his standing behind the solid marble altar separates him from the people. In her intuition, the young girl saw the most essential element. Would that it were so for us! Sometimes if we find a symbol or idea unclear or difficult to understand, we reject the symbol or idea outright. A healthier attitude would be to examine the symbol, to unpack the possibilities of its meaning, to try to find the most essential core of what it is. In order to do this, we have to set aside our misconceptions or preconceptions.
As we finished the tour, I asked the children what they thought of when they looked at the kneelers in front of the statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary. A boy said, “It means that we’re allowed to come pray there.” Not only allowed, but encouraged and invited. So too when the church is adorned with an altar rail. The balustrade is an invitation to come forward, to come close, to pray. It is permission, it is encouragement. The altar rail, in its most essential, simple core, says silently “Come to the place where Heaven meets Earth and know that you are welcome.”