Monday, July 8, 2019

Communion rails could be a good thing, practically speaking

It's funny how these words can ignite tremendous passion or disdain: 

Communion rails. 

Some people will smile and nod with pleasure, a dreamy smile lifting their faces. Yet, horror will cloud the faces of other people as they begin talking about the benefits of Vatican II and how we shouldn't try to go back to the way things were in pre-conciliar America. Instead of being a simple feature of church architecture in the West, Communion rails become the catalyst for emotionally charged debates.

Can we please take just one moment to discuss Communion rails without all of the deep passions associated with Vatican II and its (intended and unintended) effects? 

Putting aside aspects concerning history or spiritual significance, let's think about the sheer practicality of Communion rails. Speaking from my experience as a practicing Catholic and as a parent (who is always wrangling at least one child while going to receive the Eucharist), I've recently begun mulling over some practical benefits of Communion rails. 

There could be less awkwardness due to height differences when receiving the Eucharist.
Some people who receive the Eucharist are tall. Some Eucharistic ministers are rather short. This height difference doesn't matter much when Holy Communion is received on the hand, but on the tongue? Height can definitely make a difference. I guess this problem could be avoided if all Tall People received Communion only in the hand, but some people don't want to receive Our Lord via the hand-and that's okay! Let them receive on the tongue if they want to (plus, if someone is holding small children, it's much easier to receive on the tongue). A Communion rail can help lessen the difficulty of height discrepancies. Tall People could choose to kneel if they wanted, and thus not tower above the Eucharistic minister.  

There could be fewer "traffic jams" as people receive the Eucharist.
When people walk up in a line, receive the Eucharist and move on so the next person in line can receive, there are bound to be problems. The person who just received Our Lord has to coordinate stepping away from the minister (sometimes with one or two or several children in tow) at the exact moment that the next person in line is coming up to receive Communion. Then, there's the challenge of walking down the aisle when some people receive the Precious Blood in the chalice, but other people head straight back to the pew. When additional ministers come down to create more stations in the front of the church, the line moves more quickly, but there's also the added element of people abruptly turning and walking every which way as they determine which station to walk up to. All of these aspects can cause "traffic jams" or, at the very least, slight chaos. We should be focused on receiving Our Lord, but this can be challenging, practically speaking, when we are trying to navigate the unpredictable flow of continually moving people in the Communion line. 

There could be an opportunity for a brief moment of less-distracted prayer when we receive the Eucharist.
While walking in the line towards the front of church, it is easy to grow distracted. You see the people in the pews that you pass, you notice the people in front of you, and then all of a sudden, you are at the front. Receive the Eucharist and move on! Back down the aisle instantaneously-and the opportunities for distraction flood in again. Putting a Communion rail in church would not solve the problems of distraction in prayer. Furthermore, we should strive to be focused when we pray, regardless of where we are. Yet, a Communion rail provides a moment-ever so brief-to stand or kneel in silence just before receiving Our Lord. This one slight moment can be a huge gift, particularly if you've had a difficult time paying attention during Mass and/or you've spent much of the liturgy taking kids to the bathroom. 

Some Communion rails look modern. Some look "old-fashioned." I've been to one church that simply has a double kneeler where people receive the Eucharist. Using the Communion rail that's been in the church for years (or bringing in a kneeler or rail to use) may make it difficult to distribute Communion under both species. However, instead of immediately saying that it would be "impossible" to use a Communion rail, each parish could explore these logistics further before coming to a conclusion. 

Some people may protest the use of Communion rails because they don't want the time for receiving the Eucharist "too long." Well, I've never timed it, but I have been to crowded Masses where the line has moved rather quickly-and a Communion rail has been used. Furthermore, I wonder: would it be so  horrific if the reception of the Eucharist was a few minutes longer than we are used to? Could we make the sacrifice of having a slightly longer liturgy? 

I've noticed that many times, we immediately want to disregard what we're not used to, what's uncomfortable. Yet, just because we may not be comfortable with Communion rails does not mean that they are bad. Perhaps if we open our minds to these practical benefits, we could then move to ponder what other positive aspects can flow forth from the use of Communion rails. 


  1. Receiving the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith. Taking the time to prayerfully receive, to prayerfully return to your seat and then kneel and spend time with our Lord - why would anyone want to rush through that? I would love to have a Communion rail as my knees won't allow me to kneel on my own. There are several people at our church who are able to and I think how blessed they are.

    1. Bonnie, I think it is beautiful that you have the desire to kneel for Communion. I hadn't thought about rails making it easier for people who physically can't kneel on their own-what a great point! I've noticed that using Communion rails is starting to come back in the U.S.A., and hopefully the practice will grow so that more people have the option to kneel if they so desire.

  2. These are such good points, AnneMarie! I grew up with a communion rail, so it was odd to me at first doing the whole line thing. The rail seems so streamlined. And more than anything, I love how it gives you a second to collect yourself and pause before you receive the body of JESUS.

    It honestly bothers me so much how rushed communion is at some parishes - they have 20 extraordinary minsters just to get it done quicker! There is real value is it being a slower, sacred, moment. And there are very practical reasons why rails are nice, just like you said. The height thing is SO true - I've had awkward situations being short, especially since I receive on the tongue. And the traffic jams! Kind of cracks me up when people bump into each other, but another great reason. I really miss the rails, and the importance/pause they put on that moment.