At the moment I attend two different parishes, depending on my schedule. It’s obviously not ideal and I’m working to make it a temporary arrangement, but one thing both parishes have in common is that they both use Communion rails. Having almost exclusively received the Eucharist in this manner for several months now, I’m struck by what a different experience it is from the ‘Communion Line’ method in favor since Vatican II.
For any non-Catholics in the audience, when one goes to receive the Eucharist in the post-conciliar Church, the normal method is to get in line and receive the host standing (often in the hand, which is a whole other kettle of fish and quite frankly should never be acceptable). Before the council, when most church’s had altar rails, the standard method was for the congregation to kneel at the rail all in a row while the priest went up and down placing the Host on each person’s tongue in turn.
It’s hard to express what a difference this makes, and I don’t only mean with regards to the far greater reverence being shown to Our Lord. To kneel at the Communion rail beside your pew neighbor – whom you may or may not know, and who may be just about any kind of person – is to embody one of the chief teachings of the faith: that God is no respecter of persons, and that whatever men are relative to one another pales compared to the fundamental fact that they are creatures of God: children of a common father and servants of a common master.
This does not happen by standing a Communion line. In a line, you look at the back of a person’s head, merely waiting until he passes on so you can have your turn. It is the same atomized, mechanical process that we’re familiar with from stores, banks, and other public service places: just waiting until you get yours and can go.
When you are kneeling side-by-side with someone, however, you are both facing the same direction, shoulder to shoulder, and thus tacitly united for a common purpose. The communion rail requires that the congregation each subject themselves together with his neighbor; committing a common act of humility and reverence before God, and thus highlighting their common nature before Him.
Let me see if I can illustrate this with an anecdote: there is a story of a Methodist church in the South shortly after the Civil War. When communion time came, a dignified Black man stunned the congregation by presenting himself first at the communion rail. The rest of the congregation sat still, no one wanting to kneel beside him. All, that is, except for a stately, white haired gentleman, who rose from his place and joined him. Seeing this man humbly kneeling beside the other led the rest of the congregation to join him. For you see, that white haired gentleman was Robert E. Lee.
Now, had there just been a communion line, that story would not have had the same impact. Because a line, as noted, is atomized: each individual presents himself effectively alone, takes communion, and leaves. But the rail is communal. Men have to kneel side-by-side with one another, placing themselves on equal footing before God, rubbing elbows with whoever happens to be there.
I am not an egalitarian. I don’t believe there ever has been, will be, or ought to be a classless society, and I think there is much to be said in favor of hereditary aristocracy. But I believe there are three places where all men are equal: in the cradle (all men are born in equal innocence and helplessness), in the coffin (all men are equally subject to death), and at the communion rail (all men are equally subject to God).
It is a great shame that we’ve largely done away with one of these.