The glorification of altar rails and such like*

I grew up during a very tumultuous time for Roman Catholics, during the implementation of the dramatic window dressing changes of Vatican II, and I’d like to share a few memories from that time.

Prior to Vatican II, all Catholic altars had a wooden or carved stone rail around them. The rail signified that the altar, where the priests allegedly changed bread wafers and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ and where surplus consecrated Jesus wafers were stored in the “tabernacle,” was an especially holy area. Just as the “common” Israelites were forbidden from stepping foot on Mt. Sinai or entering into the restricted areas of the Tabernacle and Temple, Catholics were generally not allowed to enter the altar area.

I was an altar boy from fifth through eighth grades and my first couple of years serving were prior to the Vatican II changes. The priests conducted the mass in Latin and the altar boys’ responses were in Latin even though we did not understand one word we were saying. The priests had their backs to the congregation and wooden rails were around the altar. I felt very privileged to be able assist the priests inside the restricted altar area.

Several men officiated as priests at the parish while I was an altar server and all of them struck me as a bit strange compared to my father, uncles, and other adult men I knew, but none more so than “father” Lynch.

The other priests at least made awkward attempts at civility towards us altar boys, but not Lynch. When we entered the church sacristy to prepare for mass, Lynch could barely be bothered to say hello. He never offered a smile. I sensed he had a keen dislike for us (or was he struggling with some other issue?). During the mass liturgy, the priests were required to read passages from the huge altar “missal” (i.e., a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year). Lynch was a short, squat fellow and very near-sighted. He would have us boys stand on one of the lower steps leading up to the altar and he would place the huge, heavy book on our heads, not always gently, which he would then read from. It was very humiliating (and physically uncomfortable) to have to stand in front of the congregation with the heavy book on our heads. Lynch enjoyed demeaning us.

When it came time to distribute the Jesus wafers, the supplicants would kneel down along the altar rail and the priests would place the wafer on each person’s tongue while we altar boys walked backward, next to the priest, placing a round “patten” under the chins of the supplicant in order to catch a possible falling Jesus wafer. Lynch would always distribute communion twice as fast as the other priests and we altar boys had a difficult time keeping our balance as we walked backward and tried to properly position the patten under people’s chins in synch with the pace of the frenetic priest.

Vatican II dramatically changed the rubrics of the mass. The mass liturgy was changed to English and priests turned around and faced the congregation. The altar rails were removed so that the congregants could feel like they were more like participants in the ritual rather than just observers. But despite all the window dressing changes, the core doctrines of Catholicism remained. Catholics continue to be taught the false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

Catholic traditionalists deeply resented the changes wrought by Vatican II and still clamor for the mass to be said in Latin, for the priest to face “ad orientem,” toward the altar, and for the reinstallation of altar rails. In Catholicism, the ritual and ceremony, the shell, has always been the focus rather than the Pearl of Great Price, which is salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Priests are not needed. Altars are not needed. Sacrifice for sin was finished for all time by Jesus Christ at Calvary. Place your trust in Jesus as your Savior by faith alone. Jesus Christ removes all rails and barriers between sinners and God, but you must accept Him as your Savior. Won’t you repent of your sin and place your trust in Him?

“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” – Matthew 27:50-51

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” – Ephesians 2:13-14

“Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:16

Priest Lynch, above, died in 2011. I never witnessed the smile displayed in this photo.

* “and such like” – for you non-Baptists out there, this phrase means “and similar things.”

12 thoughts on “The glorification of altar rails and such like*

  1. One of our children dropped a “jesus wafer” once…that priest about came unglued. I feel sorry for some priests because they have a “dead” look in their eye…If only they would listen to those trying to lovingly tell them the truth ~THE TRUE JESUS GIVES LIFE~not their man made “jesus wafer”… 😥

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth, and praise the Lord for His deliverance from spiritual darkness! I remember as an altar boy being soooo nervous about the possibility of the Jesus wafer accidentally dropping and not catching it with the patten, ESPECIALLY with priest Lynch whose movements were so herky-jerky. Lynch would have had a huge hissy fit if the wafer dropped and we didn’t catch it. So sad that all of Catholicism revolves around the little bread wafer, but it gave the clergy absolute control over the membership.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, sister! Yes, what a joy that Jesus has removed all barriers and opened the way for us.
      “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” – Hebrews 10:19-20

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      1. Wow, what a verse! What truly amazing grace this is!!! My mind won’t wrap itself around it, I can’t comprehend His love and forgiveness next to my wretchedness!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yes, all His amazing grace! I’m saddened for all works denominations that place barriers between God and their members. And the lost souls end up loving the barriers!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting window into pre-Vatican Romanism. I didn’t even know they had rails then! I’ve seen Catholic buildings because of weddings and stuff and never seen rails before. Interesting insights into the priests of your time as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jimmy! I’m glad I caught the tail end of militant pre-Vatican II Catholicism for the broader perspective. It’s amazing how writing about my old experiences can really bring the memories back into sharp focus including some of the emotions.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My in-laws include a lot of Roman Catholics; there always seem to be a generational divide between the pre and post Vatican II. And your posts further confirm just how different Romanism has become!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. The traditionalists seem to be making a small comeback. I think JPII inspired that rejuvenation and Francis is giving them something to grind their axe about.

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  3. Interesting post here Tom, it brought back a few memories 🙄 I sure do remember the mass in Latin, and the pattens, wow yes! And I still remember being told not to bite the wafer, I had to swallow it whole or I would hurt Jesus, as a child Communion used to frightened me just in case I bit Jesus or dropped Him.
    Praise God for His deliverance!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comments, Crissy! Yes, we were all so afraid of the wafer because of the teachings we received from the nuns. I never once attempted to chew the wafer because I imagined a bolt of lightning would strike me dead. Yes, praise Him for His deliverance from this gross error.

      Liked by 1 person

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