“295. The sanctuary is the place where the altar stands, where the word of God is proclaimed, and where the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers exercise their offices. It should suitably be marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation”. – General Instruction of the Roman Missal
Here the Church requires that the sanctuary be marked off, calling for, yes, even now, a particular structure; in other words, an altar rail. The altar rail serves beautiful symbolic and considerately practical purposes within the Mass. Further, it makes basic psychological sense as well. Let me explain.
Firstly, we call it an altar rail; the name has reference to the altar. This rail can be seen as an extension of the altar. Christ becomes present on the altar and invites us to be fed at His altar via the rail. Very often the appearance of the rail matches the appearance or imitates the appearance of the altar. In churches where there is no rail, this symbolism is very diminished or completely destroyed. There is a beautiful parallel in the series of events that lead to the distribution of Holy Communion. Just as the priest goes to the altar, offers the sacrifice, and brings that Sacrament to the altar rail for the faithful, so every Christian is called to Sunday Mass, called to the altar, and, nourished by that Sacrament, is sent out to bring Christ and His gospel to the world through daily life.
Practically, the rail is a help to people, both physically and spiritually. The use of rail and the way Holy Communion is distributed with it sets a solemn pace for the reception of Holy Communion. On the part of the priest, more of his time is spent actually distributing the Blessed Sacrament and less time waiting. On the part of the person receiving, the hurried tone is removed; there is a great opportunity for quiet and prayer both a few moments before and after receiving our Lord. The rail also is a help to people in kneeling and standing back up. ….
Vatikankonsilet sa ingen ting om kommunionsbenken (eller er det lov å kalle den alterringen også på norsk, selv om dette høres luthersk ut?), og det gjorde heller ikke liturgirevisjonen i 1969, men likevel forsvant disse fra alle katolske kirker på slutten av 60-tallet. Nå er det heldigvis (håper jeg) blitt tillatt å snakke om dette igjen; vil det ikke være fint å knele (igjen) når man skal motta kommunion?