|Altar or Communion rails - an extension of the altar itself|
Pic: Catholic Sacristan
Indeed, if you are below the age of fifty or have converted to the Faith within the past fifty years, you may not even know of the existence of such things.
Dare I say it? If you have attended Mass at an SSPX chapel, you would know of their existence as they are in use at every Mass celebrated by an SSPX priest (the same may apply to other traditional orders, I'm not sure on that point).
But, as a small altar server it was part of my pre and post mass duties to lay out the communion cloth on the rails and this took some small measure of skill.
I am afraid that we altar servers were a competitive bunch and, as it took two servers to lay out or retrieve the cloth (it was in two lengths, one for each side of the aisle) it became a race - albeit a rather graceful race as we could not appear to be unseemly in the process, to either unfold the cloth to its full length or to fold it into 18 inch sections, concertina fashion.
The function of the cloth, of course, was to catch any particles of the Host that may have fallen between priest and communicant - we did not have Holy Communion under both kinds in those days, it was deemed then totally unnecessary, as indeed, it is today.
And, after the cloths were gathered up after each Mass in Hounslow parish, they would be consigned to Sisters John, Agnes or Francis de Sales who acted as sacristans and who knew how to devoutly treat the cloths in case of particles being attached. (I cannot find a reference as to how they were treated and it would be interesting if some erudite soul could cast some light on this).
But, communion cloths do enhance the reverential aspect of receiving Holy Communion and it would be no bad thing to see them restored along with the altar rails.
And now for those who are spluttering into their warm milk and shrieking: "This man is obsessed with minutiae and ritual!" let me say that we cannot take enough trouble to ensure the sanctity and safety of the consecrated Host - we need communion cloths so get over it!
Now I can hear some of those who have not choked on their beverage of choice crying out: "But the altar rails are a barrier betwixt priest and the people of God and they must be chopped up into small pieces and burnt at the first opportunity".
The tradition is for altar rails to be made in the same materials as the altar.
They are, in fact, an extension of the altar and that is an excellent way of embracing (may I use that word?) the people of God without having an unseemly mob trampling over the sanctuary.