Throughout the Year
O Lord. How I love the beauty of thy house and the place where thy glory dwells;
For one day within thy precincts are worth More than a thousand elsewhere!
-King David, the Psalms
Today we return to our series on the Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal. As you know I have already written three articles on the place of the Most Blessed Sacrament within the Church. It gives me great joy to write these instructions as a priest is by nature the catechist of the faithful. I have also written on the presence of shrines within the
Church. They serve as daughters of the Church building and allow the saints to stand with us as our Heavenly friends. Today and for the next several weeks I plan to offer a reflection on the precincts within the Church and the spiritual significance of the opening and
closing of space in the Church.
I am sure that everyone is well aware that on December 8, 2015, the Pope inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy. One of the great characteristics of this Extraordinary Year is the presence of the door or gate. The Holy Door in each of the seven principal
Churches of Rome remain open for the whole year. In our own diocese there are four Holy Doors that will remain open throughout the year. One is at the Cathedral Church of St. Agnes in Rockville Centre; the other is at the Basilica of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus
and Mary in Southampton; one is at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, and the other is at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Island in Eastport. From time immemorial, Christianity has always been associated with the door or gate. Did no t Our
Lord call Himself, I am the Gate. Our Blessed Mother is called the Gate of Heaven.
A door or gate by its very nature signifies a welcome. Do we not use the expression, the door is always open? In the Christian Tradition to enter a door or gate is a memory trace of entering into Heaven itself. It is an embrace and an encounter with the Lord. The opening and closing of space is one of the hallmarks of Christian spirituality. One need only think of the gr eatest
Church in Christendom to understand this. I refer to the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.
As one approaches the Basilica (and this was much more true prior to 1929 when the great broad avenue that leads to the Basilica was built, the V ia della Conciliazione) one stumbles into a great opening of space, the St. Peer’s Square. One encounters the warm embrace of God and the Church in this great expanse which naturally leads us to a door. There space closes as we enter
the door and step into eternity. And then suddenly the space opens again as we enter the Church and slowly make our way to the focus of the basilica, the tomb of the humble Galilean fisherman, St. Peter. There the space closes again in a warm embrace as we kneel at the marble rail and recite the Creed. The rail is not a barrier, but rather it is a place of meeting of God with the human race.
It is the place of encounter and how often did I not see pilgrims weeping at that rail of the tomb of St. Peter. Several weeks ago I was intrigued by the headline of a local newspaper which read something like Open our precincts. This of course was referring to the police stations. (When I was in Queens Village for 13 years I was in the in 105th precinct). But
actually the word precinct finds its origin in the Temple of Solomon which was built according to the blueprint of God Himself. It was God who told Solomon how the Temple was to be built. (Only a small part of the wall of this temple remains; the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the armies of the Emperor Titus. The remaining wall is called the W ailing W all). The precincts were those
courts, or niches within the Temple that in a certain way served as daughters to the Temple. They were entered through gates. There was the precinct of the priests, the precinct of the gentiles, the precinct of the men, the precinct of the women. Above all there was
the sanctuary and within the sanctuary the Holy of Holies. This was delineated not by a rail but rather a curtain. (This wa s the curtain that miraculously was torn right down the center when Our Lord died on the Cross). The curtain was not a barrier but rather
a place of encounter with God. It gave a visible reality to the meeting with the Divine.
After the freedom of the Church through the edict of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, (and who is along with his mother Helen a saint) the Christians were permitted to have public places of worship. They tried to imitate the temple of Solomon
by incorporating precincts or courts, all of which served to lead one to the Holy Place through the opening and closing of sp ace and through the simple and humble act of walking through a door. Space closes then opens reflecting the immensity of God and Heaven
In the Eastern Church this closing of space leading to the Holy of Holies lead to the development of what is called the iconostasis. This is essentially a wall from floor to ceiling decorated with icons that surrounds the altar and Holy Place. There are generally two central doors (and a curtain) through which only the bishop or priests may pass. The side doors are adorned wi th
images of the angels; it is there where the deacons pass.
In the Western Church (of which we are a part) the Holy of Holies was delineated not by a wall but rather by a rail. It was called the Occursus Domini, the Meeting Place of the Lord. For at that rail God met us. It was a mystical presence and placed a visible and sacramental presence around the sanctuary and, altar and Most Blessed Sacrament. The rails (sometimes called altar rail) are usually light and open, for they signify the embrace of the God as space closes around us in the eternal embrace of the Divine and then opens into eternity. The gate at the rail was none other than the gate of heaven and the dwelling place of God.
We see then that the altar rail is not a barrier but rather a meeting place, a sacred place, a holy place. God is truly everywhere, but it is also comforting to know that He is also somewhere. And the rail shows us that somewhere. The altar rail is a marker where heaven and earth meet.
Most Churches had altar rails into the 1970’s. Our Church had an altar rail and we see its memory trace on the sides of the sanctuary. I once heard (I cannot remember where) someone saying that The Second Vatican Council had mandated the removal of
altar rails from the Churches. In the entire history of the Church there have only been 21 Ecumenical Councils; the Councils usually do not address issues such as this since by their very nature they are ecumenical, i.e., worldwide. (I once remember one of our dear
Little Sisters of the Poor saying that the Second Vatican Council gave them permission to drive automobiles!) Of course Ecumenical Councils do not address matters such as who may drive a car. To quote the leading liturgical scholar in the United States on this
issue: There is nothing in Vatican II or post-conciliar documents which mandate the removal of altar rails. (Denis McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Hildebrand Books, Inc. 2009). Sadly in many Churches, and without
consultation with the faithful, the altar rails were removed. I so well remember in the summer of 1977 seeing the magnificent green marble altar rail of my home parish hacked to pieces and thrown into the dumpster. No one in the parish had been consulted or even
informed. They had simply walked into the Church on Sunday and saw the altar rail gone! In another Church where I had served the altar rail was removed and given to an individual who used it to make a sun-bathing precinct on the pool deck of their home. No
wonder why Our Lady foretold at Fatima almost one hundred years ago that the Churches and altars would be destroyed. Here at St.Paul’s, thank God, the altar rail was not thrown into a dumpster nor made a precinct for sun bathers, but rather placed in the Church
Cardinal Francis Arinze, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, says, The Church from Rome has never said to remove the altar rails.” Therefore it is a mistaken idea to believe that the Second Vatican Council called for the removal of altar rails.
Unlike the iconostasis, the altar rail is low, very permeable, and has a gate, so it does not prevent us from participating in Heaven. It is a marker where Heaven and Earth meet. The altar rail gives a clear designation as to what is the sanctuary. The sanctuary is set apart from the rest of the Church (that is what holy means, set apart). The altar rail clearly designates the sanctuary
as the image of heaven.
And so, dear friends, our Church which is already such a noble building and so beautiful, will be made even more so. We shall enter from the plaza in the front (open space). We walk through the gold doors (the space closes around us in the warm embrace of love and welcome, the space opens again as we walk through the nave accompanied by our brothers and sisters the saints
who in their niches stand with us and pray with and for us. Then we come to the sanctuary where the space closes again in that embrace of love as we come to the place where all love meets, the Most Blessed Sacrament.
When the emissaries of the Duke of Kiev entered the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they could only exclaim, we knew not if we were in Heaven or on earth. We only knew that here God dwells among us. It is my hope that we shall say the same of our Church
In this great Jubilee of Mercy may we all enter that Door that leads to the Author of All Truth and Beauty, the fairest of the Sons of Men, Our Lord Jesus Christ Who is Himself the Door of the sheepfold and the Gate of Heaven to Whom be glory forever
In Jesus and Mary,
Monsignor James F. Pereda