Altar, Communion Rails
The railing which guards the sanctuary and separates the latter from the body of the church. It is also called the communion-rail as the faithful kneel at it when receiving Holy Communion.
It is made of carved wood, metal, marble, or other precious material; it should be about two feet six inches high, and on the upper part from six to nine inches wide. The "Rituale Romanum" (tit. iv, cap. ii, n. I) prescribes that a clean white cloth be extended before those who receive Holy Communion. This cloth is to be of fine linen, as it is solely intended as a sort of corporal to receive the particles which may by chance fall from the hands of the priest. It is usually fastened on the sanctuary side and when in use is drawn over the top of the rail. It should extend the full length of the rail, and be about two feet wide, so that the communicant, taking it in both hands, may hold it under his chin. Its very purpose suggests that it is not to be made of lace or netting, although there is nothing to forbid its having a border of fine lace or embroidery. Instead of this cloth a gilt paten, larger than the paten used at the altar, to which a handle may be attached, or a small gilt or silver salver, or a pall, larger than the chalice pall, may be used. These latter are usually passed from one communicant to the other, and when the last at the end of the rail at the Gospel side has received Holy Communion the altar boy carries the paten to the first communicants at the Epistle side. A consecrated paten may never be placed for this purpose in the hands of lay persons.
- article from the Catholic Encyclopedia at www.newadvent.org