In 2000, I had the great privilege of a pilgrimage to Rome on my own. I stayed with the friends of a cousin and spent my days exploring Rome a lone most of the the time. I went to Mass at St Peter's almost daily. The first day there I happened upon Mass at the back altar (in front of the giant "cathedra" (chair) and the round window with the Holy Spirit in the center. The Mass was said in Latin and there was a variety of folks there, obviously from all over the world. At communion time, I stood sort of waiting for "my turn" and I quickly realized that there was not going to be a ordered procession up to communion. So, I left my pew and headed up. On my way some tiny, elderly Italian ladies elbowed their way past my, making sure they got up to communion before the priest ran out. Most people just joined the crowd (there really wasn't much of a line) when they were ready. It was chaotic, but strangely efficient.
The very next day, I was at St. Peter's again for Mass at the back altar and Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) was the celebrant. In the front rows were a bunch of pilgrims obviously part of a larger group. By the homily I was pretty sure they were German since the Cardinal seemed to be speaking to them directly. When communion time came, they rose and began to file out in orderly fashion. Much to their surprise, the little Italian ladies came barreling down the aisle and took their places as close to the front of the line as their elbows could get them. I could see the looks on the German pilgrim's faces and I tried not to laugh. I remember wondering where we Americans got our habit of receiving communion in such an orderly fashion...was it from our German ancestry? (I have little of that in me)
Throughout that pilgrimage as well as my other trips to Rome I have wondered whether or not this fashion of "go up when you are ready" isn't a bit better than the row by row practice we have. I thought that people who needed time to prepare could (without spending time wondering if it was their turn yet) and those that needed to refrain from receiving could do so without really being noticed. Maybe we are overly concerned with uniformity, or perhaps it is "how things look" that we worry too much about. I know that in my parent's diocese they have decided that people should proceed to communion from the back row forward. I am sure they are sincerely trying to make some theological point (the first shall be last?), but the result is that you spend all your preparation time looking over your shoulder to see if it is your turn.
Personally, I would rather have my eyes closed, focused on my prayer so that I can receive my Savior with a ready heart. And, yes, I am willing to brave the elbows of any little old lady.
(By the way, I got to receive Holy Communion from Cardinal Ratzinger that day. I was thrilled since I was already a big fan of the man. Little did I know he would someday be Pope!)