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Thursday, August 16, 2018
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Holy Spirit Interactive: Fr. William P. Saunders: The Placement of the Tabernacle

The Placement of the Tabernacle

by Fr. William P. Saunders

Traveling through the country, I have noticed that some churches have the tabernacle right in the center, and then some to the side, and then some hide it somewhere in a chapel. Is there any rule on where the tabernacle should be placed?

To approach this question fairly and adequately, we need to understand some of the liturgical laws through history surrounding tabernacles. Actually the first norms governing tabernacles were promulgated in the Middle Ages. Until this time, no uniform custom regarding where tabernacles were located in churches existed. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decreed that the Blessed Sacrament be kept in a secure receptacle and placed in a clean, conspicuous place. The Synods of Cologne (1281) and Munster (1279) stipulated that the Blessed Sacrament be kept above the altar, sometimes in tabernacles shaped like doves and suspended by chains. (An example of this type of tabernacle is on exhibit in the medieval collection of the National Gallery of Art.)

Overall, during these times, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in four possible ways: in a locked cabinet in the sacristy, a custom originating in the early church; in a cabinet in the wall of the choir area, or in a cabinet called the "Sacrament House," which was constructed like a tower and attached to a wall near the altar; in a "dove" receptacle suspended from the baldachino above the altar; and in a tabernacle on the altar itself or in the reredos of the altar.

In the 16th century, the Blessed Sacrament became customarily reserved in a tabernacle that was placed on the altar or part of the reredos. However, only in 1863, did the Sacred Congregation of Rites prohibit the use of suspended doves and sacrament houses.

The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council prompted a "rethinking" of the location of the tabernacle in the Church. Two important points must always be kept in mind: First, reverence for the holy Eucharist must be preserved and promoted. The “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” emphasized that the holy Eucharist is "a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us" (No. 46).

Second, the significance of the offering of the Mass itself where the holy Eucharist is confected must be preserved and promoted. The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” asserted, "Taking part in the eucharistic sacrifice, the source and summit of the Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God and themselves along with it" (No. 11).

Accordingly, the “Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery” (1967) issued regulations (later incorporated into the new Code of Canon Law) concerning tabernacles (cf. No. 52-57 and Canons 934-944): The holy Eucharist may be reserved only on one altar or one place in any Church, and a vigil lamp must burn at all times to indicate and honor the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. This tabernacle must be immovable, made of solid and opaque material, and locked to prevent theft or desecration of the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle "should be placed in a part of the Church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer" (Canon 938).

Here is where some confusion emerges. To promote prayer and devotion, the instruction stated, "It is therefore recommended that, as far as possible, the tabernacle be placed in a chapel distinct from the middle or central part of the church, above all in those churches where marriages and funerals take place frequently, and in places which are much visited for their artistic or historical treasures" (No. 53). For example, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, which has a constant flow of tourists, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in Our Lady's Chapel located behind the main altar; this beautiful chapel provides a quiet place for the faithful to pray without the distraction of the comings and goings of people. A similar situation exists at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington as well as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

However, this recommendation does not necessitate the interiors of "old" churches be destroyed to move the tabernacle: The instruction stated, "In adapting churches, care will be taken not to destroy treasures of sacred art" (No. 24). Moreover, any renovation should be done with "prudence." I hate to think of how many beautiful churches have been whitewashed and their beautiful artwork thrown out or sent to the antique dealers because of someone who wanted to do liturgical renewal. I also wonder how many hearts have been broken because of imprudent renovations (rather “wreckovations”). Sadly, I have visited some churches — new ones and renovated ones — where it looks like the position of the tabernacle was more of an afterthought than an attempt to provide a prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated place.

Moreover, the instruction's recommendation does not prohibit having the tabernacle in the center of the Church, stating, "The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a solid, inviolable tabernacle in the middle of the main altar or on a side altar, but in a truly prominent place" (No. 54).

To clarify the situation, Pope John Paul II approved and confirmed the “Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery” (“Inaestimabile Donum”) issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship which taught: “The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept can be located on an altar, or away from it, in a spot in the Church which is very prominent, truly noble and duly decorated, or in a chapel suitable for private prayer and for adoration by the faithful” (No. 24). This teaching underscores the position that in churches where there is a high volume of “tourist traffic,” a chapel for private prayer and adoration before the tabernacle makes sense; however, in a normal parish church, it does not.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2000) stated, “It is more in keeping with its meaning as a sign, that the tabernacle in which the Most Blessed Sacrament is reserved not be on the altar on which Mass is celebrated. Moreover, the tabernacle should be placed, according to the judgment of the diocesan bishops: (1) either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in the most suitable form and place, not excluding on an old altar which is no longer used for celebration; (2) or even in another chapel suitable for adoration and the private prayer of the faithful, and which is integrally connected with the church and is conspicuous to the faithful” (No. 315). Clearly, for the parish church, option No. 1 is preferred; for churches with high volumes of tourist traffic, option No. 2.

This conclusion also appears the intent of the Code of Canon Law (No. 898): “The faithful are to hold the Eucharist in highest honor, taking part in the celebration of the Most August Sacrifice, receiving the sacrament devoutly and frequently, and worshiping it with supreme adoration ... .” To have the altar and the tabernacle in close proximity in the sanctuary best enables people to fulfill this precept.

Those who favor removing the tabernacle from the center and locating it off to the side, in a chapel (some of which are glorified closets), or even in a place where people cannot kneel in front of it, emphasize the idea that the focus of the Mass is the action and the Communion received. In response, Pope Benedict XVI (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) taught, “Communion only reaches its true depths when it is supported and surrounded by adoration. The Eucharist Presence in the tabernacle does not set another view of the Eucharist alongside or against the Eucharistic celebration, but simply signifies its complete fulfillment. For this Presence has the effect, of course, of keeping the Eucharist forever in church. The church never becomes a lifeless space but is always filled with the presence of the Lord, which comes out of the celebration, leads us into it, and always makes us participants in the cosmic Eucharist. What man of faith has not experienced this? A church without the Eucharistic Presence is somehow dead, even then it invites people to pray. But a church in which the eternal light is burning before the tabernacle is always alive, is always something more than a building made of stones. In this place the Lord is always waiting for me, calling me, wanting to make me ‘eucharistic.’ In this way, he prepared me for the Eucharist, sets me in motion toward His return” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 90).

From a purely educational perspective, the goodness of having the tabernacle in the body of the Church either in the center, or at least to the side but within the sanctuary, is that it fosters devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. For instance, people genuflect in reverence to the Blessed Sacrament. In parish churches where the tabernacle has been removed to a side chapel and out of view, people do not genuflect, do not keep a reverential silence in the church, and lose a profound reverence for the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The Church becomes “Protestantized,” and children in particular are deprived of growing in love with the Blessed Sacrament.

Since the one day most parishioners visit their Church is on Sunday, having the tabernacle visible in a prominent and conspicuous location makes them aware of the eucharistic presence of our Lord. The people are more mindful that church itself is the "House of God" and a sacred space, not just a meeting house. Moreover, the people are more aware that the sacrifice of the Mass is inherently connected with the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. In an age of doubt and disbelief, we need to do all we can to promote and foster devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Fr. William P. Saunders

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