ROME, 17 FEB. 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: After the consecration, the Eucharistic minister proceeds to the
tabernacle to obtain the consecrated Hosts needed to feed the faithful. He
or she opens the door, then genuflects in adoration, and retrieves the
container(s) of hosts and leaves the door open, exposing the presence of
Jesus. Meanwhile, while this process is going on, the faithful recite the
"Lamb of God," after which they kneel in adoration. This has always been
the norm. Now, this has been changed to standing, with the option of
kneeling or sitting in thanksgiving after the reception of Communion. This
is done with the repository door open. I do not see the reason for these
changes. Can you clarify?
Waterloo, New York
A: There are several points in your question, which I will try to address
in order. I hope you will forgive me for bringing in a related theme not
explicitly formulated in your question.
The tabernacle is certainly worthy of all reverence and respect as the
place where the reserved Hosts are kept for adoration outside of Mass and
for distribution, above all, to the sick.
At the same time, the Church's magisterium has several times expressed a
strong preference for "that more perfect form of participation in the Mass
by which the faithful, after the priest's Communion, receive the Lord's
Body from the same Sacrifice" (see the General Instruction of the Roman
Missal, No. 13). Thus, insofar as possible the faithful should receive
Communion from hosts consecrated during the Mass itself and not just
receive from the tabernacle.
This practice requires a greater effort on the part of the priest and
those who assist him in preparing the celebration. It is usually
achievable after a while as the number of communicants at most parishes is
A sufficient number of hosts should be reserved in the tabernacle to
assure that none ever be deprived of Communion due to miscalculation. And
it will be sometimes necessary to use the tabernacle in order to renew the
A further point mentioned in your question refers to the extraordinary
minister of the Eucharist going to the tabernacle to retrieve and repose
the hosts. This is not the normal practice during Mass.
The GIRM, in No. 162, states: "(If) ... there is a very large number of
communicants, the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist
him, e.g., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been
deputed for this purpose. ... These ministers should not approach the
altar before the priest has received Communion, and they are always to
receive from the hands of the priest celebrant the vessel containing
either species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the
Likewise, after Communion is completed, No. 163 specifies: "[A]s for any
consecrated hosts that are left, he (the priest himself) either consumes
them at the altar or carries them to the place designated for the
reservation of the Eucharist." If a deacon or other priests are present
they may also return the hosts to the tabernacle.
The fact you mention of leaving the tabernacle door open during the
distribution of Communion does not usually imply an exposition. Indeed,
liturgical law expressly forbids exposing the Blessed Sacrament during the
celebration of Mass.
During Communion, Christ is equally present in the distributed hosts and
so no special reverence is due to the tabernacle at that moment except for
a genuflection by the minister on opening and closing its door, and even
these are omitted should the tabernacle be near the altar upon which the
Body and Blood of Christ is still present.
It is probably more prudent to close over the tabernacle door during
distribution of Communion, if only to prevent flies and other insects from
entering. This would be especially advisable if the host used for
exposition of the Blessed Sacrament were clearly visible.
With respect to the proper posture during the liturgy of Communion, the
GIRM in No. 43 specifies some norms approved by the U.S. bishops. One norm
says the faithful should "kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan
Bishop determines otherwise." A few bishops have determined that the
faithful should stand at this moment, and this practice is the norm within
Another phrase of the GIRM, No. 43, caused some controversy. It affirms
that the faithful "may sit or kneel while the period of sacred silence
after Communion is observed."
Some liturgists, and even some bishops, interpreted this text to mean that
nobody should kneel or sit until everybody had received Communion. The
resulting debate led Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S.
bishops' Liturgy Committee (BCL), to request an authentic interpretation
from the Holy See on May 26, 2003.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship
and the Sacraments, responded to the question on June 5, 2003 (Prot. N.
"Responsum: 'Negative, et ad mensum' [No, for this reason]. The mens
[reasoning] is that the prescription of the Institutio Generalis Missalis
Romani, no. 43, is intended, on the one hand, to ensure within broad
limits a certain uniformity of posture within the congregation for the
various parts of the celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to not
regulate posture rigidly in such a way that those who wish to kneel or sit
would no longer be free."
Having received this response, the BCL Newsletter commented: "In the
implementation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, therefore,
posture should not be regulated so rigidly as to forbid individual
communicants from kneeling or sitting when returning from having received
Holy Communion" (p. 26). ZE04021720
* * *
Follow-up: Tabernacles [03-02-04]
Following the column on veneration of the tabernacle during Mass (Feb. 17)
I will take the opportunity to answer a couple of related questions of the
very many still on file.
A correspondent from Florida asks if a bow of the head may substitute the
genuflection as a sign of reverence toward the tabernacle. She also
notices the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does not give clear
instructions regarding bows of the head and asks: "Does the GIRM really
mean to forbid all head bows by altar servers, even to the priests, during
In general, a bow of the head does not substitute a genuflection as they
have different meanings. A genuflection is a sign of adoration while the
bow is a sign of reverence. If one is going to acknowledge the tabernacle
at all, then the genuflection is the proper gesture.
As earlier mentioned, the idea of the GIRM is to emphasize the different
rites of the Mass as Christ's sacrifice, and so the tabernacle is
acknowledged only on entering and leaving Mass.
Even if the tabernacle is behind the altar, the genuflection is not made
during Mass. Rather, a bow is made to the altar when passing (except if
part of a procession).
For this reason it is liturgically preferable that all movements by
servers be done in front of the altar and not between altar and
According to the GIRM, a bow is made before incensing the celebrant at a
solemn Mass. But there is a very widespread custom of attributing to
priests the bows required for bishops when the servers approach and leave
him, for example, with the missal or with the lavabo for the washing of
Although these bows are not specifically mentioned in the GIRM, this does
not mean that they are forbidden. This document does not purport to
regulate all movements in a rigid and minute manner.
Since they fall within the general principles of liturgical decorum, these
bows may be continued where the custom prevails.
Another reader asks about GIRM No. 315 in the context of the Ukrainian
rite. The GIRM says, "It is more in keeping with the meaning of the sign
that the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved not be on
an altar on which Mass is celebrated."
Our correspondent then asks: "I have recently been attending a Ukrainian
Catholic church in which the tabernacle is placed on the altar, and in
every Byzantine church that I have visited the tabernacle has been on the
altar. So I am not sure what this document means when it says that 'not on
an altar' is 'more in keeping with the meaning of the sign.' Does the sign
have a different meaning in the Latin and Byzantine traditions?"
I would first observe that GIRM is written for the Roman rite and in the
context of the peculiarities of the Latin spiritual tradition.
It thus has little bearing on the spiritual traditions of the other
Catholic rites and, of course, has no legal force at all as the regulation
of the liturgy in these Churches depends above all on their own
ecclesiastical authorities in communion with the Holy See.
I am no specialist in the Eastern liturgical traditions, but it is fair to
say that in general the spiritual role of the tabernacle is different in
most Oriental rites than in the Latin.
While all Catholic and non-Catholic Eastern Churches share the same faith
with regard to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and all of
them reserve the Eucharist
above all, for the purpose of viaticum
most of them have not developed a tradition of Eucharistic devotions
similar to those practiced in the Roman rite.
Thus on the whole they do not have practices such as exposition and
adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or visits to the tabernacle.
This means that in the overall spiritual context the sign of the
tabernacle with respect to the altar is different in the Eastern rites and
in the Roman rite in its present form and so, having the tabernacle on the
altar does not send the same message in each case.
For this reason both practices are justified within their own context.