Placing of the Tabernacle

Author: Fr. George Saunders


by Fr. George Saunders

When I was growing up, anytime I visited a church I immediately saw the tabernacle with the vigil light in the center of the altar. Now, when I visit some newly built churches, the tabernacle is off to the side, almost completely out of sight, or in some little chapel or room. Are there any rules for this?

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 sixteenth 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" reminded us 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 bum 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 National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

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 antique dealers because of someone who wanted to do liturgical renewal. I also wonder how many hearts have been broken because of imprudent renovations. 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 place.

Moreover, the "Instruction" 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). The tabernacle can be located in the "center of the church," perhaps on an elevated area behind the altar so as not to diminish the attention to the Eucharistic sacrifice. Actually, I think the visual alignment of the tabernacle and altar emphasizes best both reverence for the Holy Eucharist and the significance of the sacrifice of the Mass.

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, is that it fosters devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. For instance, people genuflect in reverence to 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. 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. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

Taken from the June 9 issue of THE ARLINGTON CATHOLIC HERALD.