Where the Tabernacle Should Be

Author: Father Edward McNamara



ROME, 27 JAN. 2004 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: How should we understand No. 1183 of the Catechism? It says: "The tabernacle is to be situated in churches in a most worthy place with the greatest honor. The dignity, placing and security of the Eucharistic tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord really present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar." It seems that not everyone agrees on that point. Many new churches have the tabernacle on the side. — S.G., Antigonish, Nova Scotia

A: This theme is also covered in Nos. 314-317 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal in a section entitled: "The Place for the Reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist":

"In accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer.

"The one tabernacle should be immovable, be made of solid and inviolable material that is not transparent, and be locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is prevented to the greatest extent possible. Moreover, it is appropriate that, before it is put into liturgical use, it be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.

"[315:] 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.

"Consequently, it is preferable that the tabernacle be located, according to the judgment of the Diocesan Bishop:

"a. Either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place more appropriate, not excluding on an old altar no longer used for celebration (cf. above, no. 303);

"b. Or even in some chapel suitable for the faithful's private adoration and prayer and which is organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful."

If the Blessed Sacrament is kept in a eucharistic chapel, the tabernacle, or at least the location of the chapel itself, should be visible from the main body of the church. Neither the tabernacle nor the chapel should be hidden away in a corner; even less should it be separated from the main body altogether.

From a pastoral viewpoint, it appears preferable to maintain the presence of the tabernacle within the sanctuary except where the church is frequented by tourists or has a great number of other celebrations such as weddings and funerals.

Although liturgical norms indicate that no particular attention be rendered to the tabernacle during the celebration of a Mass, except at the beginning and end, the clearly visible presence of the tabernacle can contribute to an overall climate of prayer, especially in fostering a respectful before the celebration begins and after it ends.

The local bishop is the competent authority for deciding which option to adopt in each case, as he is best able to weigh the various factors such as the architecture of each building, functionality, and above all the good of souls. ZE04012723

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Follow-up: Where the Tabernacle Should Be [02-10-04]

Our reply on the proper location of the tabernacle (Jan. 27) generated lots of e-mail. Several readers asked why it is no longer permitted to have the tabernacle on the altar of celebration.

To answer this question I think it is first necessary to reflect on the relationship between the Mass and devotion to the real presence of Our Lord.

The Church’s highest and holiest action is the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass. John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical “Ecclesia de Eucharistia”: “The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.” No other action of the Church can compare to the Mass in importance.

While the Church has always reserved the Eucharist—above all, to make sure Communion was available to the sick and dying—there was no particular devotion to the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle for almost a thousand years.

Thus in the writings of great Church Fathers such as saints Ambrose, Augustine and Pope Leo the Great, one finds nothing about visits to the Blessed Sacrament yet much about the greatness of the Eucharistic celebration.

The martyrs of Roman times had no Eucharistic devotions. Yet, when the martyrs of Abitene were arrested in 304 for illegal gatherings, they boldly stated that they could not live without their Sunday Eucharist. In more recent persecutions, such as in my native Ireland, it was impossible to have the reserved Eucharist. But people took great risks in order to assist at Mass in the hills. The priests who celebrated these Masses were hunted and risked arrest.

Of course, the gradual development of Eucharistic devotion in the Church is one of the Holy Spirit’s greatest gifts and is one of the bulwarks of the Church. But the point I want to make is that in the Mass is contained, in the words of the Catechism, No. 1324, “the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself our Pasch,” and No. 1327 describes it as: The sum and summary of our faith.”

The celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the center and focal point of the Church’s life to which all other aspects, including those intimately bound up with celebration itself, must take second place.

Thus, the liturgical norms direct that when the tabernacle is present in the sanctuary a genuflection of adoration is made at the beginning of Mass before the priest kisses the altar and at the end after kissing the altar before leaving the sanctuary. But no genuflections are made to the tabernacle during the celebration of Mass itself except when the priest reserves consecrated hosts left over after Communion. Thus, full attention must be given to the celebration itself in each of its parts.

The same logic is behind the relatively new rule that the tabernacle should not be on the altar itself although for several centuries it had been placed at the center of the high or principal altar of the Church. This practice arose after the Council of Trent as a means of emphasizing the Church’s doctrine on the Real Presence.

It appears that it was first promoted by Bishop Matteo Giberti of Verona from 1524 to 1543, who first placed the tabernacle on the high altar of his cathedral. This initiative was taken up by St. Charles Borromeo and by Pope Paul IV. In 1614 it was officially introduced into the Roman Ritual by Pope Paul V, after which it became the normal manner of reserving the Eucharist until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

There is also an official explanation as to why the tabernacle should not be on the altar of celebration given in the document “Eucharisticum Mysterium” (1967) No. 55:

“In the celebration of Mass the principal modes of Christ’s presence to his Church emerge clearly one after the other: first he is seen to be present in the assembly of the faithful gathered in his name; then in his word, with the reading and explanation of Scripture; also in the person of the minister; finally, in a singular way under the Eucharistic elements. Consequently, on the grounds of the sign value, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that, through reservation of the sacrament in the tabernacle, Christ not be present Eucharistically from the beginning on the altar where Mass is celebrated. That presence is the effect of the consecration and should appear as such.”

There are also practical considerations to be taken into account.

Today almost all Masses are celebrated facing the people and the presence of the tabernacle on the altar would be more of a distraction than a spiritual aid. It would necessarily have to be placed in front of the priest, thus preventing the people from seeing the sacred action being carried out on the altar. This would also probably require the use of very small tabernacles, of little use in a typical parish situation.

However, the very fact that liturgical law indicates what practice is to be followed when the tabernacle is within the sanctuary also shows that—contrary to the opinions of some liturgists—there is no intrinsic opposition in having the tabernacle within the sanctuary itself.

These liturgists have argued that the visible presence of the tabernacle in the sanctuary—as distinct from on the altar—distracts attention away from the sacred action of the celebration.

While this might appear true in theory, pastoral experience seems to confirm that it is rarely a problem for the vast majority of faithful who are normally attentive to the sacred rites, and at least in some countries, are more likely to be distracted by lighting votive lamps to their favorite saint than by the tabernacle.

A correspondent from North Carolina, a member of a parish liturgy committee, asked if the tabernacle may be placed behind the altar.

Although the final decision as to where to locate the tabernacle falls to the bishop and not the committee, this body, being closer to the concrete reality of the parish, may make recommendations.

The tabernacle may be placed to one side, but in a duly prominent manner or even placed in an old high altar no longer used for celebration (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Nos. 303, 310 and 315).

Since the old high altar is almost certainly located directly behind the new altar, this indication of the GIRM would seem to imply that the tabernacle may also be located directly behind the altar even in newer or renovated churches that have no old altars. The priest’s chair, however, should never be placed under or immediately in front of the tabernacle (see GIRM, No. 310).

There are several options which allow for the tabernacle to be duly prominent while observing the norms regarding security, practicality and the proper dignity due to the tabernacle.

One is to fix the tabernacle to a column or insert it into the wall in the manner of a safe, perhaps setting it off using some decorative element preferably in harmony with the other architectural elements such as altar and ambo.

If possible there should be some form of shelf before the tabernacle so as to facilitate movements and allow priests to set down the Blessed Sacrament while opening the tabernacle door. Apart from the obligatory sanctuary lamp the tabernacle may also be highlighted by special light fixtures which could be turned off during the celebration of Mass.

Readers from both Australia and Canada suggested that perhaps Church laws on this subject are too vague and allow for easy abuses. Another asked if the official documents indicated a preference on the part of the Holy See for either the option of the tabernacle in the sanctuary or the Eucharistic chapel.

I think that many people would appreciate clear and precise norms from the Holy See on many subjects. Yet the reality of the Church is that it is a far less centrally organized institution than many suppose, and the Holy See seems to prefer it that way.

The norms emanated from the Holy See usually give general principles while the task of making precise legislation applying these norms to concrete situations is left to the episcopal conference or to the local bishop. For example, the U.S. bishops have published a document, “Built of Living Stones,” providing norms and guidelines for building and renovating churches.

Both the norms emanated from the Holy See and those decreed by the bishops presuppose the good faith and common sense of those who interpret them.

Some authors do suggest that the fact that earlier documents tended to mention first, and even recommend, the option of the Eucharistic chapel, while more recent documents, including the new GIRM, place it last and give more weight to the tabernacle’s clear visibility denotes a shift in emphasis away from the chapel option and toward the sanctuary. Whatever preference the Holy See may have, the essential fact remains that the final choice is up to the local bishop.

Although I have no particular training in architecture, I would hazard the following pastoral suggestions in deciding whether to opt for a chapel or the tabernacle in the sanctuary. Given the very wide range of possibilities I make no pretense of being either exhaustive or decisive.

—  The character of the faithful: This should always be taken into account. A parish with a highly mobile population has spiritual needs that differ from one with a stable base. Long-term parishioners tend to develop a personal relationship with their church. They have their favorite corners and generally occupy the same pew year after year, especially in older churches that have lots of nooks and crannies.

Likewise in many parishes a significant number of faithful like to arrive early to pray privately before Mass, or remain afterward for an extended thanksgiving.

In these situations the tabernacle in the sanctuary seems the best option as the faithful usually prefer to pray before the Blessed Sacrament from the same place that they will participate at Mass. These factors may be less important in parishes with a high turnover or irregular assistance. Very large parishes, however, with almost no time between Sunday Masses, might find that parishioners’ desire for private prayer would be best catered for by a special chapel.

—Location: An urban parish that receives many drop-in visitors during the course of the day would probably best keep the tabernacle in the sanctuary as this would be the natural focal point. Suburban or rural parishes which are rarely visited on the spur of the moment and usually require a trip to reach them would often be better off with a chapel, especially when other factors of modern life are taken into account such as heating, air conditioning and insurance. Some parishes have managed to get the best of both worlds with a chapel built behind the sanctuary wall in which a single tabernacle with doors back and front serves both the main and daily chapel.

— Activities: Since the primary purpose of the tabernacle is to foster adoration and private prayer, large parishes with frequent activities in church such as weddings and funerals, or with many daily Masses would probably be best served by a Eucharistic chapel. This would also be true of parishes that practice perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament so as avoid having to constantly interrupt the adoration.

There are surely many other factors involved such as the size of the church and sanctuary and the availability of a suitable place to set up a Eucharistic chapel.

If the option of setting up a Eucharistic chapel is preferred it is necessary to remember that the location of the chapel must be clearly visible from the main body of the church. It should also be readily accessible from the sanctuary if extra hosts are required during Mass or to reserve hosts left over. Thus a chapel near the church entrance is rarely suitable and has the added inconvenience of people having the Blessed Sacrament at their backs.

The chapel should allow for private prayer, thus it should be a chapel and not merely an alcove. There should be sufficient space for several people at once depending on the size of the parish. It should also not be located too close to doors or other areas of frequent transit so not to distract the faithful at prayer and to avoid having people pass it without realizing or even fall into the habit of not making a genuflection.

Sadly quite a few readers wrote to mention some woefully unsuitable examples of tabernacle location as well as some less than worthy responses from priests when asked about the issue. We must all pray so that the desire that Pope John Paul II has expressed for a general recovery in the sense of wonder before the Eucharistic mystery may be abundantly fulfilled. ZE04021021

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