An Aside on the Tabernacle
"The Church teaches that the tabernacle is ideally in a side chapel, distinct from the main body of the church."
— Father Richard S. Vosko
274. If, however, the tabernacle with the Most Blessed Sacrament is present in the sanctuary, the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.
— General Instruction of the Roman Missal
310. The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. Thus the best place for the chair is in a position facing the people at the head of the sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other circumstances impede this: for example, if the great distance would interfere with communication between the priest and the gathered assembly, or if the tabernacle is in the center behind the altar.
— General Instruction of the Roman Missal
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
— General Instruction of the Roman Missal
The Location of the Tabernacle:
§ 74 § There is [sic] a number of possible spaces suitable for eucharistic reservation. The revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that it is more appropriate that the tabernacle in which the “Blessed Sacrament is reserved not be on the altar on which Mass is celebrated.” The bishop is to determine where the tabernacle will be placed and to give further direction. The bishop may decide that the tabernacle be placed in the sanctuary apart from the altar of celebration or in a separate chapel suitable for adoration and for the private prayer of the faithful. In making his determination, the bishop will consider the importance of the assembly's ability to focus on the eucharistic action, the piety of the people, and the custom of the area. The location also should allow for easy access by people in wheelchairs and by those who have other disabilities.
§ 75 § In exercising his responsibility for the liturgical life of the diocese, the diocesan bishop may issue further directives regarding the reservation of the Eucharist. Before parishes and their liturgical consultants begin the educational component and the discussion process, it will be important for all those involved to know what specific directives or guidelines the diocesan bishop has issued. Good communication at the first stage of the process will help to avoid confusion or conflict between the parish's expectations, the consultant's experience, and diocesan directives.
§ 76 § The pastor, the parish pastoral council, and the building committee will want to examine the principles that underlie each of the options, consider the liturgical advantages of each possibility, and reflect upon the customs and piety of the parishioners. Many diocesan worship offices assist parishes by facilitating the study and discussion process with the parish. This is also an area where liturgical consultants can be of great assistance to the parish.
The Chapel of Reservation
§ 77 § The diocesan bishop may direct the parish to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in a chapel separate from the nave and sanctuary but “integrally connected with the church” and “conspicuous to the faithful.” The placement and design of the chapel can foster reverence and can provide the quiet and focus needed for personal prayer, and it should provide kneelers and chairs for those who come to pray.
§ 78 § Some parishes have inaugurated the practice of continuous adoration of the Eucharist. If, for some good reason, perpetual exposition must take place in a parish church, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has directed that this take place in a separate chapel that is “distinct from the body of the church so as not to interfere with the normal activities of the parish or its daily liturgical celebration.”
The Tabernacle in the Sanctuary
§ 79 § A special area can be designed within the sanctuary. Careful planning is needed so that the placement chosen does not draw the attention of the faithful away from the eucharistic celebration and its components. In addition, the placement must allow for a focus on the tabernacle for those periods of quiet prayer outside the celebration of the Eucharist.
§ 80 § Ordinarily, it is helpful to have a sufficient distance to separate the tabernacle and the altar. When a tabernacle is located directly behind the altar, consideration should be given to using distance, lighting, or some other architectural device that separates the tabernacle and reservation area during Mass, but that allows the tabernacle to be fully visible to the entire worship area when the eucharistic liturgy is not being celebrated.
The Space for the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament
§ 247 § In an earlier chapter, the issue of the location of the tabernacle was covered. The structure of the existing building will determine some of the options the parish is able to consider. In exercising his responsibility for the liturgical life of the diocese, the diocesan bishop may issue specific directives regarding the reservation of the Eucharist and the placement of the tabernacle. Again, the pastor, the parish pastoral council, and the building committee will need to review all existing diocesan norms and then carefully examine the principles that underlie each of the options, weigh the liturgical advantages of each possibility, and reflect upon the customs and piety of the parishioners before making a recommendation on the placement of the tabernacle. The location also should allow for easy access by people in wheelchairs and by those who have other disabilities. Diocesan worship offices can assist parishes by facilitating the study and discussion process regarding the placement of the tabernacle and other significant issues involved in the renovation of a church. This is an area where liturgical consultants also can be of great assistance to the parish.
§ 248 § In most churches built before 1969, the tabernacle was situated on the main altar. At the close of the Second Vatican Council, when parishes were able to celebrate the liturgy facing the congregation, many pastors installed movable altars somewhere in front of the existing altar, and they used the former altar as the place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.
§ 249 § In renovating a church designed in another time period, a parish has an opportunity to consider other locations for the tabernacle. Care must be taken to ensure that the area set aside for the reservation of the Eucharist is worthy and distinguished. The place for eucharistic reservation and its furnishings should never be temporary, makeshift, or difficult to find.
§ 250 § In some renovated churches it is possible to remove older altars and tabernacles. When there are good reasons for not removing the altar, an alternate site for the tabernacle may still be considered. In some churches an area that previously housed a side altar or some devotional space might be an appropriate space for reservation, assuming that it meets the other requirements set forth in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In other situations, the only appropriate place for reservation will be in the sanctuary itself and on the former main altar. In these instances, a balance must be sought so that the placement of the tabernacle does not draw the attention of the faithful away from the eucharistic celebration and its components.204 On the other hand, the location must provide for a focus on the tabernacle during those periods of quiet prayer outside the celebration of the Eucharist.
§ 251 § Ordinarily, there should be a sufficient distance to separate the tabernacle and the altar. When a tabernacle is located directly behind the altar, consideration should be given to using distance, lighting, or some other architectural device that separates the tabernacle and reservation area during Mass but that allows the tabernacle to be fully visible to the entire worship area when the eucharistic liturgy is not being celebrated.
§ 252 § When a place is chosen for the tabernacle and the former tabernacle can be removed from an existing altar without damaging the altar or the setting, this will be beneficial and will help to prevent confusion among the faithful.
— Built of Living Stones
With respect to the placement of the tabernacle, the instruction Inter oecumenici (26.9.1964) par 95, which implemented the decisions of Sacrosanctum concilium, states quite clearly that the Blessed Sacrament be reserved on the high altar, a possibility envisaged also by Eucharisticum mysterium (25.5.67) par 54.
— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 12 June 1996
Speaking only for himself on an issue that has created much controversy over the last 30 years, Cardinal Schoenborn said he believes the tabernacle — “this marvelous place where Jesus is present” — should be placed “in the center of the church. I come from a country where baroque is very widespread. A baroque church is entirely oriented to the altar and the tabernacle, and the reality of his presence on the altar and in the tabernacle is inseparable.”
— Eucharist ‘deepest mystery of our faith’
The tabernacle of the Most Blessed Sacrament [should be] located in a central or at least prominent place in our churches. It is the centre of our attention and prayer. The October 2005 Synod of Bishops emphasised this point (cf Prop., 6, 28, 34). In some of our churches some misguided person has relegated the tabernacle to an obscure section of the church. Sometimes it is even so difficult for a visitor to locate where the tabernacle is, that the visitor can say with truth with St Mary Magdalene: “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they laid him” (Jn 20:13).
--Cardinal Francis Arinze, April 2006
A Chorus of Bishops:
Cardinal James Hickey (Washington, DC): “I would like to second the position of those who favour the centrality of the tabernacle in the sanctuary. I think this is for several very important reasons. First of all, it makes it possible for us to reinforce our belief in the Holy Eucharist and the Real Presence by the way in which the Blessed Sacrament is greeted as the people come in, make a genuflection; as they keep a prayerful silence before the Mass begins ...
“I think we should return to a position of the tabernacle that will make it possible for the people to pray before the Blessed Sacrament before Mass, and also for them to keep that sense of prayer when they realise they are in the Eucharistic Presence of the Lord ... I hope we will not be the captives of architects, who may or may not share our Catholic faith, and who may or may not accept the fullness of our Eucharistic teaching”.
Cardinal Francis George (Chicago): “There has been no issue, I think, that has caused us so much pastoral concern - in the renovation of old churches particularly - as where the tabernacle is to be placed in the rite”.
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick (Newark): “I have always had this concern about the placement of the tabernacle ... It seems to me that ninety percent of our people come into church only on Sunday mornings. And if the Blessed Sacrament is nowhere to be seen in the body of the church, they will be missing something very, very important in their spirituality and in the theology. So I would hope that when the revisions are made, and this document is developed, that we would find once again opportunity to underline what the Code [of Canon Law] of 1983 asks us: that the place be prominent and conspicuous. In the Archdiocese of Newark, no new church is allowed to be completed without the Blessed Sacrament being visible to the vast majority of the congregation . . . .”
Bishop Sean O'Malley (Fall River): “If we review what has happened in the last thirty years, the changes have come fast and furious. The Communion rail has been taken away, the Eucharistic fast from midnight, the frequent Confession as a preparation for Communion, the genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament. Changing all of these signs is changing the meaning in people's minds, and I think so much of what has been said about the centrality of the tabernacle indicates the great worry among the bishops about people's faith in the Eucharist ... Even what we have done with the Holy Days, in changing them in, I think, a very arbitrary way, has been very damaging to the faith of our people.”
Archbishop James Keleher (Kansas City): “In the archdiocese where I am fortunate to be the archbishop, we never build a church where the tabernacle is not placed visibly in the front ... And if you recall ... when we built the beautiful chapel at the conference centre, in the beginning the tabernacle was, may I say, hidden behind a very decorative wall. But rising resentment in the episcopal body forced it to be taken down, and I think that was a very wonderful move.”
Archbishop Michael Sheehan (Santa Fe): “I think we've all experienced in our Church in the last thirty years a lessening of devotion to the Eucharist in many places, a loss of the sense of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and the sense of the sacred has suffered. And I can't help but believe that placing the Eucharist in a separate chapel, that often is practically hidden, and sometimes very small, has not been a part of why we have a crisis with regard to belief in the Real Presence of Christ. I think that when we take the Eucharist away from the place where the people come for Sunday Mass we tend to lessen their belief. And I think that 'out of sight, out of mind' is truly what is happening often ...
“I hope that the document that we are dealing with, in the area especially regarding the location of the tabernacle, will be even more open towards having the Eucharist placed prominently, so that people experience in their prayer life the presence of the Eucharist.
“I think, too, that the documents that have been mentioned by the other bishops - the documents from Rome - seem to be less and less interested in that separate chapel . . . .”
Archbishop Justin Rigali (St Louis): “The Blessed Sacrament so often, without regard for the structure of the church or for local custom, has been relegated to places that are neither prominent nor worthy nor beautifully decorated . . . .”
Archbishop Elden Curtiss (Omaha): “I think the basic problem with the document [under discussion -- Domus Dei] is this liturgical development that has taken us towards emphasis on the assembly and away from the Eucharistic species.”
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia): “If I took a survey of the people in Philadelphia, it would be overwhelming that when they walk into a church, they want to see the tabernacle immediately.”
See also Henry Hardinge Menzies, God in a box
Fiat voluntas howardi.