The Tabernacle: Tradition of Purpose and Place of Eucharistic Reservation (Part 2: Modern Liturgical Principles)

June 04, 2008

View the Image Slideshow for The Tabernacle: Tradition of Purpose and Place of Eucharistic Reservation (Part 2: Modern Liturgical Principles) (Opens a new window).


The Eucharist is not reserved primarily to be adored, but because it is reserved, therefore it is adored.(1)

Tabernacle - Holy Trinity Parish - Belfast This insightful slogan of Lambert Beauduin, one of the pioneers of the modern Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century, captures the essence of why earnest reflection on the design and placement of the tabernacle is so critical in church renovations and building projects. As Part One of this series showed, humble origins of Eucharistic reservation (principally for nourishing those absent from the assembly) became more and more elaborate, creating unapproachable thrones for the Blessed Sacrament. Rejuvenating the original spirit of reservation would require a grand shift of imagination for a Church lulled into passivity by the limiting of Christ’s presence to the tabernacle. Clearly, both art and architecture were culprits in perpetuating the belief that the place of reservation was “holier” than the altar itself.

Holy Trinity - El Dorado Hills, CAIt was toward the goal of reorienting the devotional life of the Church that the aforementioned Liturgical Movement swelled in Europe and spread to the heartland of this country. Great pastors and teachers, such as Prosper Guéranger in France and Virgil Michel in the United States, labored to make the Church’s corporate prayer “come to fullest life, and thereby confer life, Christ’s life, more abundantly.”(2)  The catechetical emphasis of the Liturgical Movement, with regard to the tabernacle, was not to destroy the practice of adoration, but rather, to stimulate corporate consciousness and to demonstrate that adoration flows from celebration. In fact, it is summed up in the words of Pope Pius XII: “The altar surpasses the tabernacle, because on it is offered the sacrifice of the Lord.”(3)

All Saints - Rossford, OH The universal liturgical reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and proclaimed in Sacrosanctum Concilium [Español] [Français] (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated December 4, 1963), heralded two principles that would necessarily create a healthy and maturely sound separation between altar and tabernacle. First, the Council taught that Christ’s presence is found not only in the reserved species but in the minister, in the proclaimed Word, and in the worshiping assembly. Thus, the focal point of the tabernacle would be widened during the liturgy.(4) Second, the Council mandated the “full, conscious, and active” participation of all the faithful in liturgical celebration. This creates a clear distinction between the prayer of adoration and liturgy—to participate fully in a dignified manner in either type necessarily demands symbolically and spatially creating a focused setting (physically and spiritually) for each act.

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Concilium formed to prepare new rites for the Church and to see to their implementation recognized the difficulty in establishing a universal prescription for the design and placement of the tabernacle, arguing that “artists will little by little suggest the best solution.”(5)  However, they articulated what was unacceptable:

Tabernacle at Glencairn Abbey, IR"It is therefore pertinent to take note of solutions sometimes proposed or already in effect that do not seem really to achieve a satisfactory result. They would include the following: tabernacles permanently inserted into the altar table or retracted automatically at the time of celebration; tabernacles placed in front of the altar, sometimes on a slightly lower pedestal, sometimes on another altar at a lower level and used in conjunction with the altar of celebration; finally, tabernacles built into the wall of the apse or placed upon an already existing altar having the celebrant’s chair in front of or below it."(6)

Nevertheless, while not wishing to mandate a singular resolution to the dilemma, the preferred option from the start of the reform was for the tabernacle to be placed in a separate chapel dedicated to prayer. This is certainly the vision of the first General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which states:

St. Rose of Lima, Toronto, Canada"Every encouragement should be given to the practice of Eucharistic reservation in a chapel suited to the faithful’s private adoration and prayer. If this is impossible because of the structure of the church, the sacrament should be reserved at an altar or elsewhere, in keeping with local custom, and in a part of the church that is worthy and properly adorned."(7)

Interestingly enough, the updated General Instruction of 2002 merely reiterates the suggestions of its predecessor, providing more room for the tabernacle to be placed in the sanctuary “apart from the altar of celebration” and specifying that a Blessed Sacrament chapel must be “organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful.”(8)

In addition to the reform guided by Roman auspices, it has been the work of local conferences of bishops to regulate the design and the placement of tabernacles in their territories. In 1978, for example, the bishops of the United States published Environment and Art in Catholic Worship and then in 2000 released an expanded reflection in their Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship. One of the significant points of the latter document is its concern to connect reservation with Christian charity and communal outreach:

St. Josaphat, Chicago, IL"In reverent prayer before the reserved Eucharist, the faithful give praise and thanksgiving to Christ for the priceless gift of redemption and for the spiritual food that sustains them in their daily lives. Here they learn to appreciate their right and responsibility to join the offering of their own lives to the perfect sacrifice of Christ during the Mass and are led to a greater recognition of Christ in themselves and in others, especially in the poor and needy. Providing a suitable place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament is a serious consideration in any building or renovation project."(9)

The U.S. bishops call the place of reservation a place of learning accessible to all,(10) and for this reason alone it is critical that the tabernacle receive its own unique space. Simply moving the tabernacle off the altar is insufficient; rather, the creation of a separate place for reservation heightens and promotes an “active” sense of Eucharistic reservation in which worshipers are invited to recognize their responsibility for all those absent from the gathered Body of Christ.

St. Elizabeth UNiversity parish, Lubbock, TX Other English-speaking bishops’ conferences have made significant contributions in their recommendations for the practice of Eucharistic reservation, as well. In their 1999 instruction, Our Place of Worship, the Canadian bishops suggest that a distinctive space for the tabernacle is so great that it should not be conflated with a daily Mass chapel. They write:

"The Eucharistic chapel should be retained for the sole purpose of quiet adoration and prayer. When it becomes necessary to celebrate the Eucharist in an area outside the main worship space, namely on weekdays, it is preferable to appoint a room other than the Eucharistic chapel for this purpose. Celebration of the Eucharist and adoration of the reserved sacrament should clearly appear as two distinct forms of worship conducted at different times."(11)

Church of the Assumption, Atlanta, GA Our Place of Worship reiterates the fact that placing the tabernacle in a chapel apart from the assembly does not relegate reservation as “unimportant,” but rather “gives it proper reverence and attention.”(12) Likewise, the Irish Episcopal Conference provides for both a Blessed Sacrament chapel or locating the tabernacle in the sanctuary. If the second option is chosen, it is necessary that the tabernacle be “properly related to the altar” but preferably not be situated directly behind the altar.(13)

Contemporary liturgical reform seeks not to isolate devotion from liturgy but rather attempts to put into right order their intrinsic and inseparable relationship. Liturgy is enlivened when individual hearts are nurtured by adoration and personal prayer; devotion that flows from liturgy stretches hearts to embrace the needs and sufferings of the entire world. When renovating churches or designing new worship spaces, is the primary purpose of Eucharistic reservation (for taking communion to the sick and the dying) given equal artistic and architectural support as the secondary purpose of adoration? Locating the tabernacle at the visual center of the assembly (i.e. behind the altar) does little to spark symbolic imagination and returns to a centralization of Christ’s presence in the liturgy. While adoration must accompany our celebration, the tabernacle itself must be a symbol of “active” presence leading worshipers to feed and heal in the name of Christ—the subject of Part Three of this series.

(1) Lambert Beauduin, as cited by R. Kevin Seasoltz, "Eucharistic Devotions and Reservations: Some Reflections," Worship 81 (2007) 444-445.

(2) Godfrey Diekmann, O.S.B., "Altar and Tabernacle," Worship 40 (1966) 492.  He states: "The pastoral-liturgical movement of our day has been, ultimately, nothing else than an attempt to translate the theology of the sacraments, particularly of the eucharist, into the most meaningful and spiritually fruitful pastoral practice..."

(3) Pope Pius XII, "Allocution," in The Assisi Papers (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1956) 233.

(4) See Diekmann, "Altar and Tabernacle," 506-507.  He suggests that Sacrosanctum Concilium 7 can be understood as calling for a "progressive realization" of Christ's presence: "Having the tabernacle on the altar from the outset militates seriously against, if it does not make it psychologically impossible, for our faithful to experience and grasp these successive unfoldings of the rich and grace-laden mystery of Christ's presence in our midst."

(5) Cardinal G. Lercara, "Le renouveau liturgique," in Documents On The Liturgy 1963-1979 : Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts, 1963-1979 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1982) no. 416.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Congregation for Divine Worship, General Instruction of the Roman Missal, editio typica altera (March 25, 1975) ¶276.

(8) Congregation for Divine Worship, General Instruction of the Roman Missal, editio typica altera (November 12, 2002) ¶315.  Note that the GRIM lists housing the tabernacle in the sanctuary as option (a) and placing it in a separate chapel as option (b).

(9) National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, Inc., 2000) ¶71.

(10) The U.S. Bishops twice mandate that the location of the tabernacle be accessible for those with disabilities.  See Built of Living Stones ¶74: "The location also should allow for easy access by people in wheelchairs and by those who have other disabilities." This statement is repeated in ¶247.

(11) Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our Place of Worship (Ottawa, Ontario: Concacan Inc., 1999) ¶35.

(12) Ibid.

(13) See Irish Episcopal Conference, The Place of Worship (Ireland: Veritatis Publications, 1994) ¶34: "Being 'properly related to the altar' does not necessarily mean 'located in the centre behind the altar.'  In fact, such an arrangement is not satisfactory from a liturgical point of view, as it can create its own problems by occasioning a visual tension between tabernacle and altar, since both are on the one axis; by requiring genuflections that disrupt liturgical movement and weaken recognition of Christ's presence in other forms (see 16:10b); and by drawing attention away from the progressive unfolding of Christ's presence during the celebration."

Stephen S. Wilbricht, CSC is a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.


The Tabernacle: Tradition of Purpose and Place for Eucharistic Reservation (Part 1: Historical Perspectives)

The Tabernacle: Tradition of Purpose and Place for Eucharistic Reservation (Part 3: What's a Parish to Do?)

[Return to top]