Deciding Where to Locate the Tabernacle
July 01, 2008
View the Image Slideshow for Deciding Where to Locate the Tabernacle (Opens a new window).
When we were planning the new St. Elizabeth church, it was presumed that the tabernacle would be located in a separate chapel. It was that way in the original (1981) church. When it showed up that way through various design concepts, no one objected.
We located the eucharistic chapel near the entrance, with access from both the gathering space and the nave of the church. One can see the tabernacle, through glass, from both spaces, and the tabernacle lamp is located on the church side of the wall in order to announce the Real Presence as people enter.
Interestingly, in the year and a half that we have been celebrating in the church, the only complaints I have received about the location of the tabernacle have been from other Catholics passing through, some of whom have suggested that it is not really a Catholic church since the tabernacle is not visible near the altar.
The location of the tabernacle has been a lightning rod issue ever since the 1969 General Instruction of the Roman Missal expressed a decided preference for placing the tabernacle in a separate chapel (#276). There are several reasons why this has met with limited success.
While the altar has always been considered, in official documents, the central focus of Catholic churches, the tabernacle was often situated within the reredos of the altar. Its sacred contents were indicated by the sanctuary lamp.
In popular piety, what made a church Catholic was that it had a visible tabernacle. Children were taught from an early age to reverence the tabernacle with a genuflection. Few people can remember being told to bow to the altar.
Situating the tabernacle in a separate chapel was seen as a denigration of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. People complained that the tabernacle had been relegated to a closet. Actually, many of the early Eucharistic chapels were small and poorly adorned.
What has rarely been said is that situating the tabernacle in a separate chapel is not just to create a suitable place for private devotion and prayer (U.S. Bishops’ Built of Living Stones (“BLS”), 74; General Instruction of the Roman Missal (“GIRM”) 2003, 315), but also to allow the altar to enjoy primacy of place in Catholic churches.
As long as the tabernacle is near the altar or behind it, people will genuflect to the tabernacle and make no reverence to the altar. Catholics coming into a church whose tabernacle is in a separate chapel will often ask: “To what should I genuflect?” Many Catholics do not know that the proper reverence for the altar is a profound bow. Why would they? There has never been any reason to honor the altar because the tabernacle was always there and was “more important.”
Consider the Church’s rites. When a church is dedicated, the altar is dedicated as well. There is no dedication of a church apart from the dedication of its altar. The altar undergoes a baptism of sorts. It is sprinkled with baptismal water, anointed with holy Chrism, incensed, clothed, presented with lighted candles, and has a long consecratory prayer prayed over it by the bishop. The Church teaches that “the altar is Christ” (BLS, 56).
After Communion at the dedication Mass, the bishop places the remaining hosts in the tabernacle, genuflects, and returns to his chair. Period.
The GIRM and BLS spend three times as much space describing the altar as they do describing the tabernacle.
The Church’s Eucharistic theology gives pride of place to the active Eucharist over the reserved Eucharist. This is not considered by either the theological tradition or the liturgical tradition as a denigration of the reserved presence. It is only considered a denigration in popular piety. This is largely because proper Eucharistic theology and piety has not been adequately taught. This is not the fault of the faithful but of pastors: bishops and priests.
Some bishops legislate that the tabernacle be directly behind the altar. They have the right to do so, of course, but they should pay close attention to the concerns that the Church expresses for such proximity to the altar.
“In making his determination, the bishop will consider the importance of the assembly’s ability to focus on the Eucharistic action” (BLS, 74).
“Consideration should be given to using distance, lighting, or some other architectural device that separates the tabernacle and reservation area during Mass” (BLS 80).
While these solutions can resolve some of the confusion caused by locating the tabernacle too close to the altar, would it not be better to concentrate on creating a truly worthy Eucharistic chapel that would express proper devotion to the reserved presence?
The General Instruction directs the chapel should be “truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (GIRM 2003, 314). Note here that it does not say that the tabernacle must be readily visible but, rather, that the chapel must be visible. This allows for a true separation from the altar so that the altar can enjoy its proper dignity, solemnity, and centrality in the Eucharistic spirituality of the faithful.
Placing the chapel near the entrance to the new St. Elizabeth church allows for prominence and visibility as people are entering or leaving. It makes visits to the chapel for prayer easier because it is handy. The votive candles are in the chapel so that people can light a candle and then kneel down and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. They can do this before or after Mass in that special atmosphere for private prayer that the chapel affords.
In addition to its accessibility to both the gathering space and the nave, the chapel has an outside entrance that is left unlocked at all times. The outside entrance is directly adjacent to the parking lot. I frequently preach the importance of visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the relationship between the active and reserved Eucharist, suggesting that people who have a devotion to the reserved Eucharist are likely to have an increased devotion to Mass.
The chapel is spacious, noble, and beautifully decorated. It is adorned with a stencil pattern similar to that in the church. Natural light streams in from windows in a raised lantern similar to those over the altar and the font. The tabernacle was specially designed for the building and reflects the Frank Lloyd Wright lantern motif that is prominent throughout the church. This is not a “closet.” Nor does the chapel appear in any way to be an afterthought.
I realize that it has taken a generation for leadership to understand the purpose and value of this separation between altar and tabernacle. I hope, though, that we can educate the faithful in a positive way and not simply give in to a piety that, while genuine, is not as rich as it could be.
Rev. Frank Coady is pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Salina, Kansas. He is also a liturgical design consultant and serves as Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Salina.
READ OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT ST. ELIZABETH ANN SETON PARISH: