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

August 06, 2008


The Second Vatican Council led the Church to a fuller understanding of the relationship between the presence of the Lord in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist and in the reserved Sacrament, and of the Christian’s responsibility to feed the hungry and to care for the poor. As the baptized grow to understand their active participation in the Eucharist, they will be drawn to spend more time in quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, and be impelled to live out their relationship in active charity...(1)

Meditation chapel at University Place in West Lafayette As the Church nears the 50-year mark of the liturgical renewal initiated by the Second Vatican Council, it might be time to explore how sufficiently our tabernacles model the reunification of liturgical celebration, personal devotion, and active Christian charity. In the construction and renovation of church buildings today, we must honestly assess whether or not the reservation space therein is adequately designed to be a setting where the faithful can “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.”(2)

Tabernacle in meditation chapel at University Place in West Lafayette A building project is a graced opportunity for a parish community to take stock of its understanding of the purpose of reservation as it is connected to liturgical celebration. The arguments that abound concerning where the tabernacle should be placed often lose sight of this relationship and are launched instead from non-theological biases. In truth, placement is sometimes guided by nostalgia, ascetics, and visual symmetry. However, placement deserves and demands greater reflection and honest scrutiny. For example, a number of Catholics yearn to see the tabernacle restored to a central location in the sanctuary; placing it in a side chapel or outside the main body of the church is considered by this group an act of irreverence. However, utilizing the tabernacle as a means of trying to create a greater sense of reverence is a misguided argument for placing the tabernacle in the sanctuary. Our symbolic imagination needs to be stimulated by a placement for reservation that promotes both private adoration and the commission to visit the sick. The “traditional” placement behind the altar seems unlikely to be able to accomplish such symbolic richness.

Sacred Heart Chapel of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in Lemont IL All of this means that we must continue to develop sound ritual gestures and a multitude of rich artistic images in the practice of reservation. For example, surrounding the place of reservation with icons that depict the Lord raising the sick to new life or artwork that captures Jesus welcoming the marginalized might spark the Christian imagination to intuit the need to offer pastoral care to those absent from the assembly. In terms of ritual, it is important to explore how the reserved sacrament is treated during the eucharistic celebration. For instance, why do many Catholics continue to witness the tabernacle being used as a source for communion at Sunday Mass? If this is experienced week after week, the Christian imagination will be trained to see the tabernacle merely as a place to keep the consecrated bread from one Mass to the next.(3) Furthermore, in terms of ritual, should not the assembly witness and prayerfully support a formal sending forth of ministers of care to extend the Eucharist to the community’s sick and absent members?(4)  Environmentally speaking, why is the pedestal for the tabernacle sometimes adorned as though it were a mini-altar, with flowers, candelabras, altar clothes, and corporals?(5)  While a visual connection between the altar and the tabernacle is noble and necessary, excess around the tabernacle can lull the imagination into understanding that—regardless of what the Church teaches about Christ’s multifold presence in the liturgy—the tabernacle remains the bona fide place for encounter with Christ.

Sacred Heart Chapel of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in Lemont IL Just as the U.S. Bishops' Built of Living Stones calls the church building both a “resting place” and a “point of departure,” so the design and placement of the tabernacle ought to stir up a variety of bold images that allow the Church to understand the traditional purposes of reservation.(6)  The tabernacle must not only have a visible location so that it provides a witness to the care of the sick and the sustenance of the dying, it must also have a very private dimension in order to foster prayer and quiet meditation.(7)  The place of reservation must be spatially distant and visibly distinct from the altar of sacrifice, and yet it must be organically related to the altar in order to symbolically reveal that adoration flows from celebration and leads back again to celebration.(8)  In the location and design of the tabernacle the interplay of a multitude of diverse and rich Christian images is ideal so as to invigorate awareness of Christ’s perpetual and active presence, his commission to feed the hungry and heal the sick, and his promise of sharing in God’s kingdom “when every tear will be wiped away.”(9)  The tabernacle summons us to rest and propels us to act.

How does a parish begin to make quality decisions regarding what the tabernacle should look like and where it should be housed?

I propose employing the four-part structure of the Mass as a sort of template for guiding this deliberation:

Gathering Rite

»  How do the tabernacle and its surroundings serve as a means of welcome and hospitality, ushering worshippers into a sense of reverent awe and silence as well as fostering an attitude of preparation for celebration?

»  Does initial encounter with the tabernacle draw people into a posture of liturgical participation, or does the encounter become a way to tune others out in order to focus on personal prayer? Here it is necessary to distinguish between assembly space and devotional space.(10)

Liturgy of the Word

»  Does the tabernacle in any way impede attentive and active listening to the word of God?

»  Does the reverence paid to God’s word parallel that afforded the Blessed Sacrament?(11)

Liturgy of the Eucharist

»  What is the relationship between the altar the tabernacle?(12)

»  Does the tabernacle physically overshadow the altar so as to minimize Christ’s presence within the community’s great prayer of thanksgiving?

»  Could the tabernacle be situated far away from the altar and still remain connected to it through the use of symbols and rituals?

Communion Rite

»  Does the placement of the tabernacle invite the community into a posture of adoration after receiving Christ’s Body and being sent to love and serve the Lord?

»  At the same time, does this location remind the community that what is reserved is also to be sent? Clearly, the sending forth of ministers of care to bring the Eucharist to the homebound is an active form of adoration that communicates belief in Christ’s power to make his Body one.

Because the arguments that arise regarding Eucharistic reservation usually involve its relationship to the Mass, it makes good sense to ponder the overall structure of the celebration of the Eucharist in order to determine a community’s relationship to the tabernacle.

St. Mary Parish in Evanston IL What are the symbols and gestures that demonstrate our understanding of Eucharistic reservation in terms of its twofold purpose of providing sustenance for the sick and the dying and encountering Christ’s presence in private prayer? In terms of ritual development, no matter where the tabernacle is placed, the imagination is assisted when the assembly sees that it is a place of pastoral care. Over-exaggerated gestures of genuflecting and bowing will pale in comparison to reverence demonstrated in removing the reserved sacrament in order to take it to the sick and the homebound. In terms of designing the tabernacle space, Built of Living Stones suggests: “Iconography can be chosen from the rich treasury of symbolism that is associated with the Eucharist.”(13)  Instead of relying upon gold and grandeur for the place of reservation, a multitude of biblical symbols such as wheat and grapes, loaves and fishes will enkindle the Christian imagination to understand the connection between the fruits of the earth, the merits of human labor, and Christ’s perpetual sacrifice. It is the charge of building committees today to design noble spaces that will hold together the paramount Christian tasks of communal celebration, private devotion, and works of justice.

(1) National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000) ¶71.

(2) Ibid.  The paragraph concludes: "...providing a suitable place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament is serious consideration in any building or renovation project."

(3) Some parish communities continue to understand the tabernacle as primarily a functional vessel for the distribution of Communion within the Mass itself.  However, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 55,  urges that avoid such practice be avoided: "The more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest's communion, receive the Lord's body from the same sacrifice, is warmly recommended."  This strong preference is likewise stated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) ¶85:  "It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord's Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass...so that even by means of the signs Communion will stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated."  See also the U.S. Bishops' Introduction to Order of Mass (Pastoral Liturgy) ("...the congregation completes the Eucharistic action by eating and drinking together the Body and Blood of Christ consecrated during the celebration.  For this reason, the faithful should not ordinarily be given Holy Communion from the tabernacle" ¶134) and the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales' Consecrated for Worship: A Directory on Church Building ("The tradition and practice of the church is that all should receive communion from the bread and wine consecrated at the mass at which they are present and not from the reserved Sacrament in the tabernacle (GIRM 85, 321)," ¶263.)

(4) See Peter E. Fink, "Reservation of the Eucharist," in New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Reference Works), ed. Peter E. Fink (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990) 429.  Fink speaks of the "symbolic richness" created by the public enactment of sending for ministers of care:  "It has become important, for example, that the eucharistic food sent to the sick by publicly sent from the Eucharistic assembly so that those in the assembly, should they become sick and recipients of the Eucharist from the assembly, will know with some symbolic richness whence that Eucharist has come."

(5) See Irish Episcopal Conference, The Place of Worship (Ireland: Veritatis Publications, 1994) ¶16.10d:  "The tabernacle should not be treated as subsidiary to any feature of its surroundings and should not therefore be surmounted by a throne or canopy for a monstrance or by display stands for a crucifix or flowers."

(6) Built of Living Stones ¶17 states: "Every church building is a gathering place for the assembly, a resting place, a place of encounter with God, as well as a point of departure on the Church's unfinished journey toward the reign of God."

(7) See the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) ¶314:  "In accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer."

(8) Ibid., ¶315.  Here the GIRM mandates: "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 Biship: a) either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place appropriate, not excluding on an old altar no longer used for celebration; 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."

(9) See Eucharistic Prayer III when the prayer is used for Masses for the dead.

(10) See Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our Place of Worship (Ottawa, Ontario: Concacan, Inc., 1999) 35.  This document suggests among the chief concerns for the place of the tabernacle is the desire to avoid the confusion between the acts of private adoration and public celebration, each being important enough to deserve a unique setting:  "It is strongly recommended that the eucharistic bread be reserved in a chapel, suited to private adoration and prayer, set apart from the main body of the church.  A room specifically designed and separate from the major worship space will help avoid any confusion between the celebration of the Eucharist and eucharistic reservation....  Far from relegating the reserved sacrament to an unimportant place, a eucharistic chapel, if properly designed and appointed, gives it proper reverence and attention.  Its atmosphere should be simple and warm, and able to support private adoration without distractions."

See also the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales' Consecrated for Worship, ¶271: "The relationship of the reserved sacrament and the Liturgy of the Eucharist should be made clear by the liturgical arrangement of the church.  It should be clear to all that the reserved sacrament derives from the sacrifice offered and shared in during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  * * * The main altar -- the altar of celebration -- should be the primary focus of the church, even when no liturgy is taking place."

(11) See the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) ¶¶ 55-64, which detail the kind of reverence that should be afforded the proclamation of God's word, i.e., "The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to promote meditation, and so any sort of haste that hinders recollection must clearly be avoided" (¶55).  However, ¶274 cautions against excessive veneration being paid to the tabernacle during the Mass:  "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."

(12) The "organic" relationship between the altar and the tabernacle is beautifully described in the Irish Episcopal Commission's The Place of Worship 16.2c:  "There is an essential link between the reserved sacrament and the Mass itself, which is at one and the same time an inseparably a sacrifice, a memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, and a sacred banquet.  This link should be reflected in the physical and visual relationship between altar and tabernacle.  In this way the faithful will be reminded that the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament derives from the celebration at the altar and is directed towards sacramental and spiritual communion." 

¶16.10b of this document adds:  "The arrangement should be such, however, that the tabernacle does not dominate the altar or obscure its distinctive sign value as the place of banquet/sacrifice.  Nor should the presence in the tabernacle overshadow the different forms of Christ's presence in the Mass, or obscure the way in which these gradually unfold: his presence in the assembled faithful, his presence in the word, his presence in the person of the presiding priest, and his presence substantially in the sacred species on the altar.  On the other hand the tabernacle ought not be diminished or obscured by the altar.  Each should be so treated and so related to the other that they will call attention to the distinct but inseparable aspects of the total Eucharistic mystery."

(13) Built of Living Stones ¶73.

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

Images were provided by Steve Remmert, who designed and fabricated the tabernacles, respectively for the meditation chapel at University Place in West Lafayette IN; the Sacred Heart Chapel of the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago in Lemont IL and St. Mary Parish in Evanston IL.


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

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

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