Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I arrived in a parish for confirmations. The first thing that caught my eye was that the sanctuary lamp was not burning, and that led me to notice that the tabernacle was empty. After the celebrations I asked the priest why that was so, and he said to me that the bishop, because he has the fullness of the priesthood, when he celebrates the liturgy like confirmations, it should be clear that the fullness of the sacrament is in him. I have never met this custom before and wonder how widespread it is. — E.R.
A: This is an arcane rule that even many bishops are unaware of. It is specified in the Ceremonial of Bishops for cathedral churches and implied at least in other cases.
The Ceremonial of Bishops says:
“49. It is recommended that the tabernacle, in accordance with a very ancient tradition in cathedral churches, should be located in a chapel separate from the main body of the church.
“But when, in a particular case, there is a tabernacle on the altar at which the bishop is to celebrate, the Blessed Sacrament should be transferred to another fitting place.”
This norm is not new. The ceremonial manual for the extraordinary form by A. Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell and A. Reid says, when dealing with a Pontifical Solemn Mass at the Throne: “If the Blessed Sacrament is reserved on the high altar of the church, it should be removed, if possible, before the ceremony to a side chapel or altar.”
Some recent authors opine that the rule would not necessarily apply to tabernacles that are in the sanctuary area but separate from the altar as such.
Subsequent to the publication of the Ceremonial of Bishops, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 274, has added more details for the case when there is a tabernacle in the sanctuary area:
“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. Otherwise all who pass before the Most Blessed Sacrament genuflect, unless they are moving in procession.”
While not specified for bishops, it is probable that the same rule regarding genuflection would also apply in this specific situation.
It must be admitted, however, that the descriptions of the rites of a solemn episcopal Mass usually presume the presence of a Blessed Sacrament chapel rather than the tabernacle in the sanctuary.
Thus, when describing the entrance procession of a bishop’s Mass, No. 128 of the Ceremonial says: “There is neither a stop nor a genuflection if the procession passes in front of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.”
Therefore, while it would not appear to be an absolute rule, there is a certain tradition that would allow for the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from the sanctuary area when a solemn pontifical Mass is celebrated by a bishop, especially the local ordinary.
The theological reason behind this custom is that it underlines the bishop’s role as high priest of his flock. The instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum” states:
“19. The diocesan Bishop, the first steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church entrusted to him, is the moderator, promoter and guardian of her whole liturgical life. For ‘the Bishop, endowed with the fullness of the Sacrament of Order, is the steward of the grace of the high Priesthood, especially in the Eucharist which he either himself offers or causes to be offered, by which the Church continually lives and grows.’
“20. Indeed, the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church is found whenever the rites of Mass are celebrated, especially in the Cathedral Church, ‘with the full and active participation of the entire holy People of God, joined in one act of prayer, at one altar at which the Bishop presides,’ surrounded by his presbyterate with the Deacons and ministers. Furthermore, ‘every lawful celebration of the Eucharist is directed by the Bishop, to whom is entrusted the office of presenting the worship of the Christian religion to the Divine Majesty and ordering it according to the precepts of the Lord and the laws of the Church, further specified by his own particular judgement for the Diocese.'”
Leaving the tabernacle empty stresses the diocesan bishop’s role as the “first steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church” and as the one who directs “every lawful celebration of the Eucharist.” In a way it is a sign that Christ grants the Eucharist through the episcopal ministry as the fullness of the priesthood and so reflects the Church’s nature as a sacramental communion.
For the bishop, this sign should be a humbling reminder of his great responsibilities in “presenting the worship of the Christian religion to the Divine Majesty.” In no way can it be interpreted as in some way exalting the bishop with respect to the mystery of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
The norms do not specifically state that the rule does not usually apply when a bishop other than the metropolitan or the local ordinary celebrates Mass. That this is probably the case, however, could be inferred by the fact that the rules on removing the Blessed Sacrament are almost always found in the context of the local bishop’s Stational Mass.
* * *
Follow-up: Changes in Musical Compositions
In our Nov. 12 article on the approval of new compositions for the ordinary of Mass we dealt briefly with the use of the organ or piano.
Regarding this, a reader asked: “Are you familiar with ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ regarding the organ (vs. the piano)? ‘120. In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things. But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, as laid down in Art. 22, 52, 37, and 40. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.”
I did not enter into the details of this debate, since it was not the principal theme at hand. However, to those interested in this theme, we dealt several times with the theme of musical instruments, above all, in 2004 on Nov. 23 and 30 and Dec. 7 and 14.
Finally, a document from the U.S. bishops’ conference, “Sing to the Lord,” while giving pride of place to the organ as the instrument most suitable for churches, also includes the use of the piano as a possibility.
* * *
Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.