Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In my parish, the Blessed Sacrament chapel is off to the left of the altar, and the tabernacle is visible to about one-third of parishioners sitting in their pews. While praying in our pews before Mass begins, are we praying before the Blessed Sacrament? — T.B., Courtenay, British Columbia
A: The norms regarding the placement of the tabernacle found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal are:
“The Place for the Reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist
“314. In accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer. The one tabernacle should be immovable, be made of solid and inviolable material that is not transparent, and be locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is prevented to the greatest extent possible. Moreover, it is appropriate that, before it is put into liturgical use, it be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.
“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. no. 303);
“b. Or even in some chapel suitable for the faithful’s private adoration and prayer and organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful.
“316. In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle, a special lamp, fuelled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.
“317. In no way should all the other things prescribed by law concerning the reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist be forgotten.”
To this we may add the indications of the 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:
“130. ‘According to the structure of each church building and in accordance with legitimate local customs, the Most Holy Sacrament is to be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is noble, prominent, readily visible, and adorned in a dignified manner’ and furthermore ‘suitable for prayer’ by reason of the quietness of the location, the space available in front of the tabernacle, and also the supply of benches or seats and kneelers. In addition, diligent attention should be paid to all the prescriptions of the liturgical books and to the norm of law, especially as regards the avoidance of the danger of profanation.”
The guidelines offered by the U.S. bishops’ conference “Built of Living Stones” also offers useful pointers:
“The Location of the Tabernacle:
“§ 74. There is 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.”
There are also guidelines published under the auspices of the Canadian bishops’ conference, but they are not readily available. However, I doubt that they greatly differ from the above indications. Also, as is clear from the above documents, this is an area where the local bishop has ample authority and therefore there may be a wide range of legitimate local solutions.
To address the principal question of our reader. The above documents speak of the reservation chapel as being “organically connected to the church and readily visible,” “conspicuous,” “noble, prominent, readily visible, and adorned in a dignified manner and furthermore suitable for prayer.” These conditions must be met as insofar as the structure of the church allows it.
In some cases, the structure of a church might have as a result, as in our reader’s building, that the tabernacle is not visible to the totality of the assembly during the celebration of Mass. I would say that if the location of the reservation chapel (as distinct from the tabernacle itself) is reasonably conspicuous to the assembly, the conditions are met. Those members of the faithful who wish to have some private prayers before Mass, or extend their thanksgiving afterward, can easily approach the reservation chapel to do so.
However, I would say that even this is not strictly necessary since the faithful know that the Blessed Sacrament is present in the church, and where the Eucharistic Lord is reserved they can pray before him even if the tabernacle is not immediately visible due to some obstacle caused by the structure of the edifice.
Things would obviously be different if the reservation chapel was not at all visible from the body of the church itself, thus failing to fulfill the conditions set out above.
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