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 our parish about 25 years ago the pastor decided to remove the tabernacle from the main altar. They put it in a side altar. For 40 years, there has been an altar (simple table) with the priest facing the people. A member of the liturgy committee would like the pastor to move the beautiful tabernacle from the side alter to the main altar, like before 1960. Because I have a degree in theology, he asked me to find arguments and official texts from Rome or from the bishops of the U.S. or France helping to justify this change. What are the official texts giving a rule for the placement of the tabernacle? What are the advantages or obligation from a spiritual or liturgical point of view for this change? — J.L., Ottawa, Ontario
A: With respect to the placing of the tabernacle the most recent norms are from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). The 2011 English missal takes some slight modifications into account with respect to earlier editions:
“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, conspicuous, worthily decorated, and suitable for prayer.
“The tabernacle should usually be the only one, be irremovable, 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, the tabernacle be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.
“315. It is more appropriate as a sign that on an altar on which Mass is celebrated there not be a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved.
“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 an appropriate form and place, not excluding its being positioned on an old altar no longer used for celebration (cf. no. 303);
“b) or even in some chapel suitable for the private adoration and prayer of the faithful and organically connected to the church and readily noticeable by the Christian faithful.”
The tabernacle’s location is also mention in relationship with the priest’s chair.
“310. The chair of the Priest Celebrant must signify his function of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. Thus the more suitable place for the chair is facing the people at the head of the sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other features prevent this: as, for example, if on account of too great a distance, communication between the Priest and the congregation would be difficult, or if the tabernacle were to be positioned in the center behind the altar. In any case, any appearance of a throne is to be avoided. It is appropriate that before being put into liturgical use, the chair be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.”
Also valuable are the guidelines issued by the U.S. bishops, “Built of Living Stones.” This document enters into more detail than the GIRM and offers some practical suggestions. Regarding the location of the tabernacle it says:
“Christ’s Presence in Sign and Symbol
“§ 22. In the liturgical assembly, Christ’s presence is realized in all the baptized who gather in his name, in the word of God proclaimed in the assembly, in the person of the priest through whom Christ offers himself to the Father and gathers the assembly, in sacramental celebrations, and especially, in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. In building a house for the Church that is also the house of God on earth, all the expressions of Christ’s presence have prominence of place that reflects their proper nature. Among these, the eucharistic species is accorded supreme prominence. From the very beginning of the planning and design process, parishes will want to reflect upon the relationship of the altar, the ambo, the tabernacle, the chair of the priest celebrant, and the space for congregation. […]
“§ 64. ‘The [most appropriate] place for the chair is at the head of the sanctuary and turned toward the people unless the design of the building or other circumstances [such as distance or the placement of the tabernacle] are an obstacle.’ This chair is not used by a lay person who presides at a service of the word with Communion or a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest. (Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship, Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest , no. 40.) […]
“§ 71. 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. 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. […]
“§ 72. The general law of the Church provides norms concerning the tabernacle and the place for the reservation of the Eucharist that express the importance Christians place on the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The Code of Canon Law directs that the Eucharist be reserved ‘in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer.’ It directs that regularly there be ‘only one tabernacle’ in the church. It should be worthy of the Blessed Sacrament—beautifully designed and in harmony with the overall decor of the rest of the church. To provide for the security of the Blessed Sacrament the tabernacle should be ‘solid,’ ‘immovable,’ ‘opaque,’ and ‘locked.’ The tabernacle may be situated on a fixed pillar or stand, or it may be attached to or embedded in one of the walls. A special oil lamp or a lamp with a wax candle burns continuously near the tabernacle as an indication of Christ’s presence.
“§ 73. The place of reservation should be a space that is dedicated to Christ present in the Eucharist and that is designed so that the attention of one praying there is drawn to the tabernacle that houses the presence of the Lord. Iconography can be chosen from the rich treasury of symbolism that is associated with the Eucharist.
“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.”
Since the above documents are fairly clear, I would simply make the following suggestions to our reader.
Given that the bishop has overall authority in this matter, our reader should first inquire if any official diocesan norms exist on this topic. Any norms officially issued by a former bishop retain their legal status unless revoked by the current bishop. The current bishop can also make ad hoc exceptions to any of these norms.
In recent years there has been a certain movement to return to the central location of the tabernacle, and some bishops have issued decrees in this regard. My personal preference is for a centrally located tabernacle in most parish settings. However, it is necessary to recognize that the reasons given in the official documents for possible other locations are sound and in some cases preferable.
For example, the restoration of a central tabernacle to a small sanctuary now containing a free-standing altar could leave little room for maneuver during the ceremonial actions at Mass and lead to a somewhat awkward celebration.
I would also highly recommend to our reader that if there has been a simple table for 40 years, then any proposal to restore the tabernacle to the sanctuary should be tied to an overall renewal of the sanctuary that contemplates a permanent and beautiful altar.
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Follow-up: Candles at Adoration
Pursuant to a July article, a reader offered the following observations.
“On July 23 of this year, you responded to a question about the number of candles required for exposition, and the questioner specifically asked about the situation where a double-door ‘exposition’ tabernacle is used. Your answer presumed the legitimacy of such a tabernacle, which has been the subject of much discussion in our deanery. While I very much understand that ‘just because they make it, doesn’t mean it’s permitted’ (e.g. chasubles with overlay stoles and rice-based, gluten-free hosts), I do believe such tabernacles are permitted.
“Some of my confrères argue that the description of the tabernacle as ‘opaque and unbreakable’ found in Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass #10 (‘The holy eucharist is to be reserved in a solid tabernacle. It must be opaque and unbreakable …’) and ‘solid, inviolable’ in Eucharisticum Mysterium #54 (‘The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a solid, inviolable tabernacle …’) precludes the use of a double-door tabernacle as described in the July 23 question.
“My sense is that the documents just cited intend to proscribe the use of flimsy or glass-walled tabernacles, but not ones with small windows covered when necessary by a metal or wood door. I believe this is Monsignor (now Bishop) Peter Elliott’s understanding when he writes, in Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite #713: ‘However, with the permission of the bishop, some tabernacles are designed to be used for exposition; either with a second inner door, which takes the form of a monstrance, or so that a monstrance kept within the tabernacle may be revealed when the tabernacle is opened or rotated. But the outer door of a tabernacle must never be transparent, as this would constitute an illicit form of permanent exposition.’
“It seems that some diocesan norms specifically do forbid such tabernacles (e.g. New York), but our own archdiocesan norms are not as clear, simply restating the GIRM #314: ‘The one tabernacle is to 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.’ Absent contrary particular law, your reply to the question of July 23 (and that of September 8, 2009) accepts that the use of such tabernacles is permitted. Are you aware of any authoritative document of universal applicability (or national applicability to the United States of America) that positively permits them?
“Secondly, is there anything that prevents such a double-door tabernacle from being made primarily of wood and Plexiglas (again, absent particular law to the contrary)? The GIRM in #317 indicates that ‘[i]n no way should any of the other things be forgotten which are prescribed by law concerning the reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist’ and its footnote points us to the Instruction Nullo umquam tempore, which states that ‘[a]ccording to the liturgical laws, the material may be wood or marble or metal’ (4a). Would a wooden tabernacle be permitted with a large but ‘unbreakable’ Plexiglas window (making visible a small monstrance), if that window can be covered by wooden doors? If it makes a difference, the tabernacle is set into the wall.
“Thank you for your consideration of these questions. Your answers may help to finalize the discussion within our deanery and guide decision-making at several parishes. I will also be asking our archdiocesan director of worship, but he is brand new at the job (and recently ordained) and I suspect it may be some time before I get a response, as he settles in.”
I wish to thank our reader for his valuable insights with which I am entirely in agreement.
However, given the description of the tabernacle offered by our correspondent in the original question, I did not consider that it fell into the category that has been expressly forbidden.
The tabernacle described the second door as being behind the tabernacle’s door and therefore opaque and inviolable except during exposition. What is forbidden, I would suggest, is a glass panel installed in the tabernacle door itself (perhaps with a simple cover) and hence not fully inviolable nor opaque.
In this way I considered that it was analogous to the rotary tabernacles found in many European churches and sanctuaries which contain a part for the reserved hosts and another part with an already exposed monstrance.
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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.