Jul 15, 1989

"They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him"

Online Edition

– Vol. V, No. 5: July/August 1999

"They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him"

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The words of the grieving Mary Magdalene recorded in the Gospel of John, "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him" (Jn.10:13), seem to capture the response of many distressed Catholics when they hear that the tabernacle in which the Body of Christ is reserved in churches is slated for removal from the most central place in their church.

In response to many inquiries, AB published Monsignor Peter Elliott’s Appendix concerning tabernacle placement from Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite ("Where Should We Put the Tabernacle?", AB Vol. III, No. 9, January 1998). But new church construction and renovation of older ones continue, and so does the concern.

The discussions surrounding the building and renovating of churches, have made it clear that what is at issue is not a matter simply of style, still less a debate over architectural taste. It is a matter affecting central teachings of the Church concerning the function of a church and the meaning of the Sacraments celebrated in it. Most liturgical consultants advocate radical changes in the basic orientation of the liturgical elements in churches, an "updating" that, they believe, was mandated by a revolutionary change in the Second Vatican Council’s doctrine of Eucharist. The traditional central placement of the tabernacle, the visual and symbolic center of Catholic churches for at least a thousand years, is, in the opinion of most influential liturgists and liturgical theologians, a mistake that urgently needs fixing.

In many parish discussions of plans for renovations, liturgists have selectively cited documents in an attempt to prove that the traditional placement of the tabernacle in a central position in the sanctuary of the church, where it is clearly visible to all, has been forbidden since the Second Vatican Council. This claim is untrue, but nevertheless, confusing to many Catholics.

Excerpts from Church documents concerning tabernacles, including those most often presented to parishioners whose church is being renovated, appear at the end of this article. They concern the number and placement of tabernacles within churches, etc. The excerpts begin with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law, followed by liturgical documents. They are arranged here chronologically, beginning with the most recent. Last is the relevant section from the 1978 US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy statement, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.

One major source of confusion about tabernacle placement is found in §78 of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship [EACW], a key sentence of which reads: "A room or chapel specifically designed and separate from the major space is important so that no confusion can take place between the celebration of the eucharist and reservation". This instruction is an innovation unique to this statement, not to be found in any official documents. None of the authoritative documents, whether issued before 1978 or after, suggest that it is "important" for ordinary parish churches to have Eucharistic reservation in tabernacles "separate from the major space" within a church.

Separate Chapels for Cathedrals

Father Gilbert Ostdiek, OFM, in his presentation to parish building committees called "Tabernacle Placement & Design: A Commentary", says that the 1984 Caeremoniale Episcoporum (CE- Ceremonial for Bishops) "recommends a reservation chapel separate from the main body of the church" (Ostdiek, 5.1).

Father Ostdiek cites §49 of the Caeremoniale to support his view; but he neglects to mention that the document specifically concerns cathedrals, not ordinary churches. Even within cathedrals, the quoted paragraph "recommends" but does not mandate this placement of the reserved Sacrament.

The footnote to this paragraph from CE (n. 49) refers to the 1967 Instruction of Pope Paul VI, De Sacra Communione... (Holy Communion and Worship outside of Mass) n. 9. The relevant sentence is,

This [personal worship] will be achieved more easily if the chapel is separate from the body of the church, especially in churches where marriages and funerals are celebrated frequently and in churches where there are many visitors because of pilgrimages or the artistic and historical treasures.

This passage makes it clear that a separate chapel is recommended especially for large, busy churches, such as cathedrals and those which may be tourist attractions. (Saint Peters in Rome has a separate chapel of reservation in which perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place, and where one always finds visitors kneeling in prayer.)

The reasoning here is obvious: in such churches adoration of the Blessed Sacrament could be disrupted by people continually walking about. There is no indication whatever, here or in any other authoritative Church document, that every church, including ordinary parish churches, must or even should have a separate chapel for reservation of the Eucharist.

Attention Deficit?

EACW’s justification for construction of separate chapels in all churches is the assertion that "Active and static aspects of the same reality cannot claim the same human attention at the same time".

The authors (and advocates) of EACW imply that most Catholics are incapable of giving their attention to the central action of the Mass if a tabernacle containing the reserved Eucharist is visible. This is simply nonsense. Not a single instance of such confusion is offered as evidence for this supposition.

A proper understanding of Eucharist integrates both transcendent ("vertical") and immanent ("horizontal") dimensions . Yet often those who most strenuously advocate separate Eucharistic chapels for all churches seem to have difficulty integrating the "horizontal" or "communal meal" aspect of the Eucharist with its "vertical" or transcendent aspect, the Sacrifice of Christ to which every believer is called to unite himself.

Indeed, many liturgists today claim that the Second Vatican Council radically altered the Church’s teaching about the essential meaning of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and seem to regard the concept of Eucharistic Adoration as an unwholesome "pre-conciliar" distraction from the "real" meaning, which, for them, is "building community". Thus the opposition to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the determined effort to relegate "Jesus to a closet", recently lamented by Cardinal George of Chicago.

Transubstantiation a "Radical Impoverishment"?

One example of this attitude towards the Eucharist is found in Nathan Mitchell’s Real Presence — The Work of Eucharist, (Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998) where he states, concerning the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the "CCC’s theology of eucharistic communion thus represents a radical impoverishment" and "muddies the waters" (p 29). The author, a former Benedictine priest, is Associate Director of the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy and a columnist for Worship, a liturgical monthly published by the Benedictine monks of Collegeville, Minnesota.

Mitchell also declares ("Principle 5", p 114ff) that "the Catholic tradition of real presence should not be confused with the theological doctrine of transubstantiation"; that Catholics are not required to believe in transubstantiation, and that the bread and wine "become symbolic signs that enact and embody (i.e., ‘make present’) what they signify" (p. 116). He quotes opinions of contemporary theologians to support this statement and the liturgical implications of this radical change in the doctrine of the Eucharist.

Mitchell is by no means alone in his opinions. But it is those who hold these views who have a "radically impoverished" and one-dimensional concept of the Eucharist, a misunderstanding not supported by Catholic dogma concerning the nature and meaning of the Eucharist (cf. Mysterium Fidei), nor is their opinion shared by Catholics who can and do integrate both dimensions of the Sacred Mystery in their understanding of the Mass the communion of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the re-presentation by the priest of the Sacrifice of Christ who becomes substantially present in the consecrated elements, which are later reserved in the tabernacle.

If it was ever true that Catholics had an insufficient understanding of the genuinely communal dimension of the Eucharist and over-emphasized the "vertical" and sacrificial aspects, such has not been the case for at least thirty years. Indeed, recent polls indicate that the opposite problem is now endemic. A defective understanding of the transcendent and eternal dimension of the Mass as Sacrifice is surely a far worse problem and with far more serious consequences for Catholics than the alleged "pre-conciliar" excess in the other direction.

Some Tabernacles Restored

Perhaps in part because the urgent need to correct this very serious error is now recognized, many bishops are reviving Eucharistic Adoration. Several American bishops have written pastoral letters encouraging this devotion within the past year or two (inter alia, Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Youngstown).

Significantly, the tabernacle of reservation has now been restored to its former position in the center of the sanctuary in not a few churches: for example, in the chapel of the North American College in Rome, and in the chapel of the New York Archdiocesan seminary, St. John’s, Dunwoodie.

Simultaneously, however, many influential members of the liturgical bureaucracy seem even more determined to accomplish their objectives. Too often the meanings of Church documents are skewed in order to make them mean what liturgists want them to mean. Their deconstruction of Church teaching contained in these documents is accomplished through their "hermeneutic of suspicion" applied to the texts, selecting what they wish and eliminating altogether what is not useful to their project an exercise in "proof-texting" which they claim to deplore. This biased interpretation is apparent when the very documents they cite are consulted.

Orthodox Statement "Rabidly Realistic"?

Striking examples of this tactic are also found in Nathan Mitchell’s Real Presence. For instance, Mitchell comments favorably on Berengarius of Tours’ opinion about the nature of the Eucharist, and says,

unfortunately for Berengarius, a majority of eleventh-century churchmen did not appreciate such subtleties. At the Council of Rome in 1059, he was required to sign a credal statement whose rabidly realistic terms insisted that the eucharistic bread and wine are not only ‘changed’ but physically converted into Christ’s flesh in such a way that it is ‘broken by the hands of the priest and crushed by the teeth of the faithful.’ (p. 111)

Contrast Mitchell’s version with Pope Paul VI’s account of the same historical event in Mysterium Fidei [§52], in which the Holy Father cites the entire "credal statement" which so offends Mitchell, saying

it is useful simply to recall that firmness of faith with which the Church with one accord opposed Berengarius. Yielding to the difficulties of human reasoning, he was the first who dared deny the eucharistic change and the Church repeatedly called for him to retract or be condemned.

The pope quotes the oath, which concludes by stating that the Body and Blood of Christ "are present not only through the sign and power of the sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance".

The pope continues, [§53] "Continuous with these words, as an example of the stability of the Catholic faith, is the constant teaching on the eucharistic change by the ecumenical Councils of the Lateran, Constance, Florence, and lastly Trent, both in stating Catholic doctrine and in condemning error" [§53].

But most Catholics do not have access to the relevant documents, and thus are ill-equipped to critique insupportable claims. Most bishops refrain from "interfering" with their liturgy offices. Furthermore, there seems to be an almost desperate urgency on the part of some members of the liturgical bureaucracy to transform as many Catholic churches as possible into "gathering spaces" for "community celebration" as soon as possible before any anticipated revisions to EACW or GIRM may halt the project. They know that it will be difficult and expensive for most parishes to undo any such "renovations".

The objective of many is to transform belief by transforming the place of worship, as well as the language of worship, the music for worship, and the entire enactment of the ritual itself. They are adamant in their purpose, and their influence is great.

So long as this situation exists, it appears that Catholics will have to continue the struggle to keep Jesus’ presence central and visible in their churches not hidden in a closet.

Documents on Tabernacle Placement

I – Catechism of the Catholic Church [1994]

§1379. The tabernacle was first intended for the reservation of the Eucharist in a worthy place so that it could be brought to the sick and those absent, outside of Mass. As faith in the real presence of Christ in his Eucharist deepened, the Church became conscious of the meaning of silent adoration of the Lord present under the Eucharistic species. It is for this reason that the tabernacle should be located in an especially worthy place in the church and should be constructed in such a way that it emphasizes and manifests the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

II – Code of Canon Law [1983]

The Reservation and Veneration of The Most Holy Eucharist at Title III, Chapter II, Canons 934-944.

Can. 937 – Unless a grave reason prevents it, the church in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be open to the faithful for at least some hours each day so that they are able to spend time in prayer before the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Can. 938

1. "The Most Holy Eucharist is to be reserved regularly in only one tabernacle of a church or oratory."

[Note: c.f. EM §52 infra. Many churches have a second tabernacle on a side altar which is used as the Altar of Reservation from after Holy Thursday Mass until the Easter Vigil. The existence of a second tabernacle in a church is not prohibited, but the Most Holy Eucharist may occupy only one of them – Ed.]

2. "The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer."

3. The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is regularly reserved is to be immovable, made of solid and opaque material, and locked so that the danger of profanation may be entirely avoided.

4. For a grave cause, it is licit to reserve the Most Holy Eucharist in another safer and becoming place especially during the night.

5. The person who has charge of the church or oratory is to see to it that the key of the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is safeguarded most diligently.

Can 940: "A special lamp to indicate and honor the presence of Christ is to burn at all times before the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved".

Can 944-1: "When it can be done in the judgment of the diocesan bishop, as a public witness of the veneration toward the Most Holy Eucharist, a procession is to be conducted through the public streets, especially on the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ".

III – Caeremoniale Episcoporum [Ceremonial for Bishops – 1984]

Caput III – De Ecclesia Cathedrali

49. Commendatur ut tabernaculum, iuxta perantiquam traditionem in ecclesis cathedralibus servatam, ponatur in sacello a centrali aula seiuncto.[48]

Si tamen in casu particulari tabernaculum sit super altare in quo Episcopus celebraturus est, Ss.mum Sacramentum ad alium dignum locum transferatur.


Chapter III – Of Cathedral Churches

49. It is recommended that the tabernacle, in accordance with ancient tradition preserved in cathedral churches, be placed in a separate chapel in a central location in the nave.[48]

If, however, in a particular case a tabernacle is upon the altar on which the bishop is to celebrate, the Most Holy Sacrament is to be transferred to another dignified location.

[n. 48: Cf. S. Congr. Rit. Eucharisticum Mysterium, 25 May 1967, n. 53: AAS 59 (67), p. 568; Rituale Romanum, De Sacra Communione et de cultu mysterii eucharistici extra Missam, Praenotanda generalia, n. 9]

(NB – these citations follow. Editor)

IV – De Sacra Communione et de cultu mysterii Eucharistici extra Missam, Praenotanda generalia [Holy Communion and worship outside of Mass, General Introduction, 21 June 1973 (DOL 279)]

9. The place for the reservation of the Eucharist should be truly preeminent. It is highly recommended that the place be suitable also for private adoration and prayer so that the faithful may readily and fruitfully continue to honor the Lord, present in the sacrament, through personal worship.

This will be achieved more easily if the chapel is separate from the body of the church, especially in churches where marriages and funerals are celebrated frequently and in churches where there are many visitors because of pilgrimages or the artistic and historical treasures.

10. The Holy Eucharist is to be reserved in a solid tabernacle. It must be opaque and unbreakable. [Eucharisticum Mysterium DOL 179 no 1281, note R4] Ordinarily there should be only one tabernacle in a church; this may be placed on an altar or if not on an altar, at the discretion of the local Ordinary, in some other noble and properly ornamented part of the church. [Ibid. nos 52, 53. Eucharisticum Mysterium DOL 179 1281-82]

The key to the tabernacle where the Eucharist is reserved must be kept most carefully by the priest in charge of the church or oratory or by a special minister who has received the faculty to give communion.[n. R2]

[n. R2 – (re canonical rules regarding custody of the Eucharist… The norms contained in the reformed Roman Ritual and approved by Pope Paul VI amend, as required, the prescriptions of the Code of Canon Law and other laws hitherto in force or repeal them; other laws that are neither repealed nor amended in the new Ritual remain valid and firm. Accordingly, in regard to the custody of the eucharist the May 26, 1938 Instruction … Nullo unquam (AAS 30 [1938] 198 continues to apply.]

11. The presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle is to be shown by a veil or in another suitable way determined by the competent authority.

According to traditional usage, an oil lamp or lamp with a wax candle is to burn constantly near the tabernacle as a sign of the honor shown to the Lord.

V – Eucharisticum Mysterium

[On Worship of the Eucharist – May 25, 1967: AAS 59 (1967) 5390573; Not. 3 (1967) 225-260; DOL 179

Part II – Celebration of the Memorial of the Lord — Importance of the arrangement of churches for well-ordered celebrations

24. "The church, the house of prayer, must be well cared for and suited to prayer and liturgy. There the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved and the faithful gather for worship. There the presence of the Son of God, our Savior, offered on the altar of sacrifice for us, is treasured and revered as the aid and solace of the faithful." [n 73 – Pres. Ord. no. 5]

Pastors should understand, therefore, that the becoming arrangement of the place of worship contributes much to a right celebration and to the active participation of the faithful.

For this reason the rules and directives given in the Instruction Inter Oecumenici (nos. 90-99 [DOL 23 nos. 382-391]) should be followed regarding: the building of churches and their adaptation to the reformed liturgy; the construction and appointment of altars; the suitable placement of chairs for the celebrant and ministers; the provision of a proper place for the proclamation of the readings; the arrangement of places for the faithful and the choir.

Above all, the main altar should be so placed and constructed that it always appears as a sign of Christ himself, as the place in which the sacred mysteries are carried out, and as the focal point for the gathered faithful, which demands the highest respect.

Care should be taken against destroying treasures of sacred art in the course of remodeling churches. On the judgment of the local Ordinary, after consulting experts and, when applicable, with the consent of other concerned parties, the decision may be made to relocate some of these treasures in the interest of the liturgical reform. In such a case this should be done with good sense and in such a way that even in their new locations they will be set up in a manner befitting and worthy of the works themselves.

Pastors should remember that the material and the design of vestments greatly contribute to the dignity of liturgical celebrations. Vestments should be designed "for a noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display". [SC #124]

Part III – Worship of the Eucharist as a Permanent Sacrament

II: Place for Eucharistic Reservation — The Tabernacle

52. Where the Eucharist is allowed to be reserved in keeping with the provisions of law, only one altar of location in the same church may be the permanent, that is, regular place of reservation. As a general rule, therefore, there is to be but one tabernacle in each church and it is to be solid and absolutely secure.

Chapel of Reservation

53. The place in a church or oratory where the Eucharist is reserved in a tabernacle should be truly a place of honor. It should also be suited to private prayer so that the faithful may readily and to their advantage continue to honor the Lord in this sacrament by private worship. Therefore it is recommended that as far as possible the tabernacle be placed in a chapel set apart from the main body of the church, especially in churches where there frequently are marriages and funerals and in places that, because of their artistic or historical treasures, are visited by many people.

Tabernacle in the middle of altar or in another part of the church

54. "The Eucharist is to be reserved in a solid and secure tabernacle, placed in the middle of the main altar or on a minor, but truly worthy altar, or else, depending on lawful custom and in particular cases approved by the local Ordinary, in another, special, and properly adorned part of the church.

"It is also lawful to celebrate Mass facing the people even on an altar where there is a small but becoming tabernacle." [n. 115 – SCR Instruction Inter Oecumenici, no. 95 [DOL 23. no 3870.]

Tabernacle on an altar where Mass is celebrated with a congregation

55. In the celebration of Mass the principal modes of Christ’s presence to His Church emerge clearly one after the other: first He is seen to be present in the assembly of the faithful gathered in His name; then in His word, with the reading and explanation of Scripture, also in the person of the minister; finally, in a singular way under the Eucharistic Elements. Consequently, on the grounds of the sign value, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that, through reservation of the sacrament in the tabernacle, Christ not be present eucharistically from the beginning on the altar where Mass is celebrated. That presence is the effect of the consecration and should appear as such.

The tabernacle in the construction of new churches and in the remodeling of existing churches and altars

56. It is fitting that the principles stated in nos. 52 and 54 be taken into account in the building of new churches.

Remodeling of already existing churches and altars must be carried out in exact compliance with no. 24 of this Instruction. [No. 24 appears above. Ed.]

Means of indicating the presence of Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle

57. Care should be taken that the faithful be made aware of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle by the use of a veil or some other effective means prescribed by the competent authority.

According to the traditional practice, a lamp should burn continuously near the tabernacle as a sign of the honor shown to the Lord. [n. 117 – see CIC can. 1271.]

VI – Inter Oecumenici [September 26, 1964]

Chapter V: Designing churches and altars to facilitate active participation of the faithful [¶90-99]

Chapter VI: Reservation of the Eucharist

95. The eucharist is to be reserved in a solid and secure tabernacle, placed in the middle of the main altar or on a minor, but truly worthy altar, or, in accord with lawful custom and in particular cases approved by the local Ordinary, also in another, special, and properly adorned part of the church.

[DOL: Documents on the Liturgy – 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal and Curial Texts, translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL]. 1982. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press]

VII – Environment and Art in Catholic Worship

[Statement of US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy – 1978]

78. The celebration of the eucharist is the focus of the normal Sunday assembly. As such, the major space of a church is designed for this action. Beyond the celebration of the eucharist, the Church has had a most ancient tradition of reserving the eucharistic bread. The purpose of this reservation is to bring communion to the sick and to be the object of private devotion. Most appropriately, this reservation should be designated in a space designed for individual devotion. A room or chapel specifically designed and separate from the major space is important so that no confusion can take place between the celebration of the eucharist and reservation. Active and static aspects of the same reality cannot claim the same human attention at the same time. Having the eucharist reserved in a place apart does not mean it has been relegated to a secondary place of no importance. Rather, a space carefully designed and appointed can give proper attention to the reserved sacrament.

79. This space should offer easy access from the porch areas, garden or street as well as the main space. The devotional character of the space should create an atmosphere of warmth while acknowledging the mystery of the Lord. It should support private meditation without distractions. If iconography or statuary are present, they should not obscure the primary focus of reservation.

80. The tabernacle, as a receptacle for the reservation of the eucharist, should be solid and unbreakable, dignified and properly ornamented. It may be placed in a wall niche, on a pillar, eucharistic tower. It should not be placed on an altar for the altar is a place for action not for reservation. There should be only one tabernacle in a church building. A lamp should burn continuously near it.


Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.