Dec 31, 2007

Where Should We Put The Tabernacle?

Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 9: December 1997/January 1998

A conspicuously located tabernacle is mandated by the liturgical norms and Canon Law  by Monsignor Peter J. Elliott

The following was published as “The Location of the Tabernacle”, Appendix 9 of Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, published in 1995 by Ignatius Press. It is reprinted with permission. Paragraphs are numbered as they appear in the original.

Considerable discussion continues concerning the location of the tabernacle. However, all the official instructions during and since the Second Vatican Council need to be interpreted in the light of Canon 938 §2 of the Code of Canon Law, 1983:

The tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved should be sited in a distinguished place in a church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer.

The relevant directives leading up to this Canon were as follows:

866. a. 1964: Sacred Congregation for Rites, Inter Oecumenici, no. 95: “The Blessed Sacrament is to be reserved in a solid, burglar-proof tabernacle in the center of the high altar or on another altar if this is really outstanding and distinguished. Where there is a lawful custom, and in particular cases to be approved by the local Ordinary, the Blessed Sacrament may be reserved in some other place in the church, but it must be a very special place, having nobility about it, and it must be suitably decorated. It is lawful to celebrate Mass facing the people even if on the altar there is a small but adequate tabernacle.”

867. b. 1967: Sacred Congregation for Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, no. 53: “The place in a church or oratory where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle should be truly prominent. It ought to be suitable for private prayer so that the faithful may easily and fruitfully, by private devotion also, continue to honor Our Lord in this sacrament. It is therefore recommended that, as far as possible, the tabernacle be placed in a chapel distinct from the middle or central part of the church, above all in those churches where marriages and funerals take place frequently and in places which are much visited for their artistic or historical treasures” (Paragraph 54 repeats Inter Oecumenici, no. 95).

868. c. 1969: General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], no. 276: “It is highly recommended that the holy Eucharist be reserved in a chapel suitable for private adoration and prayer. If this is impossible because of the structure of the church or local custom, it should be kept on an altar or other place in the church that is prominent and properly decorated” (citing Inter Oecumenici, no. 95).

869. d. 1973: Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass, Introduction, no. 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 readily 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 artistic and historical treasures.”

870. e. 1980: Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inæstimabile Donum, no 24: “The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept can be located on an altar, or away from it, in a place in the church which is very prominent, truly noble and duly decorated, or in a chapel suitable for private prayer and for adoration by the faithful.”

871. Studying the development within these directives, we see first of all that Inæstimabile Donum modifies the favor for a separate eucharistic chapel in girm, no. 276. In the decade separating the two instructions, problems had arisen with a diminution of devotion to the Eucharist, not dissociated from inadequate attention to the place of reservation in new or renovated churches.

This may explain why Canon 938 §2 seems to reflect the mind of Inæstimabile Donum more than GIRM and the instructions on eucharistic worship. Canon 938 §2 is not a mere synthesis of previous instructions. It corrects misinterpretations of those rules by saying only: “The tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved should be sited in a distinguished place in a church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer.” We also see that locating a tabernacle on an altar always remains a valid option and is nowhere ruled out. This option will be further discussed below.

The Eucharistic Chapel

872. In the broader perspective of Canon 938 §2, it is clear that a Blessed Sacrament chapel cannot be required in every church. Unlike girm, no. 276, the Code favors no specific place for reservation. However, as indicated in Eucharisticum Mysterium, no. 53, and its adapted repetition in 1973, there are situations when a Blessed Sacrament chapel is appropriate ­ for example, in a cathedral or major church frequented by crowds of tourists or pilgrims, such as the Roman basilicas, or where a safe place is required for perpetual adoration. The chapel may also be appropriate in the rare case where the tabernacle would seem very distant and inaccessible if placed at the back of a deep sanctuary. Moreover, the Ceremonial of Bishops, no. 49, citing a very ancient tradition, recommends a chapel for cathedrals.

873. However, when we turn to parish churches, we find that an academic liturgical rationalism has tried to require a separate chapel, or area apart from the sanctuary, as the only “correct” place for the tabernacle. Where this is not possible, the tabernacle may be found in a place well to one side of the main altar. In a few churches, the tabernacle is even located to the side of the altar in the eucharistic chapel. There are also eucharistic chapels or rooms where there is no altar. Some of the arguments in favor of such options should be considered carefully.

A Theory and Some Problems

874. It is argued that the tabernacle is a distraction during liturgical celebrations, therefore the area for celebration must be separate from the area for reservation.1 This extremism has done great harm, as can be inferred from the lingering complaint that “Now our church seems empty”. Deeper harm is evident in the observable fact that, no longer required to genuflect, most people do not bother even to bow to the altar. A generation has emerged in some places with no awareness of the eucharistic presence of Christ in the tabernacle, hence of a lessened awareness of the altar and the sacred space of liturgy.2 This is a problem particularly for people who come to the church only for the Sunday liturgy, and more so in terms of the faith and complete catechesis of our children.

875. It has also been argued that the separate eucharistic chapel promotes devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

876. There are situations, already noted, where this is true. However, in the parish context, the eucharistic chapel or area can become a place reserved for the private devotion of some parishioners, like the shrine of a saint. Those who wish, go there. Not that this problem is new, as anyone who has lived in Southern Europe may discern. For centuries the tabernacle in not a few churches has been kept in a side chapel, and devotion to Our Lady or a saint appears to be more popular than devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist. In itself such a chapel may be “conducive to prayer”, but, unless it is a “distinguished place” or “conspicuous”, it is not conducive to visits by the faithful. Thus, in practice, in the light of things old and new, we see the pastoral weakness of the academic theory that, in itself, a special separate chapel promotes greater devotion to the Eucharist.

877. This problem also develops in seminaries, centers of formation and religious houses where the tabernacle is placed in an area or room well apart from the sacred space where the whole community gathers for liturgy and prayer. How then can the eucharistic life and formation envisaged in Canons 246 §1 and 663 §2 be achieved?

Some Practical Questions

878. The location of the tabernacle is also a question of practical problems and possibilities. Some liturgists say that the presidential chair must be placed directly behind the altar and that a tabernacle in the same area would prevent this basilican arrangement or even create a confusion of visible signs.

879. Putting aside the confusion of signs (in parish churches no one pays much attention to the chair outside the time of Mass), the chair need not displace the tabernacle from a central position. A convenient area or place for the tabernacle can usually be found on a higher level behind the chair. This also resolves the question of the celebrant sitting with his back to the Eucharist. Furthermore, it must be admitted that the basilican plan cannot be imposed on all churches. The chair is not ideally placed behind the altar in many churches, as some pastors have discovered once the experts and architects departed.

880. Another problem arises when the place of reservation is hidden from the people, even when it appears to be prominent in the architect’s plans. In one major church, elderly laity attempted to maintain the eucharistic devotion, for which this church was once noted. They did not wish to journey to the new and inadequate eucharistic chapel, concealed behind a wall at the back of the sanctuary. They continued to kneel in the nave and make their visits to the Lord concealed behind a wall ­ which could easily have been opened to reveal the tabernacle.

881.  It is also important to avoid placing the tabernacle at a point where there is much “traffic”, for example, where the choir or musicians gather or between the sacristy door and the sanctuary. This problem emerged in a church where the niche for Our Lady’s image became the eucharistic shrine. The tabernacle should not be located near a side door used as access to the nave. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, provides a good example of resolving this problem. The tabernacle was located in a shrine in a transept chapel on the right of the sanctuary facing onto much “traffic” which interfered with the personal devotion of those making visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Now it is located directly behind the altar of the beautiful, peaceful and spacious Lady Chapel.

882. There are some churches with an irregular plan, where the lines of vision determine that the “distinguished” and “conspicuous” place may not be directly behind the main altar. But in most parish churches this is not so, and the preeminent position would be at the center of the sanctuary. In community chapels, which are usually one room, the obvious “distinguished place” is directly behind the altar.

Altar and Tabernacle

883.  A further question is the relationship between the altar and tabernacle. Ignoring official directives cited above, it has been argued that a tabernacle should not be placed on an altar, for this is “a place for action not for reservation”.3 This has led to not a few eucharistic chapels where there is no altar at all.

884. Aware of imminant adaptations, in 1956 Pope Pius XII had argued against separating the tabernacle from the altar.4 In the light of the postconciliar liturgical reform, one can perceive the problem he raised, especially when considering eucharistic chapels or areas where there is no altar. Here the Eucharist can become a kind of “holy thing” dissociated from the action of the liturgy, which is associated with the altar where it is celebrated by God’s People, the permanent sign of Christ. But in reserving the Body of the Lord, we are not dealing with a holy thing, a symbol or relic locked up in a shrine. We are face to face with the Person of Jesus Christ, the Priest and Victim of our liturgy who is really present among us beneath the appearances of bread.

885.  Therefore, it seems best, in some way, to retain a visible link between the altar and tabernacle, between celebration and adoration, between action and reservation. This can be achieved by: (a) relocating the tabernacle behind the altar, (b) by placing a new altar in a eucharistic chapel which lacks one (hence also creating a space for intimate celebrations) or (c) by reserving the Eucharist on a noble and conspicuous side altar.

886. It has already been argued in this book that the tabernacle should not be located on an altar where Mass is celebrated facing the people.5 Some ingenious solutions have been found, such as building the tabernacle into the upper part of the front of the altar. A better example of reservation on an altar designed for Mass facing the people is the low, unobtrusive tabernacle with a gently sloping pyramidal roof on the altar of the chapel of the French College in Rome. Nevertheless, in the parish situation, where a larger tabernacle may be required, this mode of reservation seems best avoided.

887. The hanging pyx, suspended directly ahove the mensa of the altar, is another interesting way of affirming the relationship between altar and tabernacle. This method of reservation is usually not found to be convenient in churches where the tabernacle is used frequently as an auxiliary source for giving Communion to the faithful during Mass. However, some good examples of this late medieval form of reservation may be found, such as the noble hanging pyxes of Hauterive Abbey, Switzerland, and Quarr Abbey, England, and the enamelled eucharistic dove in the church of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music, Rome. This distinctive method of reservation has its own limitations. It also requires considerable skill on the part of the artist, craftsman and engineer. However it has been found to be appropriate for communities who wish to maintain the central eucharistic presence in conjunction with a modern freestanding altar.

“Suitably Adorned and Conducive to Prayer”

888.  The place of reservation is to be “suitably adorned”, for beauty also makes this place “conducive to prayer”. Suitable adornment may include the primary sign of reservation, a noble veil or canopy, suggesting the mystery of God tabernacling among us, the “tent of the Lord”. If there is no veil, the door should not be decorated in bright colors or with a distracting symbol or image. Placing a beautiful lamp near the tabernacle, with appropriate artificial lighting, also enhances the setting for eucharistic reservation. The adornment should express the glory of the Lord, without detracting from the tabernacle itself. Where a eucharistic chapel is justified, let it be not only splendid but spacious, hence conducive to the prayer of more than a few people.6


889.  Each pastor may wish to look at the location of the tabernacle in his church and ask himself whether this is really “a distinguished place … conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer”. He may also put this question to his people who use the church.

890. In resolving any matter which affects the spiritual life of many people, we should be guided by the Second Vatican Council and the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman. We should listen with great sensitivity to the “sensus fidei” of the faithful. A pastoral understanding of the faith of the Catholic people reveals the need to rethink this question seriously. Devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist is embedded in the religious psyche of our people. It is not an optional extra for devout souls. This devotion remains essential to the continuity of the living tradition not only of our Rite but of the Faith itself. That perception was captured in the words of Pope Paul VI when he described the tabernacle as “the living heart of each of our churches”.7

891.  To avoid the arid effects of liturgical rationalism and to promote prayer and reverence, let the Eucharist be restored to the truly preeminent position in every church. Where this has happened, the response of the faithful has been a resurgence of devotion to our Eucharistic Lord. Through our incarnational, human way of affirming priorities through signs and symbols, let Jesus be seen to be who He is ­ the center of our faith and love, the “summit and source” of the life of the Church.



1 A partial reading of authorities and consequent dogmatism is evident in Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, 1978, nos. 78, 79. To be fair to the authors, their opinions reflect the era of the 1970s and were presented before Inaestimabile Donum and the new Code. But this dated document continues to circulate, endorsed and unmodified.

2 This is a fascinating practical vindication of the inseperable link between the celebration of liturgy and eucharistic cultus.

3 Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, no. 80.

4 Cf. Pope Pius XII, Address to the International Congress on Pastoral Liturgy on the Liturgical Movement, II, 2. “Præsentia Christi“, in Official Catholic Teachings, Worship and Liturgy, James J. McGivern, ed. (Wilmington, NC: Consortium Books, 1978), pp. 172-74.

5 See also the theological case against this practice in Eucharisticum Mysterium, no. 55.

6 If possible, even in case of chapels of perpetual adoration.

7 Pope Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, June 30, 1968.

Bishop Peter J. Elliott