June – July 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 4
Where to Place the Tabernacle
Following are excerpts from recent Church documents that explain and affirm that the tabernacle, because it contains within it the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ, should be a central focus of a Catholic church.
The Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum: On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on March 25, 2004. This Instruction, which also quoted other documents, stated that the tabernacle is to be placed in a part of the church that is noble, prominent, readily visible, adorned in a dignified manner, and suitable for prayer.
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.221 In addition, diligent attention should be paid to all the prescriptions of the liturgical books and to the norm of law,222 especially as regards the avoidance of the danger of profanation.223
221. Cf. S. Congregation of Rites, Instruction, Eucharisticum mysterium, n. 54: AAS 59 (1967) p. 568; Instruction, Inter Oecumenici, 26 September 1964, n. 95: AAS 56 (1964) pp. 877-900, here p. 898; Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis, n. 314.
222. Cf. Pope John Paul II, Letter, Dominicae Cenae, n. 3: AAS 72 (1980) pp. 117-119; S. Congregation of Rites, Instruction, Eucharisticum mysterium, n. 53: AAS 59 (1967) p. 568; Code of Canon Law, can. 938 § 2; Roman Ritual, Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass, Introduction, n. 9; Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis, nn. 314-317.
223. Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 938 §§ 3-5.
Code of Canon Law (1983)
§1. The Most Holy Eucharist is to be reserved habitually in only one tabernacle of a church or oratory.
§2. The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is to be situated in some part of the church or oratory which is distinguished, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer.
§3. The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved habitually is to be immovable, made of solid and opaque material, and locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is avoided as much as possible.
§4. For a grave cause, it is permitted to reserve the Most Holy Eucharist in some other fitting and more secure place, especially at night.
§5. The person responsible for the church or oratory is to take care that the key of the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is safeguarded most diligently.
Canon 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.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal
(GIRM 2010. Footnotes indicated but not included here.)
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.124
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.125 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.126
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.127
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 faithful128 and organically connected to the church and readily noticeable by the Christian faithful.
Pope Benedict’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis February 22, 2007. (Footnotes indicated but not included here.)
The location of the tabernacle
69. In considering the importance of eucharistic reservation and adoration, and reverence for the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice, the Synod of Bishops also discussed the question of the proper placement of the tabernacle in our churches.196 The correct positioning of the tabernacle contributes to the recognition of Christ’s real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Therefore, the place where the eucharistic species are reserved, marked by a sanctuary lamp, should be readily visible to everyone entering the church. It is therefore necessary to take into account the building’s architecture: in churches which do not have a Blessed Sacrament chapel, and where the high altar with its tabernacle is still in place, it is appropriate to continue to use this structure for the reservation and adoration of the Eucharist, taking care not to place the celebrant’s chair in front of it. In new churches, it is good to position the Blessed Sacrament chapel close to the sanctuary; where this is not possible, it is preferable to locate the tabernacle in the sanctuary, in a sufficiently elevated place, at the center of the apse area, or in another place where it will be equally conspicuous. Attention to these considerations will lend dignity to the tabernacle, which must always be cared for, also from an artistic standpoint. Obviously it is necessary to follow the provisions of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal in this regard (cf. GIRM §314). In any event, final judgment on these matters belongs to the Diocesan Bishop.
Built of Living Stones
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Divine Worship released a statement in 2000 titled Built of Living Stones, Art, Architecture, and Worship, which said that the placement of the tabernacle must allow people to focus on it “for those periods of quiet prayer outside the celebration of the Eucharist” (§250) and that “When a tabernacle is located directly behind the altar, consideration should be given to using … some architectural device that separates the … reservation area during Mass, but “allows the tabernacle to be fully visible to the entire worship area when the eucharistic liturgy is not being celebrated.” (§251)
Some US diocesan bishops have also made statements on the placement of the tabernacle within churches, including the following:
Bishop Arthur Serratelli
(June 28, 2011) “Sacred Art, Recapturing a Treasure”
… Removing the tabernacle from the central position in the Church can lead to an anthropocentric view of liturgy. Liturgy easily becomes about us and not about the divine presence into which we are being drawn. When a church positions the tabernacle in a prominent and central place, the worshipper is caught up in the action at the altar and visually led to the Real Presence in the tabernacle.…
Bishop John D’Arcy
(July 19, 2009) Norms for Tabernacle Placement
… The place of the tabernacle in our church should reflect our faith in the real presence of Christ, and should always be guided by church documents. …
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