In her book, Fulfilled: Uncovering the Biblical Foundations of Catholicism, Sonja Corbitt, writing on the Old Testament Tabernacle of God, discusses the precise instructions given to the Israelites regarding the design and layout of their Tabernacle. She writes:
“The strictly prescribed Tabernacle setup informed the Israelites that they could only draw near God in the way he offered” (Fulfilled, 240).
Like the tabernacles in our own church (which have a candle or oil lamp, signifying the eucharistic presence) the Old Testament’s Tabernacle contained an ever-burning lamp. The similarities are not a coincidence:
“Light was a metaphor, in Old Testament Judaism for the saving presence of God. The gold piece used to make the lampstand symbolized the unity of that priesthood, first with God in the Old Covenant, then with Christ himself throughout the New Covenant” (Fulfilled, 152-153).
This light, always revealing the truth, is fulfilled, Corbitt points out, in the Magisterium of the Church, which continues to offer guidance and shed light today, and through its loving instruction, offers us new ways to draw near God.
With that in mind, we turn to a question from Ray, who wants to know what the Church teaches when it comes to the location and placement of the tabernacle in a church building. Some newer churches do not have a tabernacle in the main sanctuary. Some older churches have moved theirs from the sanctuary. This has led to confusion. Since most of these changes happened after the Second Vatican Council, many wonder if the council required churches to move their tabernacles. Today we explore what the Church teaches on this, as she does have some things to say.
An issue here stems from the fact that one can look in different Church documents and seem to read things justifying completely different outcomes in church design and construction. It is important to read documents in their entirety, and to look in more than one place and see how these documents speak together to understand what we need to know about the tabernacle.
In order to understand the reason for confusion, let us start with the way churches were traditionally designed and built. Older churches had a high altar, usually in the center of the back of the sanctuary, into which the tabernacle was usually built. As these altars were built assuming the Mass was celebrated ad orientem (with the priest standing at the altar, facing the tabernacle), this made sense from a liturgical and practical standpoint. It was also in accordance with Canon Law at the time. As paragraph 1111 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law put it:
“The Blessed Sacrament … should be placed in the most prominent and best ornamented place in church, and, therefore, as a rule, on the main altar unless another altar is more convenient and appropriate for the veneration and cult of this great Sacrament.”
Paragraph 1112 continues:
“The Blessed Sacrament must be kept in an immovable tabernacle, placed in the middle of the Altar.”
If you entered a church, the first place your eyes would be drawn would naturally be to the main altar. As such, it made sense that this, the focal point of your view should also house the most precious occupant of the church. This way, parishioners wishing to venerate our Lord in the Eucharist would know exactly where to look. While the 1917 Code of Canon Law is no longer applicable, it is important to understand if we are to know the context in which the current Canon Law, Catechism, and liturgical texts should be read. Suffice it to say that the image shown above was the norm of how a tabernacle and altar were placed in churches built prior to the Second Vatican Council.
What the Church Currently Teaches
What does the Church currently teach about tabernacles? First of all, according to the Catechism:
“The tabernacle is to be situated ‘in churches in a most worthy place with the greatest honor.’ The dignity, placing, and security of the Eucharistic tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord really present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar” (CCC 1183).
The current Code of Canon Law (Canon 938) explains further:
“The Most Holy Eucharist is to be reserved habitually in only one tabernacle of a church or oratory. 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. 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.”
Therefore, what we know is the church should only use one tabernacle at a time, that this tabernacle should remain in one place, that its design includes safety and sturdiness, and that it should be prominent, beautiful and easy to find, so that the worshipers who wish to pray before it should know where to focus their gaze. One can see that the reasoning for placement of the tabernacle has not changed from that listed in the 1917 code. Wherever placed, it should be done to promote adoration by the worshipers. There is no mention in either the Catechism or the Code of Canon Law about the tabernacle’s location within the church.
The Mystery of the Eucharist
So from where does confusion arise? In 1967, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Rites (now known as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) issued an instruction known as Eucharisticum Mysterium (for the original Latin, see Paul VI’s 1967 Acta Apostolicae Sedis, where it can be found on pages 539-573). This instruction guides the post-conciliar church in many aspects of the Eucharist, in and out of Mass. It also contains nineteen paragraphs about the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass. Two paragraphs of this instruction in particular are often mentioned when speaking of churches which do not have a tabernacle in, or have removed the tabernacle from, their sanctuary.
In Paragraph 53 of the instruction, we read:
“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.”
Since a church can only have one tabernacle used on a regular basis, reading this paragraph, on its own, would seem to indicate that it is currently preferred that this tabernacle not be in the sanctuary but, if possible, be in a chapel instead. More on that in a moment.
Another paragraph in Eucharisticum Mysterium addresses churches in which the tabernacle remains in the sanctuary. This paragraph is sometimes cited for removing the tabernacles from high altars. Paragraph 55 tells us:
“In the celebration of Mass the principal modes of worship by which Christ is present to His Church are gradually revealed. First of all, Christ is seen to be present among the faithful gathered in His name; then in his Word, as the Scriptures are read and explained; in the person of the minister; finally and in a unique way under the species of the Eucharist. Consequently, because of the sign, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that the Eucharistic presence of Christ, which is the fruit of the consecration and should be seen as such, should not be on the altar from the very beginning of Mass through the reservation of the sacred species in the tabernacle.”
As this is a translation, some of the English does not flow well. The point being made here is that, on the altar itself, Jesus is not fully present until the consecration. If the Eucharist itself is not just the source, but the summit of Christian life, it makes sense, the Congregation tells us, that it is the summit of the Mass. Like a summit, the Mass should rise, the participants climbing as it builds to that pinnacle: the climax, the moment of the consecration. If Christ, in the form of a consecrated host, was already present on the altar, then the Mass itself could seem anticlimactic. It should be noted that Eucharisticum Mysterium is cited by the Church in the General Instruction for the Roman Missal, which states in paragraph 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.”
So, Must Tabernacles be Moved?
Since the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law remain silent the precise location of the tabernacle (beyond that the location be “distinguished, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer,” as well as “a most worthy place with the greatest honor”), it would be understandable if, having read the paragraphs above, one were to conclude that, since Vatican II, the tabernacle should be in a separate chapel if possible, and if not, at least away from the altar.
However, to do so would be to misread Eucharisticum Mysterium. The paragraphs listed above do not contain the entirety of the church’s teaching on tabernacles. They are segments of a part on the instruction discussing “The Place for the Reservation of the Holy Eucharist.” This first (Paragraph 52) discusses the tabernacle itself, before we get to the other two that were mentioned.
Further, while paragraph 53 is entitled “The Blessed Sacrament Chapel” and paragraph 55 “A Tabernacle on an Altar where Mass is Celebrated with a Congregation”, Paragraph 54, between them, is entitled “The Tabernacle in the Middle of the Altar or in Some Other Part of the Church” (which, as we read above, is what the 1917 Canon required, but which seems to be contradicted by the other two paragraphs.
In fact, each of these paragraphs seem to list a different instruction of what is preferred. When we read all three of these paragraphs as a whole, we see that these three instructions don’t contradict each other, but discuss how to handle different scenarios, based on where the tabernacle is in particular churches. (If you wish to see what I mean you can follow THIS LINK and scroll to “Part II. The Place for the Reservation of the Holy Eucharist,” specifically paragraphs 52 through 56).
In other words, Eucharisticum Mysterium does not require that tabernacles be moved. It does say that they can be located in places other than the high altar, and offers instructions regarding how this can be done while maintaining the dignity, nobility, and safety of the tabernacle, and by extension that of the Blessed Sacrament. It is also worth noting that, since most existing churches built free-standing altars away from the high altar, the tabernacle could remain where it was, and still follow the instruction, as the old High Altar (in which the tabernacle was located would not be the altar on which consecration takes place.)
Confirming this is paragraph 56, which states:
“The principles stated in nos. 53 and 55 ought to be kept in mind in the building of new churches. The adaptation of existing churches and altars may take place only according to the principles laid down in no. 24 of this instruction.”
In other words, the concept of separate adoration chapels or tabernacles away from the altar did not exist prior to this instruction. It now allowed for this with regards to construction of new churches. It went out of its way to say that there was no requirement to change existing churches.
To Understand Fully, We Must Read Fully
This underscores the importance of avoiding “cherry picking” words, but instead to read documents and instructions in their entirety. To further prove this point, Paragraph 315 from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal was partially quoted above (“Finally, 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”). The rest of the paragraph, below, adds context:
“Consequently, it is preferable that the tabernacle be located, according to the judgment of the diocesan Bishop, 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; 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.”
In other words, all of these are options. If a church has a tabernacle in the high altar, they can continue to use this tabernacle, even if the altar is not used anymore. If the church wishes to move it to somewhere else in the church, this is acceptable too, provided it is in a prominent place where people can easily find it and pray before it. If the church includes an adoration chapel as part of the church building, this should be the only tabernacle in the church (Please note, this does not apply to separate chapels elsewhere on a parish campus, but only if the chapel is a part of the church building).
I am also aware of a few modern churches which have combined two of these. They had a traditional tabernacle behind the altar, with an adoration chapel directly behind the sanctuary, back-to-back (or apse to apse), such that the tabernacle was in a niche between the two rooms, and had doors that could be opened from the front or back, from either the sanctuary or the chapel.
The most important thing to understand is that there is no requirement that the tabernacle be in any particular place, but that wherever it is, it be prominent and not hidden.
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About Matt Dunn
Matthew joined Ascension Press in 2014. He studied political science, business technology, and business management at Delaware County Community College and Temple University. Writing is not his only creative outlet: when not in the office, he can be found on stage as a member of Stealth Tightrope, a local improvisational comedy troupe, or as a musician. A clarinetist with the Merion Concert Band, Matthew also enjoys playing professionally alongside his wife, Susan, who is a professional pianist, vocalist, and composer.