by Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap.
Many Catholics are familiar with the Gallup poll finding that only 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.1 There are, no doubt, various reasons for this failure in faith, from dissent in theology to poor teaching on the part of pastors and parents. But, one cause is so obvious that it could very well be overlooked, namely, the position of the tabernacle.
Vanishing Symbols of Adoration
Some people say that the modern church is without devotion. But this is not true. One sees pastors, who forbid people to genuflect before receiving Holy Communion, rush into the assembly at the Kiss of Peace to hug people effusively.2 So, some modern pastors have just shifted their devotion from the Blessed Sacrament to the assembly.
This disenchantment with the Blessed Sacrament and excitement towards the assembly seems odd because the Church teaches that the Blessed Sacrament contains "the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ," including "His physical 'reality,' corporeally present."3 The Blessed Sacrament, therefore, is the only reality on earth that requires our adoration, which is indicated in the Roman Rite by the genuflection. Consequently, the Church states in one of her post-Vatican II documents:
The venerable practice of genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, whether enclosed in the tabernacle or publicly exposed, as a sign of adoration, is to be maintained. This act requires that it be performed in a recollected way. In order that the heart may bow before God in profound reverence, the genuflection must be neither hurried nor careless.4
The Church also says: "No one who enters a church should fail to adore the Blessed Sacrament, either by visiting the Blessed Sacrament chapel or at least by genuflecting. Similarly, those who pass before the Blessed Sacrament genuflect, except when they are walking in procession."5
But, today, some young (and not so young) Catholics are coming into church and not genuflecting at all. And, a number of Catholics are genuflecting to the center of the sanctuary, even though the Blessed Sacrament has been moved elsewhere! Are these people adoring the main altar? One wonders what these Catholics were taught about the Church's teaching on the Eucharist.
There is also confusion when incense is used at Mass. Incense indicates "reverence," i.e., that which is incensed is holy.6 Now, the Blessed Sacrament is holier than the altar, lectionary, bishop, priests, ministers, and people. This is why the Ceremonial of Bishops mandated by John Paul II states that "The Blessed Sacrament is incensed from a kneeling position" and not from a standing position, as in other incensations.7
But, today, it often happens that the altar, lectionary, bishop, priests, ministers, and people are all incensed before the consecration at special festive masses, yet the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle is ignored during this incensation-even when present there in the sanctuary.8 And, when the tabernacle is incensed, rarely does one see the bishop or priest incense it from a "kneeling position." These incensations leave the impression that the Blessed Sacrament is only as holy of these others - or not even as holy.
The Removal of the Tabernacle from the Sanctuary
The absent or misdirected genuflection of the people, and the overlooked or irregular incensing of the tabernacle during Mass, all seem to be due to the removal of the tabernacle from the sanctuary. It had been a centuries' old tradition that the Blessed Sacrament was kept on the main altar, or on a separate altar behind the main altar, in the center of the sanctuary. After the Second Vatican Council, however, pastors concluded that the tabernacle should not remain in the middle of the sanctuary. Pastors then moved the tabernacle to various places: the side of the main altar; the side of the church; a cavity in the wall of the church; the back of the church; the vestibule of the church; or even to another room outside of the church. The moving of the tabernacle to a eucharistic chapel was actually recommended by Roman congregations in two post-Vatican II documents: Eucharisticum Mysterium and Cenam Paschalem [General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM)]. Eucharisticum Mysterium reads:
It is therefore recommended that, as far as possible, the tabernacle be placed in a chapel distinct from the middle or center 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 and historical treasures.9
And, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal reads:
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.10
The Environment and Art in Catholic Worship by the U. S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, which "has no legal status at all," dogmatizes this recommendation.11
But the more authoritative and more recent Code of Canon Law and Inaestimabile Donum ("approved and confirmed by his holiness Pope John Paul II") make no such recommendation.12 Inaestimabile Donum states that "The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept can be located on an altar, or away from it, in a spot 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."13
One can see that the Blessed Sacrament "can" be kept "in a chapel suitable for private prayer and for adoration by the faithful." This is a necessary option for pastors in historic cathedrals which are visited daily by tourists who may not keep silent or convey the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament. Since these cathedrals are also parishes, the parishioners have a right to private prayer and worship of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Blessed Sacrament has every right to be respected. So, there is a good reason to have a side chapel for private worship of the Blessed Sacrament in places like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C. and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Once more, these cathedrals are large enough to have a side chapel which is still part of the church building and still visible to all.
Since many cathedrals have much daily traffic, and most likely also a Blessed Sacrament chapel some distance from the main altar, the bishop would probably not incense the tabernacle during the Mass. This is the most likely reason why the Ceremonial of Bishops makes no mention of incensing the tabernacle in its instructions on how the bishop should celebrate the Eucharist at his cathedral.14 Perhaps, a number of pastors do not incense the tabernacle at their own masses in their parishes in imitation of their bishop's cathedral liturgies.
Removing the Tabernacle from the Sanctuary Has Problems
But, most churches do not have the problem of tourist traffic. Consequently, there is no good reason to move the Blessed Sacrament from the sanctuary. Once more, negative effects connected with moving the tabernacle from the center of the sanctuary have been noted. Msgr. Peter J. Elliot mentions these negative effects in relation to the above Church documents which direct the placing of the tabernacle in eucharistic chapels. Msgr. Elliot states in his recent book, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite:
Studying the development within these directives, we see first of all that Inaestimabile Donum modifies the favor for a 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 Inaestimabile 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.15
Some of the negative effects of moving the tabernacle from the sanctuary in churches should have been anticipated. The most "prominent" place in most churches and chapels is in the center of the sanctuary, which everyone faces when they come in to pray. When the tabernacle is removed from this most prominent place, the faithful are left with the subconscious impression that the Blessed Sacrament has been slighted or, even worse, is not worthy of adoration. This may not be the pastor's intention, but it is the most likely subliminal message that will be received by the people. Why? The people see no other reason for removing the tabernacle! Surely, this contributed to the massive loss of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist among American Catholics over the last number of years.
Also, if the tabernacle is moved to a side chapel which is not prominent and in full view of the faithful, especially if it is not connected to the main body of the Church, only those few fervent people who visit the Blessed Sacrament regularly will be aware of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Sunday Catholics will not see the tabernacle, nor be aware of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This presents a serious difficulty for those trying to conduct a "complete catechesis of our children" concerning the Church's faith in the Eucharist.16
Today, one often hears the complaint from Catholic people that it is getting difficult to make one's thanksgiving for communion in church after Mass, because people stand around and talk in church, even when the Blessed Sacrament is present. Surely the removal of the tabernacle from the central position of so many churches has contributed to the general loss of reverence toward our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. So, another negative effect of moving the tabernacle out of the sanctuary into a separate eucharistic chapel is that the church building becomes Protestantized: a church of God becomes a church of the people and a church of prayer becomes a church of fellowship. But, our Lord said quite vehemently: "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'" (Mat 21:13).
Surely, this complaint of the Catholic people is related to another. Msgr. Elliot points out the experience of loneliness which is beginning to pervade the Catholic churches. He says that "It is argued that the tabernacle is a distraction during liturgical celebrations, therefore the area for celebration must be separate from the area of reservation. This extremism has done great harm, as can be inferred from the lingering complaint that 'Now our church seems empty.'"17
Which is More Important: the Mass or the Blessed Sacrament?
Some reasons for moving the tabernacle out of the sanctuary verge on heresy. For example, one of the reasons given is that the Mass is more important than the Blessed Sacrament and, therefore, only the altar should occupy the most prominent or central position in the sanctuary.18 The Sacred Congregation of Rites did state that "The main altar should be so placed and constructed that it is always seen to be ... the center of the assembly."19 But, the primary reason that the Sacred Congregation gave for saying that the main altar should be so placed as to be the center of the assembly is: "For the Eucharist contains the entire spiritual good of the Church, namely, Christ, Himself, our Passover and living bread."20 But, the tabernacle also "contains the entire spiritual good of the Church, namely, Christ Himself, our Passover and living bread" and, therefore, it too "should be so placed and constructed that it is always seen to be ... the center of the assembly."
While it is true that the act of offering the Mass is greater than the act of praying before the Blessed Sacrament, one must not misconstrue this to mean that the act of offering the Mass is greater than the Blessed Sacrament Itself. Pius XII pointed this out when he stated: "But is not He who offers sacrifice somehow greater than the sacrifice itself? So now we would like to speak to you about the Lord Himself, and first of all to call your attention to the fact that in the Eucharist the Church possesses the Lord flesh and blood, body and soul and divinity."21 Continuing Plus XII states: "The Lord is somehow greater than the altar and the sacrifice."22
But, then, the Pope asks: "Is the tabernacle, where dwells the Lord Who has come down amongst His people, greater than altar and sacrifice?"23 The Pope answers by saying: "The altar is more important than the tabernacle, because on it is offered the Lord's sacrifice. In the tabernacle, on the other hand, He is present as long as the consecrated species last, yet is not making a permanent sacrificial offering."24 Pius XII says that one has a perfect right to distinguish between the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass and the cult of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, "Still," he insists, "an awareness of their unity is more important than a realization of their differences. It is one and the same Lord Who is immolated on the altar and honored in the tabernacle, and Who pours out His blessings from the tabernacle."25 Finally, the Pope states: "A person who was thoroughly convinced of this would avoid many difficulties. He would be wary of exaggerating the significance of one to the detriment of the other."26
So, Pius XII says that, while the altar and sacrifice are greater and more important than the tabernacle (the precious metal box), they are not greater and more important than the Blessed Sacrament Itself which is in the tabernacle. And, he says that we should stress the unity between the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament and not their difference! Indeed, one must ask modern liturgists: what's wrong with the tabernacle and the main altar both being in the center of the sanctuary?
Preserving the Integrity of the Sanctuary
In fact, there are very good reasons from Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium to say that, as far as possible, the altar of sacrifice and the tabernacle should always remain in equal prominent positions in the sanctuary. First of all, the sanctuary of the Catholic churches is the true holy of holies which was prefigured in the Old Testament. The Old Testament describes the building of the tabernacle which was the dwelling place of God among the Israelites: "All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the LORD has commanded: the tabernacle ... the ark ... and the bread of the Presence; the lampstand, ... the altar of holocausts, ... (and) ... the holy vestments for the priest Aaron" (Ex 35-10-19).
Remember that the holy of holies or the tabernacle in the sanctuary of the temple was the most sacred place for the Jews of the Old Testament since it housed the "ark of the covenant" (Word of God) [Ex 37:1-9] along with the "Holy Bread" (I Sam 21:7; Ex 29:23, 31-34). It was the place where the priest offered sacrifice (the blood of goats and bulls) for the atonement of the peoples' sins (Hebrews 9:3-5). It was considered to be "the Lord's presence" among the Israelites (I Sam 21:7) and it was complete with everything, even a vigil light which they called a "lampstand" (Ex. 37:17). Thus, the Old Testament Scriptures report: "The priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place beneath the wings of the cherubim in the sanctuary, the holy of holies of the temple" (I Kgs. 8:6) [Ex 35:10-19].
All of this was a foreshadowing of the New Covenant and the sacrifice made by Christ "the high priest ... once and for all ... not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood" which "achieved eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:11-12). It was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ who "remains forever" and of his "priesthood which does not pass away" as it is eternally celebrated by the Church in the Eucharist (Heb. 7:24). Thus, the new "sanctuary" resides in front of the Catholic churches and is the "holy of holies" par excellence, where Christ offers Himself as sacrifice to the Father and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ is reserved under the appearance of bread. And, it is from interaction with these heavenly mysteries that the Christian's own "body" becomes a mystical tabernacle or "temple of the Holy Spirit" (I Cor 6:19).
Catholic churches, therefore, have normally had a "sanctuary" in the front-center of the churches where Scriptures, the main altar, and the tabernacle are all located. The Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship, stated in 1970 that "The Sanctuary should be distinguished from the rest of the Church by some feature such as a raised floor, special shape, or decoration. It should be large enough for the sacred rites to be performed without difficulty."27 Once more, the Sacred Congregation of Rites states in Eucharisticum Mysterium, that "According to the traditional practice, a lamp should burn continually near the tabernacle as a sign of the honor paid to the Lord."28 One should recall that this "lamp," which signifies that our Eucharistic Lord is indeed present in the tabernacle located in the sanctuary, has traditionally been called the "Sanctuary Lamp."29 This fact indicates that the tabernacle has always been kept in the Sanctuary.
Pius XII objected to separating the altar of sacrifice from the tabernacle because he did not want to see a dissociation of the Blessed Sacrament from the sacrifice at the altar. He states:
There is question, not so much of the material presence of the tabernacle on the altar, as of a tendency to which We should like to call your attention, that of a lessening of esteem for the presence and action of Christ in the tabernacle. The sacrifice of the altar is held sufficient, and the importance of Him who accomplishes it is reduced.
Yet the person of our Lord must hold the central place in worship, for it is His person that unifies the relations of the altar and the tabernacle and gives them their meaning ...
To separate tabernacle from altar is to separate two things which by their origin and their nature should remain united.30
Possibly, Pius XII feared the removal of the tabernacle from the sanctuary. Msgr. Elliot says:
Aware of imminent adaptations, in 1956 Pope Pius XII had argued against separating the tabernacle from the altar. In the light of the post conciliar 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 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.31
The real danger that is being expressed by Pius XII, then, is the dissociation of the Blessed Sacrament from the Sacrifice of the Mass in the minds of the people. It is as if Pius XII anticipated forces that would divide the "holy of holies" by divorcing or disconnecting those elements which belong to it. If at all possible, then, the tabernacle and the altar of sacrifice should be kept in one place, a sacred and holy place!
The Blessed Sacrament Holds the "Central Place in Worship"
While the Church instructs that the main altar, the altar of sacrifice, "should be so placed and constructed that it is always seen to be ... the center of the assembly," one must not forget Pius XII's statement, that "the person of our Lord must hold the central place in worship." Paul VI emphasized this same point in his encyclical, Mysterium Fidei:
Further, you realize, venerable brothers, that the Eucharist is reserved in churches or oratories to serve as the spiritual center of a religious community or a parish community, indeed of the whole Church and the whole of mankind, since it contains, beneath the veil of the species, Christ the invisible Head of the Church, the Redeemer of the world, the Center of all hearts, "by whom all things are and by whom we exist."32
John Paul II confirmed that the Blessed Sacrament is at the heart of the Christian experience when he said: "Every member of the Church, especially bishops and priests, must be vigilant in seeing that this Sacrament of love shall be at the center of the life of the People of God."33
So, three pontiffs have stated that the Blessed Sacrament is the "center" of our "life" and "worship." If their words had been heeded the Church would not be experiencing the present crisis over faith in the Eucharist. But, during the past few decades, too many pastors have been treating the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle like a symbol or inanimate relic instead of a living, physical, human and divine Person. He was pushed off to the side or hidden away in a small room with a minimum amount of visibility or prominence. Once more, He was rarely pointed out to the faithful. "Out of sight, out of mind!"
John Paul II has tried to center the Blessed Sacrament in the hearts of Catholics. For example, the 1983 Code of Canon Law which he promulgated states:
Christ's faithful are to hold the blessed Eucharist in the highest honor. They should take an active part in the celebration of the most august Sacrifice of the Mass; they should receive the sacrament with great devotion and frequently, and should reverence it with the greatest adoration. In explaining the doctrine of this sacrament, pastors of souls are assiduously to instruct the faithful about their obligation in this regard.34
Note that Canon Law does not say that the faithful are to hold the Blessed Sacrament in minimum or sufficient honor, and reverence the Blessed Sacrament with minimum or sufficient adoration. Rather, it states that they are to hold the Blessed Sacrament in the "highest honor" and reverence the Blessed Sacrament with the "greatest adoration."
Similarly, pastors should not just place the tabernacle in a sufficiently prominent place in the sanctuary. Rather, they should place the Blessed Sacrament in that part of the sanctuary which has the highest visibility because it is the "greatest" place of prominence! And, they should "assiduously" teach the faithful to give the "highest honor" and have the "greatest adoration" for the Blessed Sacrament by making a fuss over the Blessed Sacrament themselves. They can do this best by taking to heart the advice of Plus XII to liturgists and the liturgical movement: they should "stress the attitude of the Church regarding certain pious practices: visits to the Blessed Sacrament, which she earnestly recommends, the Forty Hours devotion of 'perpetual adoration,' the holy hour, the solemn carrying of the Holy Communion to the sick, processions of the Blessed Sacrament."35 Pius XII concludes by stating to liturgists: "Not satisfied simply with letting the faithful come to their Lord in the tabernacle, the liturgical movement, then, will strive to draw them there even more."36
If pastors and liturgists would heed the advice of Pius XII, the Church would quickly overcome the malaise which has infected the Eucharistic faith of the Catholic people in the United States since the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the faithful will no longer be lonely in the midst of the assembly for they will be constantly reminded that Christ dwells among us in the flesh!
Father Scanlon is a writer who has contributed to numerous Catholic periodicals.
1 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, in Gianni Cardinale, "Clinton and Us," 30 Days, No. 12, 1992, p. 32.
2 Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (Inaestimabile donum), prepared by the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship approved and confirmed by his holiness, Pope John Paul II, April 3, 1980, No. 11.
3 Enchiridon Symbolorum (Denzinger), No. 883, 30th edition; Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, Sept. 3, 1965, No. 46. Partially my emphasis.
4 Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile donum, No. 26. My emphasis.
5 Congregation for Divine Worship, Augustine Meyer, O.S.B., Pro-Prefect, Ceremonial of Bishops, Preface, and No. 71, trans. by the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL), (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989), pp. 36-37.
6 Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 84, p. 39.
7 Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 94, p. 41. My emphasis.
8 Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 86, p. 40.
9 Sacred Congregations of Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, May 25, 1967, No. 53. My emphasis.
10 Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship, Cenant Paschalem (General Instruction on the Roman Missal), March 26, 1970, No. 276. My emphasis.
11 U. S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, Nos. 78-80, 1978; Peter J. Elliot, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, No. 874 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 325, no. 1.
12 Code of Canon Law, No. 938.2; Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile donum, Title.
13 Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum, No. 24. My emphasis.
14 Ceremonial of Bishops, Preface, No. 86, pp. 13, 40.
15 Peter J. Elliot, No. 871, p. 324.
16 Peter J. Elliot, No. 874, p. 325.
17 Peter J. Elliot, No. 874, p. 325.
18 Pope Pius XII, Address of Pope Pius XII to the International Congress on Pastoral Liturgy on the Liturgical Movement, 2, "Praesentia Christi," Sept. 22, 1956, in Official Catholic Teachings, Worship and Liturgy, James J. McGivern, ed. (Wilmington, N. C.: Consortium Bks., 1978), p. 174.
19 Sacred Congregation of Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, No. 24.
20 Sacred Congregation of Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, No. 6. My emphasis.
21 Pope Pius XII, p. 170.
22 Pope Pius XII, p. 172.
23 Pope Pius XII, p. 172.
24 Pope Plus XII, p. 172.
25 Pope Pius XII, p. 173. My emphasis.
26 Pope Pius XII, pp. 172-173, especially p. 173.
27 Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship, Cenam paschalem, No. 258.
28 Sacred Congregation of Rites, Eucharisticum Mysterium, No. 57.
29 John A. Hardon, S. J., Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Image Bks., 1985), p. 394. My emphasis.
30 Pope Pius XII, p. 174. My emphasis.
31 Peter J. Elliot, No. 884, p. 328.
32 Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, No. 68. My emphasis.
33 John Paul II, The Redeemer of Man (Redemptor Hominis), March 4, 1979, No. 20. My emphasis.
34 Code of Canon Law, Can. 898.
35 Pope Pius XII, p. 174.
36 Pope Pius XII, p. 174.