Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Tabernacle: Just Where Have They Enthroned My Lord Who Alone is the Head of the Church His Body?

The revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal in the year 2000 offers the following instruction for the placement of the tabernacle in churches and oratories:

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, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer.125

The one tabernacle should be immovable, 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.126 Moreover, it is appropriate that, before it is put into liturgical use, it be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.127

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.128

Consequently, it is preferable that the tabernacle be located, according to the judgment of the Diocesan Bishop,

1. 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 (cf. above, no. 303);
2. Or even in some chapel suitable for the faithful's private adoration and prayer129 and which is organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful.

316. In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honor the presence of Christ.130

317. In no way should all the other things prescribed by law concerning the reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist be forgotten.131

Fr. McDonald's catechesis:

Since the Second Vatican Council, one of the more contentious elements of reform was the placement of the tabernacle. Generally, prior to Vatican II, the tabernacle was on a reredos attached to the altar of sacrifice. It was dead center. When people genuflected prior to entering the pew, they were genuflecting straight ahead to the Jesus Christ present in the tabernacle. He, even in the reserved sacrament, was at the head of the Church as the Head of the Church.

Notwithstanding this custom, though, in many great Cathedrals and churches in Europe and elsewhere, the tabernacle was housed in a separate chapel near the altar. Now when I say chapel, these where the size of most of our parish churches! And in these chapels were altars for the celebration of Mass and the tabernacle was placed again directly in the middle of the chapel either on the altar or directly behind it. There was no mistaking the prominence of the place of reservation for our Eucharistic Lord. Usually these side chapels were used because of the volume of tourists and religious pilgrims visiting the great cathedrals and the distraction to prayer and reverence that this caused.

However, after Vatican II a peculiar theology began to develop that motivated dethroning the tabernacle from its place of prominence in the sanctuary. What was described as the "static" presence of Christ and the "active" presence of Christ became popular amongst liberal liturgical theologians. Now bear with me, this gets complicated, because I know you are asking how can the Risen and Eucharistic Lord be "static?" Yes, it sounds corrupt and yes it sounds disrespectful! But it was well intentioned although very destructive of Eucharistic devotion.

The "static" presence of Christ was His reserved presence. He was just there for us to adore Him, like He was sleeping! His active presence was in the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass and the active receiving Him as Eucharistic Food during the celebration of Mass. These liberal theologians wanted to separate these to "types" of presences during the celebration of Mass as though Jesus is different in both or something else in one and the other. It really is absurd.

Some of these theologians also expressed a desire for the "real absence" of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle before and during the celebration of Mass because the Mass was the means by which Jesus Christ would be made present and received. There shouldn't be the "static" presence of Christ in the tabernacle before and during the celebration of Mass. They didn't want the faithful praying to Christ in the tabernacle during the Mass, especially during the consecration. While this does seem like splitting hairs, there is some validity to the confusion of a devotion and the participating in the sacrament which "confects" the Most Holy Eucharist.

But with that said, I have never heard anyone in the history of the Church who experienced their entire Catholic life with the tabernacle dead center in their church complain that this in any way lessened their Catholic faith, their belief in the Most Holy Eucharist or their appreciation of the Mass as the means by which our Lord comes to us to save us in His one sacrifice and to nourish us in the Most Holy Eucharist. This just didn't and doesn't happen.

However, when the tabernacle was "dethroned" and placed on a side altar or even out of view of the congregation in a separate chapel, devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament and respect for Him in the Reserved Sacrament certainly did take a hit. Many of the faithful who truly did have a profound reverence and respect for the reserved Most Holy Sacrament, were appalled by the tabernacle being moved to a lesser position in the Church or out of the Church altogether.

There is no doubt that we now have two generations of Catholics who do not have the same appreciation or devotion to our Lord reserved in the tabernacle precisely because of the "sign" and "symbol" of dethroning the tabernacle and placing the one who is the Head of our Church, Jesus Christ in a less conspicuous and honorable place.

In addition to this, the placement of the tabernacle on the same par as other "lesser" devotions seems to equate that devotion to our Lord present in the tabernacle is on par with devotion to St. Juan Diego, or any of the other saints who are honored in the Church, that devotion to Christ present in the tabernacle is just one devotion amongst many. My brother and sisters, this just isn't so. Devotion to our Lord reserved in the tabernacle is the preeminent devotion in the Church to which every other devotion flows and takes the second place!

I believe that for the vast majority of our parishioners at St. Joseph Church, the dethroning of the tabernacle to the side chapel lessened their appreciation for Jesus Christ present in the reserved Most Holy Sacrament. From about 1970 to 2006 the tabernacle was in our Lady's Chapel, thus confusing devotion to Christ in the tabernacle with Marian devotions. Then it was place in the Sacred Heart Chapel, which is a depiction of the Risen Christ as the Sacred Heart, but still confuses a popular devotion with the preeminent devotion to the Risen Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar.

The main old high altar with its beautiful reredos was the place of reservation from 1903 until about 1970. It was designed to show that Jesus Christ, both "static" and "active" if you will, is the Head of the Church both literally, figuratively and liturgically as well as "devotionally." Above the ornate tabernacle which is behind the post Vatican II magnificent free-standing altar, is the depiction of the crucifixion, the one Sacrifice of Christ that sets us free from sin and death and which is renewed in an "unbloodly way" on the altar of sacrifice at every Mass. Below the tabernacle on the former pre-Vatican II attached altar is the sculpture of the Last Supper where Jesus Christ instituted not only the means by which we would memorialize this one Sacrifice in a sacred meal, but He also instituted the ministerial priesthood who would be responsible for acting in the "Person of Christ" during the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass. It is clear that placing the tabernacle above this sculpture and below the crucifixion scene has powerful symbolic meaning and purpose which was totally lost at St. Joseph Church when the tabernacle was "dethroned" to a side chapel in 1970.

So there you have it. Make your own decision about the pastoral advisability of sidelining the tabernacle, removing it from sight altogether or retaining it at the head of the Church. Comments?


Anonymous said...

I've seen tabernacles moved at many parishes and there is NEVER any good result. This causes confusion and fosters a lack of reverence as well as a decline in the belief in the Real Presence. I have also seen the tabernacle restored to its original place on the high altar and the majority of people in the parish are always pleased.

Templar said...

Let me answer by saying that when you announced that repairs to the Tabernacle in the Sacred Heart Altar were necessary and we would temporarily be utilizing the Tabernacle on the Main Altar I cried. For a short while at least I not find it necessary to genuflect at a 45 degree angle when I enter my pew, which feels unnatural and contrived. It makes me want to plot sabotage to the doors of the Sacred Heart tabernacle when they return (just jesting of course Father). I drive 40 minutes one way to attend Mass at St Joseph in part because at my local parish they hide my Lord in a back room, and hardly anyone genuflects at all. When you strip the altar on Holy Thursday and take him away I feel a profound sense of loss emotional distress.

Utilizing a broad minded reading of the Bishop's instructions, you would be free to continue using the tabernacle on the old Main Altar, and I for one would welcome it.

Gene said...

Yes, move the Host back to the main altar.

-Brian said...

I believe the Tabernacle ought to be as deep, and centered, and high... as is practical.

Sometimes this has to be comprimised for the sake of circumstance. For instance, in a non-denominational chapel (such as seen in hospitals & military bases); or, in open church plants located in high poverty high crime areas (such as seen in peripheral countries).
So, without some need to move it...why would one seat the Author of Life anywhere else but deep, high, and centered???

Jon said...

I'm with Templar in that when He is taken away during the Easter Triduum, there is a palpable sense of loss, and a Void has crept into the sanctuary. Likewise when He is taken off the Main Altar, dead center. Catholicism is a Christocentric universe, in which "In Him all things hold together" ( Col. 1:17). When He sits in His proper place, everything else--like the other, lesser devotions you mention Father--has its proper orbit around Him. With Him gone, the center cannot hold; and the falcon loses the Falconer, to paraphrase Yeats.