Many questions come to me in the course of a week or a month. Sometimes I actually have a good answer—not always, unfortunately (if a “good answer” is one that truly satisfies the questioner). But at Our Savior church there is a perennial question—one I was asked again this past week: “Why is the tabernacle off to the side instead of front and center behind the altar?”
In the course of the last 50 years, there have been differing directions from the Vatican’s Congregation for Worship and the statements in the General Introduction to the Roman Missal (= GIRM) in its various incarnations. Let’s explore them for a bit.
The Missal of Pope Paul VI (commonly referred to as the Sacramentary) makes this comment: “Every encouragement should be given to the practice of eucharistic reservation in a chapel suited to the faithful’s private adoration and prayer” (GIRM #276). This is in keeping with the three-fold purpose of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament: 1) viaticum to the dying; 2) Communion for the sick; 3) adoration and prayer. The idea here is that nothing should take away from making the altar the primary focal point of the church: the altar, on which the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is sacramentally re-presented during Mass. If we think about it, we can have an altar without a tabernacle; we cannot have a tabernacle without an altar.
Our newer, third “typical edition” (commonly referred to as the Roman Missal), makes a similar point: “…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. …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. Consequently, it is preferable be located…a) either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration… b) or even in some chapel suitable for the private adoration and prayer of the faithful…readily noticeable by the Christian faithful” (##314-315).
Legitimate arguments can be made about our church’s structure, as to whether the tabernacle and the Blessed Sacrament chapel are sufficiently prominent and conspicuous. For myself personally and for a number of others, it is clear that its location is in fact suitable for private adoration and prayer. What is implied in both sets of the GIRM, though, is that nothing should distract from the primary focal point of the church—the altar on which the Eucharistic offering is made. After all, one of the arguments for a tabernacle front and center is accessibility for the sake of ease of Communion during Mass. But even the recent GIRM (#85) says that the desired form of reception of Communion by everyone is from “hosts consecrated at [that] same Mass…” So Communion from the tabernacle should be a matter of need and not of standard practice. This, by the way, has been an instruction (usually not followed) for centuries.
Would I have built Our Savior exactly as it is today? No. Would I have put the reservation chapel where it is? No. Would I have put it where many people want? No. What would I have done? I don’t know, and I’m happy to report that I’ll never have to make such a decision! But I can say that very, very many of the important churches in Italy have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in “hidden” places, so that either you can find them for prayer because you already knew where they were, or by accident. The Blessed Sacrament chapel in St Peter’s in Rome, for example, is behind a heavy curtain! Once inside, it’s very noble, worthily decorated, and suitable for prayer, but it is hardly prominent or conspicuous. And that’s OK.
Let’s make a conscious effort, coming into our church, to genuflect intentionally: toward the tabernacle, and not simply by rote, toward the altar. But let’s also remember that it’s from the altar that the great gift of the Blessed Eucharist is given.