Editorial: Domus Eucharistica

This worship, given therefore to the Trinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, above all accompanies and permeates the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy. But it must fill our churches also outside the timetable of Masses. Indeed, since the Eucharistic Mystery was instituted out of love, and makes Christ sacramentally present, it is worthy of thanksgiving and worship. Pope John Paul II

Over the years, church buildings have received numerous titles: domus Ecclesiae, domus Dei, temple of the most high, image of the eternal, holy place, and body of Christ. John Cardinal Newman called churches gospel palaces. In this Jubilee year dedicated to the Eucharist it is appropriate to reflect on the domus Eucharistica, the church as a Eucharistic house. Our churches are the places we gather to eucharist, to thank God for His marvelous gifts. The psalmist exhorts us to “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and enter his courts with joy.” A church building which is eucharistic should foster our thanks by bringing to our eyes those things which we have to be thankful for in salvation history.

In constructing a new church, the community dedicates a building to prayer, and the building itself becomes a thank offering. It has been often remarked that God does not need church buildings. Perhaps, but from biblical times His children have sawn fit to erect monuments, tabernacles, temples and churches in His honor. What do we make of the many faithful who have built shrines in thanks for answered prayers? A domus Eucharistica can be likened to a gift offered by a bride to her bridegroom. Through its particular architecture and iconography, the eucharistic house can represent the giver as well as the beloved. If we think of the church as the finest gift we can give, it will be a beautiful jewel.

Eucharistic architecture is an architecture that supports and proclaims the Paschal mystery. As the source and the summit of all that we do, the liturgy of the Eucharist, deserves buildings that embody Christ’s death and resurrection. The architecture of the domus Eucharistica must focus us on the altar, which is the place of meal and sacrifice, as well as on the liturgy in heaven. It must help us to remember the Last Supper as well as making Christ’s sacrifice present. Our participation can be full, conscious and actual if due reverence is given to the design and placement of the other liturgico-sacramental elements: the font, the confessional, the ambo, and the tabernacle. Paintings, sculpture and symbols can reinforce the multiple foci of the domus Eucharistica as well as offering us a visual foretaste of the liturgy in heaven. To emphasize Christ present in His Church, his minister, the Eucharistic species, the sacraments, the holy Scriptures and in prayer and song the church building is conceived of as a unified whole permeated with the beauty of the Savior. Ultimately the domus Eucharistica will be directed towards the oriens, the “Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle.”

This reminds us that our tabernacles are prefaces which, if beautifully crafted and through physical orientation reconnect us with the oriens of our worship. Since the Middle Ages, one of the ways saints and mystics have understood the church building has been as a place to adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Vatican II makes this tradition explicit in defining a church as “ a house of prayer in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved.” And this is one of the reasons why Catholics are drawn to churches even outside of the liturgy, because they sense that God is truly present there in a way he is not in other places. The tabernacle at the center of the domus Eucharistica reminds us of His presence that will be with us until the end of the age.

And who is responsible for the emphasis on ornate tabernacles and eucharistic adoration outside of mass? Much of the credit must be given to the Poverello. Much Eucharistic piety, as well as emphasis on the design and placement of the tabernacle can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi and to the Franciscan renewal. Francis asked the Friars to show great respect for the Blessed Sacrament and that the liturgical practices of St. John Lateran, where the Eucharist was reserved on the altar, were to be followed. On his deathbed he urged his followers, “above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.” Contrasting this with the poverty of the mendicant life underscores the great honor Franciscans gave to the Sacrament in their decoration of the domus Eucharistica and ornamentation of the tabernacle. Francis’ love of the body of Christ in the Eucharist overflowed into his love of Christ in the least of his brothers.

As a sacramental people, Catholics take the art and architecture of our churches very seriously, believing that architecture re-presents the faith we celebrate. Thus the placement and design of the tabernacle of reservation signifies Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament. Architectural principles as well as examples from history seem to confirm the wisdom of the sensus fidelium. In the domus Eucharistica what could be more natural than to enthrone the Lord in a worthy tabernacle at the head of the church. As Cardinal Ratzinger has written, the Eucharistic Presence in the tabernacle “has the effect, of course, of keeping the Eucharist forever in the church. The church never becomes a lifeless space but is always filled with the presence of the Lord, which comes out of the celebration, leads us into it, and always makes us participants in the cosmic Eucharist.” This living presence in the tabernacle makes of the whole church a place of reservation. The tabernacle itself is a small domus Eucharistica that the whole church imitates in its richly ornamented offering of thanks.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.