The Living Heart of Our Churches

The Placement of the Tabernacle

by Giles R. Dimock, appearing in Volume 14

Everywhere I go, I hear people speaking of churches, the churches of today, the churches of their youth, or the great churches of Europe. They often express the desire to see “churches that look like churches.” They mourn the loss of statues, murals, stained glass, marble altars, etc., but most of all, they ask why the tabernacle was moved. They remember it in the most important place in the middle of the high altar in their parish churches and do not understand why the tabernacle with the Real Presence had to be moved. And frankly, looking over our collective experience since Vatican II, nor do I. Our churches now are perceived as barren, without color or symbolism, without the living presence of Christ in the tabernacle. There used to be a hushed silence in the church, as the people waited for the unfolding of the holy mysteries; now our churches are treated as assembly halls, where people chatter before and after Mass, rather than pray.

I tend to think that ressourcement of the new theology, which had the laudable desire to rediscover the biblical and patristic roots of theology, is unintentionally responsible. Suddenly after the Council, the patristic model, rather than the medieval, became the norm. We started using the vernacular at Mass, received under both species and eventually in the hand. Deacons were restored as were consecrated virgins and the minor orders were abolished. Architecturally, the basilican arrangement seemed to be given preference for the building and decoration of churches : the chair at the head of the apse, the altar facing the people, the placement of the choir all seem to suggest the basilican plan. The old General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1970) with its preference for a separate Eucharistic chapel seems in line with this emphasis.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel at the Cathedral of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo: Mark Abeln

Even though Eucharistic reservation was allowed in the sanctuary, the notion that the tabernacle had to be moved to the side became standard with the result that often the old altar with its reredos, dorsal, or baldachino was torn down and the back wall was left bare except for the celebrant’s chair, which was not to look like a throne. Old churches were left without a visual center, and yet all their lines converged on the nearly empty sanctuary, because fine old marble altars were often destroyed. Noble simplicity was interpreted to mean no decoration, no images, no statues. The latter were often moved to an alcove in the back of the church for “peasants” who needed them, but mainly so they did not “distract” those participating in the liturgy. Where is the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) who joins us when the heavenly liturgy comes to earth on our altars? The present GIRM (2003) treats the whole question of sacred images in a richer way than did the old, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

One begins to see new trends, a possible reversal of the present situation. In my opinion, the new GIRM is an improvement over the former one (1970). In terms of the placement of the tabernacle, it no longer sees a separate chapel as the first option, but the second, giving pride of place to the sanctuary, but leaving all up to the local bishop. It is interesting to note that the Catechism treats the tabernacle, immediately after its treatment of the altar, whereas the new GIRM treats it after discussing the altar, the ambo, the chair, places for the faithful, the choir and the organ. I think the Catechism is more correct theologically because, as Msgr. Peter Elliott points out in his book on the present Roman Rite, Pius XII warned against dissociating the Real Presence from the altar. It is true that the present directives state that the Eucharist should not be reserved on an altar where Mass will be celebrated to make a clear distinction between the signs of the Mass being celebrated and that of the reserved Sacrament. Still, where an old altar is no longer used for Mass, the Sacrament may be reserved there in an old church. It would seem that an existing high altar of artistic merit would be a perfect solution for reservation. A new altar could be built further out and receive the attention during the Mass (perhaps by lighting), but after Mass the focus is on the tabernacle for quiet prayer and contemplation. 

It should be clear by now to the reader, that I favor reservation of the Eucharist in the sanctuary. The GIRM says that the “most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the Church that is truly noble, prominent, visible, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer.” Why couldn’t the chair in such a case balance the ambo of the other side? While the basilican plan of the apse seems to be recommended, it is not mandated.

One could argue that the custom of most of the English-speaking world was to have the tabernacle “in medio” and altars to Our Lady and St. Joseph on either side. One today would not want to fashion non-functioning altars merely to be the bases for shrines to the saints, nor would we want to obscure the symbolism of the one altar in a new church. Still shrines without altars can be erected. Is our custom part of American inculturation? I am not arguing for a return to yesteryear, but I do think that the restoration of the tabernacle to a prominent place in the sanctuary (and I would argue for a central focus) would help to restore the atmosphere of reverence and silence that was once so characteristic of our churches. Proper catechesis would be necessary, but Catholic teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist would be “incarnationally realized” in the sanctuary setting. People would know in what direction to genuflect, and faith expressed in the bended knee would symbolize and undergird faith held in the mind and heart. The concern of some liturgists that reserving the Blessed Sacrament in the sanctuary where the altar for Mass is, sets up a “conflict of mysteries” is in my opinion overdrawn and is not a real problem for our people. True, the altar ought not to be “smack dab” in front of the tabernacle and a suitable distance should be observed. The tabernacle might be on a higher plane as it is in the monastic church of Solesmes or in a wall niche as is skillfully done in Duncan Stroik’s Church of All Saints in Walton, KY. A beautiful reredos or dorsal could be the backdrop for the tabernacle when Mass is not being celebrated and serve as the glorious background when it is.

The altar and tabernacle of the Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo: Greta Bilek

A separate Eucharistic chapel is an option, but in my opinion this ought to be reserved for cathedrals and historic or pilgrimage churches where the number of visitors, pilgrims or tourists so overwhelm the edifice that a separate quiet place to pray is necessary. One immediately thinks of St. Peter’s in Rome. If this became the rule in ordinary parish churches, Sunday Mass Catholics might think that prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is an esoteric rite for devout souls and not for ordinary Catholics. This is Msgr. Elliott’s fear. If there is a separate chapel, the GIRM directs that it be “organically connected to the Church and readily visible to the Christian faithful.” There should be easy access from the altar.

The tabernacle itself must be solid, unbreakable, immoveable, and not transparent. There should be one tabernacle and it may be on a pedestal, in a sacrament tower or a wall aumbry. Veils are not forbidden, and the lamp (candle or oil lamp) may hang in front of the tabernacle, be on a wall bracket, or on a stand. The former rubric was that there could be one, three, five or seven lamps. Clear or white glass is preferable for the Blessed Sacrament, but red has become traditional in the English-speaking world.

Our churches are not “simply gathering places, but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling place of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.” God dwells with His people in the Eucharist celebrated, and reserved and outside of the Mass, it is the tabernacle that is the “living heart of our churches,” according to Paul VI. As Msgr. Elliott writes:

Devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist is embedded in the religious psyche of our
people. It is not an optional extra for devout souls. This devotion remains essential for the continuity of the living tradition, not only of our rite, but of the faith itself.


Let us then design churches that embody this principle and let us return the tabernaculum, the dwelling tent of God with his people, to a place of glory.