Liturgical Wishes, or Things I would Change if I Could: The Tabernacle

Liturgical Wishes, or Things I would Change if I Could: The Tabernacle January 26, 2020
A gold tabernacle in its place in church.
The tabernacle is an important part of church furnishings, but not the most important.

I have just completed in several posts a journey through the Mass, getting help from a visitor from space. Imagining this fresh observer helped me see, through her eyes, things that are easy to miss for a Catholic grown perhaps too used to the sights and sounds of typical liturgies. I hope my love for those Sunday gatherings has shown through all of these posts. Now at the end of the journey I want to speak lovingly as I register some complaints. They will range from the small and irksome to some rather significant issues. Most are just things I wish people or priest would do differently. A few would involve changing rubrics. One of them concerns the tabernacle.

This project will take another few posts on some other things like:

  • Missalettes
  • Silence
  • Distributing and receiving Communion
  • The Consecration and the Doxology
  • Behaviors and personalities, including people, priest, and crying babies

The present post will look at three issues:

  • genuflecting or bowing, the sign of reverence,
  • where to place the tabernacle,
  • and, as an aside, the sanctuary lamp.

Reverencing the deity present in the tabernacle

Generally we know what the tabernacle is. And we know about genuflecting in church. But do we know enough to put these two things together? Often it seems we don’t. This issue arises because the traditional placement of the tabernacle, on the big altar against the far wall of church, has changed in many churches.

We genuflect (or bow) to acknowledge the presence of deity, and that presence is symbolically and really centered in the tabernacle. That’s where consecrated but not consumed hosts remain after Mass. So if that place is somewhere else than directly in front of us when we enter church, that’s where we should face when we genuflect or bow.

Before the reform of the liturgy, people could come into church and genuflect straight ahead. Necessarily that was toward the tabernacle. Today it seems most Catholics don’t look to see where the tabernacle might be but still genuflect straight ahead. That is, when they’re not turning toward the pew and genuflecting to the people who got there first!

Older Catholics probably remember a period of education that helped introduce liturgical changes. It seems this item, where–I mean whither–to genuflect, was left out of those instructions. Younger Catholics get their instructions from the example of their elders. The result: In churches that have moved the tabernacle, most people aim this act of reverence in the wrong direction.

A liturgical wish: There’s a resurgence of interest in reverence in church, for sure among peoplel who like the old liturgy. Let’s find a way to focus on the opportunities for reverence that the new liturgy affords. That would include consciously turning toward the tabernacle before reverently bowing or genuflecting.

Where to put the tabernacle

Before the tabernacle moved, people genuflected toward it, straight ahead. Maybe we should put the tabernacle back where it was. That’s how this article in Patheos thinks and several other articles you can easily find. They all present reasons for putting the tabernacle back front and center. Unfortunately, they ignore the reasons for putting the tabernacle somewhere else. These reasons concern the relative importance of tabernacle and altar and the clarity with which these symbols present themselves.

Outside of Mass, the most important of the church’s furnishings is the tabernacle. During Mass that primacy belongs to the altar. As Mass begins, ministers bow to the altar, not the tabernacle. Incensing on high occasions honors the altar, the ministers, and the people, but not the tabernacle. You can have a Mass without a place to reserve the Eucharistic elements, but you need an altar.

If the altar and the tabernacle are in a direct line from the assembly’s viewpoint, these symbols conflict. You can think them separately, of course, but you see them together. While liturgy offers plenty for the mind to think, its power, humanly speaking, comes from its appeal to the senses.

Altar and tabernacle symbolize different things; they occupy different places in the worshiper’s piety. They ought to be in visually separate places in church. At Mass one’s attention should be on the symbols relevant to Mass—presider’s chair, ambo for the Liturgy of the Word, and altar.

On the other hand, when one comes to church to be with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, one ought to be able to focus on the great symbol of that presence alone. That’s another reason for locating the tabernacle prominently but to one side. In most cases this placement will also facilitate the worshiper’s closer approach to the Presence.

The Sanctuary Lamp

Related to the presence of Jesus in the tabernacle is the sanctuary lamp. But the sanctuary lamp could be–I think should be–about more. Even its name suggests it honors the whole sanctuary. Further than that, the concept of sanctuary can extend to more than the area where specially designated ministers perform their functions. Protestants mean by “sanctuary” the entire space where people come for liturgy. Catholic terminology divides the place where ministers function (“sanctuary”) from the place where the rest of the people gather (“Nave”). I see no good reason for this separation.

In many Catholic churches the location of the sanctuary lamp supports the Protestant’s idea of the worship space. It’s placed near enough to the tabernacle so that it honors the divine Presence there. But its location shows that it shines also for the entire space where worship happens, the whole “sanctuary” as Protestants conceive it.

Another liturgical wish: This newer placement of the sanctuary lamp is a praiseworthy development in Catholic church architecture. I hope it leads to development in Catholic thinking. The space where the People of God gather and worship is one holy place, a sanctuary. It’s where the one act of worship in which ministers and the whole assembly partake happens.

Image credit: St. Magdalen de Pazzi, via Google Images

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  • Sean

    Hmmm, I believe in the Catholic Church they are called priests, not ministers, and for good reason.
    Look it up.
    A Catholic Church is a temple of God. It is God’s House of prayer in which He is to be worshipped as He commanded.
    It is not a gathering place for the pleasantries, niceties or fellowship of the congregation.
    There are places and times for all of that. But not in the Presence of the Lord in front of His tabernacle, which also means in front of Him, IF in fact you do believe in the Real Presence.
    On the other hand…there’s always Protestantism down the block. Go for it.

  • fritzpatrick

    When I mean priest, I say priest — or presider if I want to specify his role at Mass. I used the word ministers in the article to refer to more than just the priest. I think that’s legitimate. Servers, lectors, musicians, and the priest all are engaged in liturgical ministries..
    The rest of your comment seems unfair to me. You can’t find pleasantries or niceties or fellowship in my article. I very clearly affirmed the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence. I believe in learning from Protestants, but I have no inclination to become Protestant.
    I applaud your obvious concern to defend the Catholic Church. In this case you seem to have gone into attack mode a bit too eagerly.

  • Sean

    Presider is a term hatched after V2 by those who desired to subtlety diminish the role and status of the priest to that of an observer/officiating type role, instead of his true sacramental role as the one offering a holy sacrifice to God at Mass.
    Priests by their historical definition offer sacrifices. Presiders, whatever that means, not so.

  • fritzpatrick

    Now you’ve put your finger on a true disagreement between us. It concerns the distinction between priest and lay people. At Mass we all offer the sacrifice through, with, and in Jesus. We are a priestly people. The priest says the words (that’s part of what presiding means), and we all answer “Amen.” There’s nothing hatched or subtle about this new understanding. In fact, it isn’t even new but only recovered with Vatican II. Vatican II did raise the status of lay people but did not diminish the priest’s role at all.

    Presiding is another way of saying leading. The priest stands in the person of Christ. As Christ is the head of his Body, the
    Church, so the priest is the head of the body of assembled worshipers. I would say leading an assembly in a sacrifice of praise to God is a more exalted role than just offering the sacrifice oneself while others watch and pray along. It’s also more demanding. The priest invites us into the liturgy. He’s also responsible for making sure we have the technical and spiritual skills necessary to do that work.