Where is the tabernacle supposed to be in a Catholic church? This question has come up in my parish since a recent remodeling of our sanctuary resulted in the movement of the tabernacle, followed by quite a kerfuffle!
Location, Location, Location
The location of the tabernacle is probably taken for granted by most Catholics because the tabernacle seems to be just always there (somewhere). Isn’t it directly behind the altar or off to the side somewhat? Basically, yes. However, there are other acceptable placements as well. According to Canon Law (#938):
“The tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved should be sited in a distinguished place in the church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer.”
According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the tabernacle may be placed:
“a) either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in an appropriate form and place, not excluding its being positioned on an old altar no longer used for celebration (cf. No. 303);
“b) or even in some chapel suitable for the private adoration and prayer of the faithful and organically connected to the church and readily noticeable by the Christian faithful” (Nos. 314-315).
The tabernacle in my parish was on the back wall of the sanctuary. It was, in effect, a safe recessed into
the wall, with a beautiful gold front plate and door, much like the one in the picture shown to the right.
Now, however, it is inset into a niche off to the side of the sanctuary. Altar servers have to go down the sanctuary steps and around the baby grand piano to put away the consecrated hosts. It is not on a side altar still facing the congregation; it is tucked away in a sideways niche recognizable only by the red lamp sticking out in front. Nobody likes it.
How did this come to pass? Well, while the church was closed during the pandemic, the pastor continued with his remodeling plans. (While the parishioners are away, the pastor will play!) He did a beautiful job, by everyone’s opinion, except for the part about the tabernacle. Then he got assigned to a different parish.
Where’s the tabernacle?
The new priest arrives, the church is given permission to re-open and “Surprise!” – there have been some changes. Again, although we were delighted with the new look overall, the general consensus was “What’s the tabernacle doing over there?”
We didn’t know how the new priest felt about it until a couple of Sundays ago, while preaching about the Eucharist, he suddenly exclaimed, “I don’t know what the tabernacle is doing over there!” Mystery solved. Good to know that he agrees with us, but now what?
Ours is not the only church I know that has had a conflict about the placement of the tabernacle. A friend recently took me on a tour of her parish’s long-awaited new church. She explained a few problems they had with things that didn’t go as hoped. One of those was that the architect put this wall behind the sanctuary. The area back of the wall serves as the sacristy. Unfortunately, the architect put the tabernacle back there too!
The parishioners demanded to be able to see the tabernacle. Therefore, a section was cut out of the middle of the wall to reveal the tabernacle. Problem solved, right? Mostly. Unfortunatley, the sanctuary chairs had to be scooted over and didn’t quite fit into the remaining space on the side. Oh well!
Apparently, the new placement for my parish’s tabernacle is perfectly fine according to the rulebooks. Somehow that won’t make us any happier, and perhaps that’s a good thing. If we want the sacred place of God’s presence front and center where it is emphasized, where we are more likely to focus on it, isn’t that a touching sign of our faith and love for God? Doesn’t that say we need to see Him, we desire His presence more prominently?
Heaven only knows if further remodeling is in my parish church’s future to put the tabernacle back in a more central location. In the meantime, we have been given a reason to think about, and perhaps more importantly, talk with each other as a Catholic community about the importance of the tabernacle and its contents in our relationship with God.