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Church architecture: The temple of the New Covenant.

The centre is the formative principle of all human creations: countries, cities, temples, and human dwellings. And we figuratively materialize this point of cohesion in a capital, in a civic centre, in a church, and in a home.

For centuries, until the recent liturgical reform, the mandatory incorporation of the altar and the tabernacle constituted such a Eucharistic centre as the holy core of our churches. A well-established solidarity excluded any incompatibility between consecration and preservation: they are two moments of the same divine action that provides abundant spiritual food in any circumstance. In the past the faithful could concentrate their attention on a single devotional pole.

The tabernacle

Hasty implementation of the liturgical reform (especially in existing churches), a reluctance to embark upon radical renovations, a lack of creativity among clergy and a few architects who became involved, resulted in the displacement of the tabernacle. An excessive emphasis on the assembly, as well as an effort to make the celebrant more visible, have typically led to three locations for the tabernacle: (1) an out-of-focus, dignified wall cabinet; (2) a small side altar; (3) a chapel segregated from the main church body.

Such a chapel, introduced as the place of adoration, is often no more than an embellished storage area, unused during the celebration of the Mass, and unusable in churches that are generally closed between scheduled celebrations. A generously-sized chapel (feasible only in large churches) that is used as a daily chapel and for other purposes may be visually connected with the main body of the church, and integrated into it by movable partitions or other devices, but its physical separation inevitably weakens the inherent unity of the assembly, symbolized by a single, homogeneous display of seats.

All the solutions adopted until now have resulted in a kind of "apartment-church," in which the church space is subdivided into different areas, and deprived of a single sanctifying centre. The Real Presence, in its coming-to-be in the celebration of Mass, and in its reservation, is what consecrates the space of our churches; its removal allows a church to be used for secular activities such as concerts, conventions, and plays.

The altar

The altar is what makes the space a church; it is the sign of a stable Christian community, the site of the encounter with the living Jesus, and the very place of His sacrifice. The altar deserves our veneration; it is customary to bow our heads before it. Facing the tabernacle, however, we are compelled to bend our knee before the point on which our adoration focuses. The Real Presence, permanent in the tabernacle, is the most efficacious sanctifying entity in our churches; consequently it should occupy a central position in them.

The celebration of Holy Mass does not require a church building; scriptural examples and Masses celebrated during the Pope's pastoral visits show this. The installation of a tabernacle, however, even in the absence of Mass celebrations (in a convent of nuns, for example) is allowed only in a church-like room, such as a chapel or an oratory.

The Jerusalem temple

God's presence in the Jerusalem Temple, and its sanctifying power, was seen by rabbinic speculation as a kind of spiritual energy that emanated from the inner core of the Temple--the Holy of Holies, the centre of the universe--and radiated in concentric circles, each decreasing in intensity, over the entire land of Israel. The tabernacle of our parish churches can similarly be seen as the centre of the parish territory, and its central spiritual influence should be epitomized by giving the tabernacle a central position inside the parish church.

A real geometric centre for the tabernacle could be provided only in central-plan churches. Such plans, however, although more attuned to the Mass, are rarely adopted. In the prevalent longitudinal-church plan, a conventional centre was established along the longitudinal axis of symmetry, a kind of devotional trajectory extended towards the Beyond and, originally, towards the east. The symbolic tension of this design, however, has been thwarted by the reversal of the priest's position and by the installation of the celebrant's seat at the middle of the back wall of the church, raised several steps above the sanctuary floor. The resuiting appearance of a "throne" for the celebrant has been widely criticized: a presidency without disciplinary powers does not need to take an overpowering position, a position that disrupts the inherent unity of the assembly, of which, as the wording of the Canon prayers indicates, the celebrant is an integral part.

The sanctifying presence of the tabernacle, then, in its close relationship with the altar, must, in some way, be endorsed by church architecture. In a central-plan church, the tabernacle could be installed as the crowning feature of a self-standing structure that incorporates two access stairways. Even in longitudinal-plan churches, however, the centrality of the tabernacle could be emphasized by moving the celebrant's chair to a lateral position (as was done for a bishop's seat in preconciliar cathedrals). If it is maintained in a central position, the chair could be installed in the sanctuary at floor level so as not to compete with the tabernacle; the tabernacle itself could be raised, and identified by a major architectural feature. Such an elevation is fitting as it is in accord with the elevated Christ on the cross and with rubrical gestures. The architectural elevation of the tabernacle invites contemplation and adoration, and keeps the church alive, when no liturgical celebrations are taking place, a s a genuine, praying church. In a longitudinal-plan church, stairs to access the tabernacle, especially in new churches, could be installed behind the back wall of the church, to minimize the disruptions to the celebration of the Mass produced by the informal movements of the ministers of Holy Communion.

The major architectual feature identifying the tabernacle could be a ciborium, which could shelter both the tabernacle and the monstrance. The design should also make provision for floral display. The unity of the altar and tabernacle, re-established by their permanent combination on the axial central position, could be reinforced by other architectural means, such as the use of the same materials, style, and decorations.

The church not a meeting place

Re-establishing the Real Presence as the meaningful centre of our Catholic churches will prevent them from becoming all-inclusive, pseudo-ecumenical meeting places. The central presence of the tabernacle will maintain a high level of respect in the main body of the church, and will promote a reverential, silent church atmosphere, instead of the free socializing which is now becoming commonplace. The holiness of our churches depends on the permanent presence of the living Jesus under the Sacred Species, enshrined in the tabernacle, the ubiquitous "Temple" of the New Covenant and a symbol of a living continuity with the Jerusalem Temple.

The architectural proposal described above may also be appropriate to new liturgical developments. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, during an interview with the National Catholic Register, speaking as a scholar and a priest, and not in his official capacity, suggested that the present liturgical restlessness requires a period of peace. However, he did not exclude the possibility that the pre-conciliar priest-position might be reinstated to better focus the liturgy on God, rather than on a "gathering in fellowship," and to reduce the excessive importance acquired by the celebrant. (A similar proposal to reverse the position of the priest during the liturgy of the Eucharist was advanced in an article by Max Thurian in L'Osservatore Romano, 21 July 1996; see also Catholic Insight, "Liturgy and Contemplation," Oct. 1996, pp. 14-16.) Should such proposals be approved, the tabernacle would be found in its best location.

Filippo Mecozzi, now retired, is the author of Church Architecture: a Tentative Roman Catholic Prototype, 75 pages, available from Scholia Editions, 807 Glencairn Ave., Toronto, M6B 2A2, fax 905-655-5359, $9.75 postpaid.
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Title Annotation:positioning of tabernacle and altar in modern Catholic church architecture
Author:Mecozzi, Filippo
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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