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Where to put the tabernacle?

Nicholas Burn continues his commentaries on church architecture with a discussion of the place of the tabernacle. The occasion was the June 2000 promulgation on Church architecture by the Archbishop of Ottawa, Marcel Gervais. For a general background of the Canadian situation, see his articles analyzing the Canadian bishops' document Our place of worship in C.I., April, 2000, pp. 10-12, and "Liturgy falsified," June, 2000, pp. 10-11.


"Where shall we put the tabernacle?" When building new or renovating existing Catholic churches, there are not likely to be many other questions that will evoke an instant reaction. There are generally two reactions:

1) place the tabernacle in the church proper, preferably in the sanctuary; or

2) place the tabernacle in a Blessed Sacrament chapel, often separate from the church proper. By "church proper" I am referring to what is euphemistically called the "worship space" today - what in the past would have been referred to as the nave and sanctuary.

People in favour of option 1 or 2 will be able to refer to any number of authoritative Church documents that support their preference. Unfortunately, the documented history of where to place the tabernacle since Vatican II is not as clear as a lay person would like and is often the subject of debate among learned canon lawyers. There has been recent argumentation in favour of either placement of the tabernacle in Christifidelis. Adoremus Bulletin, and E&A Letter. The conclusions reached very often reflect the presupposed notions of the author in the first place. So, one's personal opinion on the matter of the location of the tabernacle is often formed, or confirmed, by which set of arguments one prefers.

The purpose of this article is not to review or bring forth again arguments for or against option 1 or 2, but rather to examine the significance of two new documents that impact this topic. Of general interest to all Catholics is the new General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM 2000) that provides norms for the celebration of Mass, and, among other things, offers authoritative advice on the worship environment. Of particular interest to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Ottawa is the promulgation in June 2000 of Archbishop Marcel Gervais' Decree on Blessed Sacrament Chapels.

The new GIRM

First, paragraphs 314-317 of the new GIRM address the issue at hand. At the time of this writing, an official English translation from the Latin original has not been approved. However, I was able to obtain the following translation of the relevant paragraphs (the numbers in square brackets refer to footnotes in the original document):

"Concerning the reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist"

"314. In keeping with the architecture of each church and in accordance with legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament is to be reserved in a tabernacle in a distinguished part of the church which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer. [123]

"The tabernacle in which the Blessed Eucharist is habitually reserved is to be one only, and immovable, made of solid and non-transparent material, and so locked as to give the greatest security against any danger of profanation. [124] It is appropriate moreover that, before it is designated for liturgical use, it be blessed according to the rite set out in the Roman Ritual. [125]

"315. By reason of the sign it is especially apt that on the altar on which Mass is celebrated there not be a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved. [126]

"It is permitted moreover to position the tabernacle, according to the judgment of the diocesan bishop:

- either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration in a form and place that is more appropriate, without excluding the former altar which is no longer used for celebrating (n. 306 [i.e., of the GIRM] trans.).

- or even in some chapel suitable for private adoration and prayer of the faithful, [127] which is organically joined to the church and conspicuous to the faithful.

"316. According to the traditional usage, a special lamp fueled with either oil or beeswax is to burn continuously before the tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved, to indicate and to honour the presence of Christ. [128]

"317. By no means are there to be overlooked all the rest of what is prescribed by the norm of law as to the reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist. [129]"

As with the previous GIRM, and consistent with other documents, paragraph 314 states that the tabernacle is to be located in "a distinguished part of the church which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer." Paragraph 315 stipulates that the tabernacle is not to be located on the altar on which Mass is celebrated. It does not prohibit the tabernacle being placed on an old high or side altar. This clarification should help refute arguments that the tabernacle may not be placed on any altar. Paragraph 315 goes on further to address the options presented at the beginning of this article. Equal weight appears to be afforded to either option. That is, the placement of the tabernacle in the sanctuary (apart from the altar of celebration) or in another place that does not necessarily exclude the former high altar that is no longer used for celebrating Mass, or in a chapel suitable for private adoration that is organically joined to the church and conspicuous to the faithful. The diocesan bishop ma y exercise his judgment on where the tabernacle is to be located.

For those who are concerned with the dubious respect given our Eucharistic Lord present in the tabernacle, taken all together these instructions and clarifications in the new GIRM concerning the placement of the tabernacle bode well for the return (in the case of existing church buildings) and the placement (in new church building) of the tabernacle in a reverential, respectful, distinguished and conspicuous part of the church.

The Archbishop's decree

The first paragraph of the introduction stresses the importance of one altar as the primary symbol of Christ:

"The reforms of the Mass decreed by the Second Vatican Council were mostly complete when the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) went into effect on November 30, 1969. Since then, churches must be constructed based on different liturgical principles from those of the pre-conciliar era. No longer may the tabernacle be on the altar. The altar is to be freestanding so that Mass can be celebrated facing the people. Side altars are not permitted in new churches, to stress the one altar as the primary symbol of Christ. However, a second altar can be placed in the area set apart for the Blessed Sacrament, if the Eucharist will be celebrated there at least occasionally."

The second paragraph cites several sources that provide theological and liturgical principles that will form the basis for the decisions reached in the decree:

"Instructions on Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (1967) and the 1973 Rite of Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass of the RomanRitual (HCWE) give several theological and liturgical principles that are important in understanding the Church's teaching and laws governing the reservation of the Eucharist. Among these principles are the following:

"1. The celebration of the Eucharist is the centre of the entire Christian life.

2. In the celebration of the Eucharist, Christ is present: in the very assembly of the faithful gathered in his name; in his Word read and explained; in the person of the minister; and, above all, in the eucharistic bread and wine.

3. The celebration of the Eucharist is the origin and the purpose of the worship shown to the eucharistic bread and wine outside Mass.

4. The faithful are to show this holy sacrament the veneration and adoration due to the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

5. The primary and original reason for reservation of the Eucharist is the administration of Viaticum to the dying. The secondary ends are the giving of communion outside Mass and the adoration of our Lord Jesus Christ present in the sacrament.

6. On the grounds of the sign value, it is more in keeping with the nature of the celebration that the Eucharist not be reserved on the altar of celebration."(HCWE 1-6)

The third and final paragraph of the introduction emphasizes that any of the norms in the decree that are not already part of universal law are to observed as particular law:

"The purpose of this policy is to affirm the universal laws and liturgical principles of the Church by establishing a uniform policy for the parishes of the Archdiocese. Most of the following norms are already universal law. Any norms not already universal law are to be observed as the particular law of the Archdiocese of Ottawa."

The introduction is then followed by the decree itself as follows:

Therefore, by the grace of God, and in virtue of my authority by the divine and ecclesiastical law (cc. 381, 391, 838, [ss]4), I hereby decree that the following Policy on Eucharistic Reservation in Parish Churches shall be held as law in the Archdiocese of Ottawa, and shall take effect on June 25th, anything to the contrary notwithstanding.

7. The Eucharist may be reserved only in one place in each church (Code of Canon Law, canon (c.) 938, [ss]1). If there is a Blessed Sacrament chapel, it may be reserved only there.

8. The tabernacle is to be immovable, made of solid and non- transparent material, and locked to prevent desecration (c. 938, [ss]3).

9. The tabernacle should be in a distinguished place in a part of the church where it is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer (c. 938, [ss]2).

10. When possible, the Eucharist should be reserved in a special Blessed Sacrament chapel (GIRM 276). If weekday Mass is celebrated there, an altar may be provided (Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar [RDCA] IV, 7). The tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament chapel is to be in a wall niche or on a pillar.

11. In all churches built since 1970, the tabernacle may not be reserved on any altar in the body of the church (GIRM 267; RDCA IV, 7). The tabernacle, if in the sanctuary, should not be in the centre but placed to one side and positioned in a wall niche or on a pillar.

12. All new churches to be built henceforth must have a Blessed Sacrament chapel, separated from the body of the church but accessible from the side or front of the church.

13. In churches built before 1970, the tabernacle may be in a Blessed Sacrament chapel, on the old main altar, on a side altar, in a wall niche, or on a pillar. It may not be on the altar of celebration, unless in rare instances Mass is lawfully celebrated on the old main altar. If the tabernacle and Blessed Sacrament have been moved from the old main altar, they should not be repositioned there.

14. Unless a grave reason to the contrary exists, churches where the Eucharist is reserved should be open to the faithful for at least some hours every day, so that they can pray before the Blessed Sacrament (c. 937).

15. Consecrated hosts should be reserved in sufficient number only for giving communion outside Mass. To the extent possible, the Body of Christ should be distributed at Mass from the hosts consecrated at that Mass (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 55; GIRM 56h). The reserved hosts should be consumed regularly (c. 939), at least once a month.

16. The Precious Blood may be reserved only for the bringing of Holy Communion under both kinds as Viaticum (Pastoral Care of the Sick 181), or under the form of wine alone for those who cannot consume the host (c. 925). In these cases, the chalice should be covered after Communion and placed in the tabernacle. After Mass, the Precious Blood should be poured in a bottle with a secure lid.

"Given in Ottawa on June 25th in the year of our Lord, 2000, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ."


First of all, I believe that it must be accepted that the Archbishop has exercised his competent authority in this decree. Therefore, with regard to churches built since 1970 (no. 5), new churches (no. 6), and older churches that have relocated their tabernacle from the high altar to elsewhere (no. 7), the option of placing or relocating the tabernacle to a central location in the sanctuary has been removed.

In light of the new GIRM, and consistent with previous authoritative documents, numbers 1 through 3, and numbers 8 through 10 of the decree, are not problematic. However numbers 4 through 7 may need to be revisited when an English translation of the new GIRM is approved. The relevant paragraph in the new GIRM that may affect the decree is paragraph 315.

Numbers 4 and 5 of the decree cite GIRM 276 and 267, which read as follows:

"276. Every encouragement should be given to the practice of eucharistic reservation in a chapel suited to the faithful's private adoration and prayer. [87] If this is impossible because of the structure of the church, the sacrament should be reserved at an altar or elsewhere, in keeping with local custom, and in a part of the church that is worthy and properly adorned. [88]

267. Minor altars should be fewer in number. In new churches they should be placed in chapels separated in some way from the body of the church. [82]"

Number 276 of the 1975 GIRM does not prohibit the option of reservation at an altar as does the Archbishop's decree. Number 315 of the new GIRM also does not prohibit this option. While number 5 of the decree cites GIRM 267, this paragraph seems to have little in common with this part of the decree. Regardless, these parts of the decree may require some fine tuning to be in alignment with number 315 of the new GIRM.

Numbers 6 and 7 of the decree build on numbers 4 and 5, both of which cite the 1975 GIRM as their authority and may also need to be reexamined.

As number 315 of the new GIRM provides, the Archbishop has exercised his judgment in favour of the second option of positioning the tabernacle in some chapel suitable for private adoration and prayers. Even so, I do not believe that exercising this option necessarily precludes the placement of the tabernacle on an altar other than the altar of celebration.

Balancing the requirements of the Archbishop's decree with the norms of the new GIRM provides an interesting challenge to those who are building a new church. The new GIRM states that the Blessed Sacrament chapel should be "organically joined to the church and conspicuous to the faithful." The decree also states that the tabernacle should be in a "distinguished place in a part of the church where it is conspicuous" (no. 3), yet also in a chapel "separated from the body of the church but accessible from the side or front of the church" (no. 6).

Pastors, parishioners and architects will have to be creative and innovative in the design of new churches that satisfy all these laws. One possible solution would be to design the left transept (the north arm of the church in an eastward facing church) of a cruciform-style church to house the chapel. The tabernacle could be positioned in such a way that it is visible and conspicuous from both sides whether Mass is celebrated in the chapel or in the main church. Another possible solution may be to design a chapel behind the sanctuary with a movable screen that can be retracted, allowing the tabernacle to be visible and conspicuous during Mass in the main church.


Perhaps the question asked at the beginning of this article, "Where should we put the tabernacle?", has desensitized Catholics to the nature of what it is we are talking about. Perhaps if we rephrase the question to reflect what we believe, what we truly should be asking is, "Where shall we place our Lord, Jesus Christ, really and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, reserved in the tabernacle?" This is no mere matter of where to place a piece of furniture. Did the Jews treat the Ark of the Covenant, God present in His Word, with anything less than reverence where they pitched their tent? Was Mary, the tabernacle of our Lord Incarnate, shunned wherever her travels took her? Is the tabernacle in today's Catholic churches worthy of any less reverence than has been proffered in the past?

I am not saying that Blessed Sacrament chapels are necessarily bad. However, I have seen too many chapels in new churches that are small, inconspicuous, and difficult to find. I pray that when building and renovation committees tackle this issue, they will prayerfully reflect on the guidance provided by universal and particular law and arrive at a solution that gives our Eucharistic Lord the prominence He so richly deserves.

For further reference:

(1.) Vaverek, Timothy J., "The Place of the Eucharistic Tabernacle: A Question of Discrepancy", Antiphon, vol. 4, no. 2, 1999.

(2.) Huels, John M., Renz, Christopher J., Vaverek, Timothy J., "The Place of the Eucharistic Tabernacle: Responses to Timothy Vaverek", Antiphon vol. 4, no. 3, 1999.

(3.) Galles, Duane, "Locating a Tabernacle", Christifidelis, vol. 17, no. 4, August 1999.

(4.) Hitchcock, Helen, "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him", Adoremus Bulletin, vol. V, no. 5, July-August 1999.

(5.) Huels, John M., Phillipart, David, "The Tabernacle in Canon Law", E&A Letter, June 2000.

(6.) The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), third typical edition, 2000.

(7.) Gervais, Marcel, "General Decree promulgating the Policy on Eucharistic Reservation in Parish Churches", Archdiocese of Ottawa, June 2000.

Many thanks to Deacon Jim Scheer for providing me with this translation.

(8.) For example, no. 276 of the 1975 GIRM, no. 24 of In""estimabile Donum, Canon Law 938 [ss]2, and no. 1379 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
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Title Annotation:church architecture: Catholic churches
Author:Burn, Nicholas
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Previous Article:Models for the Church.
Next Article:"Make straight the ways".

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