The placement and appearance of the tabernacle, which houses the Blessed Sacrament, is of tremendous importance in the design of our churches, because the church is "the privileged place for adoration of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament" (Catechism).
The Church teaches that the tabernacle is to be situated "in a most worthy place with the greatest honour." Pope Benedict XVI emphasised this idea in his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis: "The correct positioning of the tabernacle contributes to the recognition of Christ's real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Therefore, the place where the Eucharistic species are reserved, marked by a sanctuary lamp, should be readily visible to everyone entering the church."
In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the Bishop has judged that the tabernacle is normally to be prominently located in the sanctuary of the church, along the central axis behind the main altar. Under this arrangement, the tabernacle should be at an elevated, open location in the apse area, or in another central place in the sanctuary that is equally conspicuous.
Where a high altar with a tabernacle remains in place, it is appropriate to continue using this noble structure for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.
This prescription is to be observed in all future construction or restoration projects involving places of sacred worship.
The church, which is "both the house of God on earth (domus Dei) and a house fit for the prayers of the saints (domus ecclesiae)," itself possesses a sacramental dimension - by its very structure it should aid worshippers to enter into an encounter with Christ. The honoured presence of the Blessed Sacrament helps lend a Catholic church building its particular sacramental character. That is why Pope Paul VI commended the Lord's presence in the tabernacle as the "living heart of each of our churches."
In addition, although we live now in an imperfect world tainted by sin, our sacramental worship always must strive to image heavenly perfection. Generally speaking, order and symmetry in sacred design are employed precisely to emulate divine perfection, and the tabernacle's enthronement along the central axis helps to accomplish this purpose.
While it is true that the actual Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should not be conflated with the Eucharist reserved outside the liturgy, they are certainly not mutually exclusive.
Pope Pius XII said of the altar and the tabernacle, "An awareness of their unity is more important than a realisation of their differences. It is one and the same Lord who is immolated on the altar and honoured in the tabernacle, and who pours out his blessings from the tabernacle."
This thinking was reflected in the Lineamenta before the 2005 Bishops' Synod on the Eucharist: "There is no conflict of signs between the tabernacle and the altar of Eucharistic celebration."
As such, although the altar deserves ritual and symbolic primacy during the liturgy, the placement of the tabernacle in the sanctuary should not be understood as detracting from the celebration of the Mass. Indeed, if the tabernacle is significantly isolated from the place of the routine public celebration of the sacred liturgy, then the possibility exists of the reserved sacrament gradually slipping from the parish or communal consciousness and being visited privately only by a few.
Pope John Paul II noted that a "heightened sense of mystery" and a deeply theological reverence have guided the Church's Eucharistic devotion throughout her history: "The designs of altars and tabernacles within church interiors were often not simply motivated by artistic inspiration but also by a clear understanding of the mystery."
Thus, the appearance of the tabernacle must convey a sense of divine transcendence, speaking a truth about Christ as the divine Son of God who comes to encounter humanity through the Incarnation.
Aside from tending to the tabernacle itself, we must ensure that the faithful receive proper guidance and formation with respect to reverence before the Blessed Sacrament. Today there are many of all ages who inadvertently do not genuflect or bow in the correct situations.
Care should be taken to instruct the faithful that genuflection is the appropriate sign of adoration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, "whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed for public adoration."
It is the responsibility of priests, teachers, and other custodians of the faith to catechise the faithful, so that all may appreciate our diocesan norms and the Church's teaching on the reservation of the Eucharist.
Therefore, parishes and all communities of the faithful are encouraged to study the tabernacle and its theology, as well as the totality of sacred art and architecture, regardless of whether any physical modifications are imminent within their places of sacred worship. Doing so can only serve to deepen a love for Christ, thereby promoting the life of prayer and possibly even vocations among our young people.
Above all, "the dignity, placing, and security of the Eucharistic tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord really present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar."
When an emphasis on this sacramental reality becomes our priority, we make it self-evident that we believe the church building to be the privileged meeting place between Heaven and Earth.
This is an abridged version of Bishop John M. D'Arcy's Norms for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, on the location of tabernacles. The complete text is available on the diocesan website.