The annual meeting of the National Conference of American Catholic Bishops took place on 15-18 November 1999 in Washington DC. Among the topics discussed was that of church architecture. It was the first time such a topic had been included at a conference, and it involved replacement of the controversial 1978 committee statement, 'Environment and Art in Catholic Worship' by a 100-page draft document titled 'Domus Dei'.
The most significant feature of the bishops' discussions, according to Helen Hull Hitchcock, editor of 'Adoremus Bulletin' who was present at the conference, was that "none of the three dozen bishops who spoke ... defended removing the tabernacle from a central place within a church."
'Adoremus Bulletin' in its latest edition has provided a complete, unedited transcription of its audio tapes of the bishops' discussions. The following are extracts of the views expressed by some of the bishops who spoke. Many others expressed similar sentiments.
Cardinal James Hickey (Washington, DC): "I would like to second the position of those who favour the centrality of the tabernacle in the sanctuary. I think this is for several very important reasons. First of all, it makes it possible for us to reinforce our belief in the Holy Eucharist and the Real Presence by the way in which the Blessed Sacrament is greeted as the people come in, make a genuflection; as they keep a prayerful silence before the Mass begins ...
"I think we should return to a position of the tabernacle that will make it possible for the people to pray before the Blessed Sacrament before Mass, and also for them to keep that sense of prayer when they realise they are in the Eucharistic Presence of the Lord ... I hope we will not be the captives of architects, who may or may not share our Catholic faith, and who may or may not accept the fullness of our Eucharistic teaching".
Cardinal Francis George (Chicago): "There has been no issue, I think, that has caused us so much pastoral concern - in the renovation of old churches particularly - as where the tabernacle is to be placed in the rite".
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick (Newark): "I have always had this concern about the placement of the tabernacle ... It seems to me that ninety percent of our people come into church only on Sunday mornings. And if the Blessed Sacrament is nowhere to be seen in the body of the church, they will be missing something very, very important in their spirituality and in the theology. So I would hope that when the revisions are made, and this document is developed, that we would find once again opportunity to underline what the Code [of Canon Law] of 1983 asks us: that the place be prominent and conspicuous. In the Archdiocese of Newark, no new church is allowed to be completed without the Blessed Sacrament being visible to the vast majority of the congregation ...".
Bishop Sean O'Malley (Fall River): "If we review what has happened in the last thirty years, the changes have come fast and furious. The Communion rail has been taken away, the Eucharistic fast from midnight, the frequent Confession as a preparation for Communion, the genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament. Changing all of these signs is changing the meaning in people's minds, and I think so much of what has been said about the centrality of the tabernacle indicates the great worry among the bishops about people's faith in the Eucharist ... Even what we have done with the Holy Days, in changing them in, I think, a very arbitrary way, has been very damaging to the faith of our people."
Archbishop James Keleher (Kansas City): "In the archdiocese where I am fortunate to be the archbishop, we never build a church where the tabernacle is not placed visibly in the front ... And if you recall ... when we built the beautiful chapel at the conference centre, in the beginning the tabernacle was, may I say, hidden behind a very decorative wall. But rising resentment in the episcopal body forced it to be taken down, and I think that was a very wonderful move."
Archbishop Michael Sheehan (Santa Fe): "I think we've all experienced in our Church in the last thirty years a lessening of devotion to the Eucharist in many places, a loss of the sense of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and the sense of the sacred has suffered. And I can't help but believe that placing the Eucharist in a separate chapel, that often is practically hidden, and sometimes very small, has not been a part of why we have a crisis with regard to belief in the Real Presence of Christ. I think that when we take the Eucharist away from the place where the people come for Sunday Mass we tend to lessen their belief. And I think that 'out of sight, out of mind' is truly what is happening often ...
"I hope that the document that we are dealing with, in the area especially regarding the location of the tabernacle, will be even more open towards having the Eucharist placed prominently, so that people experience in their prayer life the presence of the Eucharist.
"I think, too, that the documents that have been mentioned by the other bishops - the documents from Rome - seem to be less and less interested in that separate chapel ...".
Archbishop Justin Rigali (St Louis): "The Blessed Sacrament so often, without regard for the structure of the church or for local custom, has been relegated to places that are neither prominent nor worthy nor beautifully decorated ...".
Archbishop Elden Curtiss (Omaha): "I think the basic problem with the document [under discussion] is this liturgical development that has taken us towards emphasis on the assembly and away from the Eucharistic species."
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia): "If I took a survey of the people in Philadelphia, it would be overwhelming that when they walk into a church, they want to see the tabernacle immediately."
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