The Placement of the Tabernacle
Tabernacle – Placement in the Church
When visiting several different Catholic churches, the tabernacle can be found located in a few different places; right behind the altar, to one side of the altar, in a small cove off to the side, or in a separate chapel. But where exactly is the tabernacle, which houses the Blessed Sacrament, supposed to be located?
Code of Canon Law 938 states that:
The Most Holy Eucharist is to be reserved habitually in only one tabernacle of a church or oratory.
The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is to be situated in some part of the church or oratory which is distinguished, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer.
The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved habitually is to be immovable, made of solid and opaque material, and locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is avoided as much as possible.
For a grave cause, it is permitted to reserve the Most Holy Eucharist in some other fitting and more secure place, especially at night.
The person responsible for the church or oratory is to take care that the key of the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is safeguarded most diligently.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), paragraphs 314 and 315, clarifies the subject further:
The Place for the Reservation of the Most Holy Eucharist
In accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer.
The one tabernacle should be immovable, be made of solid and inviolable material that is not transparent, and be locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is prevented to the greatest extent possible. Moreover, it is appropriate that, before it is put into liturgical use, it be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.
It is more in keeping with the meaning of the sign that the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved not be on an altar on which Mass is celebrated.
Consequently, it is preferable that the tabernacle be located, according to the judgment of the Diocesan Bishop,
Either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in a form and place more appropriate, not excluding on an old altar no longer used for celebration;
Or even in some chapel suitable for the faithful's private adoration and prayer and which is organically connected to the church and readily visible to the Christian faithful.
The above excerpts are the most updated editions of the Code of Canon Law and the GIRM and are based in part on the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, produced by the second Vatican Council in 1963, which permitted local bishops to adapt certain things to the needs of their parishes:
Along with the revision of the liturgical books, as laid down in Article 25, there is to be an early revision of the canons and ecclesiastical statutes which govern the provision of material things involved in sacred worship. These laws refer especially to the worthy and well planned construction of sacred buildings, the shape and construction of altars, the nobility, placing, and safety of the Eucharistic tabernacle, the dignity and suitability of the baptistery, the proper ordering of sacred images, embellishments, and vestments. Laws which seem less suited to the reformed Liturgy are to be brought into harmony with it, or else abolished; and any which are helpful are to be retained if already in use, or introduced where they are lacking.
In accordance with the norm of Article 22 of this Constitution, the territorial bodies of bishops are empowered to adapt such things to the needs and customs of their different regions; this applies especially to the materials and form of sacred furnishings and vestments.
Later, a document promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1967, De Sacra Communione (Holy Communion and Worship outside of Mass) clarified that the use of a separate chapel is particularly for large, high traffic churches.
“The place for the reservation of the Eucharist should be truly preeminent. It is highly recommended that the place be suitable also for private adoration and prayer so that the faithful may readily and fruitfully continue to honor the Lord, present in the sacrament, through personal worship. This will be achieved more readily if the chapel is separate from the body of the church, especially in churches where marriages and funerals are celebrated frequently and in churches where there are many visitors because of pilgrimages or the artistic and historical treasures.” (emphasis added)
Ultimately, the tabernacle may be placed near the altar, or in a separate chapel. However in either case, the location of the tabernacle must be obvious and conspicuous to the faithful; if in a separate chapel, the chapel must be noticeable.
It is generally preferred that the tabernacle be placed in the main body of the church in parishes that do not have the issue of crowds and extra celebrations preventing people from privately praying before the tabernacle.
Many parishes have in recent years made changes and moved the tabernacle out of a separate chapel into a more prominent place.