ISSUE: Where should the tabernacle be located in a parish church?
RESPONSE: “The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (canon 938 section 2).
DISCUSSION: Different opinions have circulated within the Latin Rite regarding the placement of the tabernacle in a parish church. As churches are renovated or built in the United States, decisions have been made to house the Real Presence of our Lord in a tabernacle located outside the main body of the church. These decisions have been an occasion for confusion and, at times, scandal among the faithful. The intent of this Faith Fact is to help dispel the confusion by providing information on the historical, theological, and magisterial aspects of this issue.
One God, One Ark, One Place of Worship
With the advent of sin, man gradually fell away from God and worshiped many gods. To bring man back to Himself, God revealed Himself to Abraham as the one true God, and demanded that Abraham worship only Him (cf. Gen. 17:1-14). This revelation was so important that it became the first of the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex. 20:1-6). This worship of the one, true God was one of the primary distinctions between the Israelites and the other nations. Throughout the Old Testament, God dealt harshly with violations of this commandment (cf. Ex. 32; 2 Chron. 7:19-22). When He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, He also ordered the ark of the covenant to be built (cf. Ex. 25:10-22). His presence resided upon the Ark, and from it He directed Moses and the children of Israel. He also ordered Moses to build a tent to house the ark of the covenant (cf. Ex. 26). This tent was called the “tent of meeting,” for it was there that God met with His priests, prophets, and people. The tent had two rooms, one called “the most holy place” (Ex. 26:34), in which Moses placed the ark of the covenant. When King Solomon built the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, he followed a similar plan and separated the sanctuary from the most holy place with a curtain. The ark was placed in this most holy place (2 Chron. 5:7). In both the “tent of meeting” and the Temple, “the most holy place” was the central focus of the structures, even though access to it was restricted.
God cannot be contained in one place, and the purpose of the ark and the Temple was not to contain Him. Rather, the ark was to be a place where God’s presence was known in a special way, where He revealed Himself, and the Temple was to house for God’s presence. His presence preceded the Temple. The Temple became a place of common worship, where the People of God would assemble to offer sacrifice and praise, lift their petitions, and receive from Him guidance and continued revelation (cf. 2 Chron. 2:6). Furthermore, having one place of common worship discouraged idol worship. The Temple thus became the center of faith for the Israelites.
The Word Became Flesh
Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, is the fullness of God’s revelation. He fulfilled the Old Law and instituted a New Covenant sealed in His very flesh (cf. Heb. 5-10). We no longer know God veiled in the most holy place, but in the Person and flesh of Jesus Christ. He reveals the Father to us (cf. Jn. 14:8-11).
Formerly, God revealed Himself to the Israelites as His chosen people. His presence descended upon the Ark and was concealed in the most holy place. Only the high priest was allowed to approach this presence, and then only once a year. Under the New Law, God is revealed to all in the person of Jesus Christ. He has become man and His Real Presence, in flesh and blood, is contained in the tabernacle so we might approach Him. There is no longer one ark in one Temple, but there is one Lord, who is present in tabernacles all over the world. Just as the Temple was built as a place where the people knew the presence of God in a special way, so Catholic churches are built today to allow the presence of Christ to continue in the world.
Church or Chapel?
Much of the confusion over placement of a tabernacle involves two related points. First, many people do not know the proper authoritative weight of different Church documents. Second, many do not understand the use of the words “church” and “chapel,” and give them meanings not intended in Church documents.
There is an order of authority whereby certain documents are more important than others. In general, canon law does not regulate liturgical actions, but when it does, it takes precedence (canon 2). Canon law also regulates sacred places, and liturgical law must reflect the current canon law on the issue.
Instructions are not laws in themselves. Rather, instructions are given to “clarify the prescriptions of laws and elaborate on and determine an approach to be followed in implementing them” (canon 34 §1). Because they are not laws, instructions cannot demand something contrary to law. “If any [instruction] cannot be reconciled with the prescriptions of laws, they lack all force” (canon 34 §2). Furthermore, instructions lose their force when the law for which they were written ceases to exist (canon 34 §3). In short, instructions rely entirely on the law for their interpretation and use.
Regarding placement of the tabernacle, the current law of the Church is clear and unequivocal on this issue: “The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (canon 938 §2).
Unfortunately, many people refer to certain instructions given under the previous law (1917 Code of Canon Law) and believe that the tabernacle should be placed in a room apart from the body of the church. Some believe the documents discouraged placing the tabernacle within the sanctuary. Such interpretation of these instructions was not in harmony with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, nor does it reflect the current law of the Church. To better understand this, we must understand what the law means by the words “church,” “oratory,” and “private chapel.”
Canon 1214 defines “church” as “a sacred building intended for divine worship, to which the faithful have right of access for the exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship.” Canon 1219 states that “all acts of divine worship may be carried out in a church which has been lawfully dedicated or blessed.” The law clearly establishes that a church is the ordinary place for the faithful to go and pray, particularly to offer public worship. The law
does not restrict the church to public worship alone, but only states that the faithful have a right “especially” to the public exercise of divine worship in a church. Regarding private devotion, the law makes a clear exhortation that all churches should be open at least some hours of the day for the convenience of the faithful who wish to enter and pray (canon 937).
Canon 1223 defines “oratory” as “a place which, by permission of the Ordinary, is set aside for divine worship, for the convenience of some community or group of the faithful who assemble there, to which however other members of the faithful may, with the consent of the competent Superior, have access.” An oratory has privileges similar to those of a church. It is meant to be a place of public and private worship for the convenience of a particular group of the faithful (e.g., religious). In contrast, a church is meant to be the ordinary place of worship for the parish. Canon 1225 notes that “all celebrations may take place in a lawfully constituted oratory, apart from those which are excluded by the law, by a provision of the local Ordinary, or by liturgical laws.” In this regard, the laws favor the parish as the place for the celebration of Baptisms, Marriages, Confirmations, and other acts of divine worship that primarily occur for the benefit of the faithful in the parish. In contrast, those acts of divine worship that occur primarily for the benefit of the community for which the oratory was erected should take place within the oratory (e.g., professions, community prayers, etc.). The celebration of Mass, and
any divine worship requiring the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist (adoration, benediction, etc.), is not excluded by the law within the oratory, and the presence of a tabernacle is presupposed.
It is important to note that the term “chapel” as often used by the average layman actually refers to “oratory” as defined in law. It is not uncommon that a bishop erects a “chapel” on the grounds of the diocesan offices, or in a hospital for the use of employees and other visitors. “Chapels” are also erected within seminaries and colleges. Usually, these “chapels” are really oratories by the definition of law.
Canons 1226 defines “private chapel” as “a place which, by permission of the local Ordinary, is set aside for divine worship, for the convenience of one or more individuals.” In marked contrast to churches and oratories, private chapels accommodate individuals, not groups. This wording is significant. A private chapel is erected primarily for private prayer of individuals, not public worship of a community. Canons 1227 and 1228 provide important norms that explain the role of private chapels. These canons state: “Bishops can set up for their own use a private chapel which enjoys the same rights as an oratory”
(canon 1227). “Without prejudice to the provision of can. 1227, the permission of the local Ordinary is required for Mass and other sacred celebrations to take place in any private chapel” (canon 1228). Although a bishop erects a private chapel for one or more individuals, this does not mean sacred celebrations, such as Mass, and the other sacraments, can take place there. Furthermore, canon 938 excludes the private chapel as a place where a tabernacle may be housed. Ordinarily, a tabernacle cannot be placed within a private chapel.
In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the term “chapel” or “private chapel” is not used. Rather, the terms “church or public oratory,” “semi-public oratory,” and “private or domestic oratory” were used to refer to what are now known as “churches,” “oratories,” and “private chapels” respectively. Although the terminology has changed somewhat, these three categories of sacred space have not changed.
In various instructions issued after Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Holy See noted that the tabernacle could be placed in a “chapel suitable for private prayer and for adoration by the faithful.” Some have interpreted the word “chapel” to mean a separately enclosed space apart from the main body of the church. Contrary to the intent of the Magisterium, they reason that “private prayer” is done in a place other than the church, and the church is reserved for Mass. Based on the law itself, this does not seem to be the most reasonable conclusion, nor is it reasonable in law to apply these instructions and this interpretation to church buildings today.
Because the word “chapel” did not refer to a specific place of divine worship at the time the instructions were issued, it is reasonable to conclude that “chapel” does not refer to a separately enclosed space. Rather, “chapel” would refer to an area within the church itself. For example, a side altar within an alcove could be set up as a “chapel.” This interpretation is consistent with the instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium (The Mystery of the Eucharist)
issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1967. This instruction implemented both Sacrosanctum Concilium and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei (The Mystery of Faith). In Eucharisticum Mysterium we find:
The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a solid, inviolable tabernacle in the middle of the main altar or on a side altar, but in a truly prominent place. Alternatively, according to legitimate customs and in individual cases to be decided by the local ordinary, it may be placed in some other part of the church which is really worthy and properly equipped (54).
More importantly today, the 1983 Code of Canon Law abrogated existing laws and gave need for further instructions. Because the new code did not accept the terminology of the previous instructions when legislating on placement of tabernacles, but rather made it explicitly clear that the tabernacle is to be in a “distinguished place . . . conspicuous, suitably adorned, and conducive to prayer,” it is reasonable to assume that the legislator did not envision the tabernacle being placed in a separate room or location outside the main body of the church.
Significantly, “private chapels” are not the normal place for a tabernacle to be located. The presence of a tabernacle requires the celebration of Mass twice each month, and is reserved habitually to churches and oratories. As oratories are not the normal building for use in a parish, it is reasonable to conclude that the tabernacle is to be located within the “church” and not a separately enclosed room or “private chapel.” This is further emphasized within canon 937 which states “the church (not chapel or oratory) in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved is to be open to the faithful for at least some hours
every day” (emphasis added).
As noted above, some believe that Church documents encourage the placement of the tabernacle in a separate room (chapel) that is not part of the church proper. Aside from misunderstanding the terms noted above, they raise several objections. Some argue that having the tabernacle in the sanctuary detracts from the celebration of Mass, because Jesus’ presence in the tabernacle “takes away” from His presence on the altar at the time of consecration. They argue that the Mass is an “active” presence, while the presence in the tabernacle is “static” or inactive. Because the Mass is an action of the people, the
“static” presence is confusing and detracts from the “active” one.
Others argue that the ancient Church did not repose Jesus in a tabernacle for the purpose of devotion and adoration, but only for taking Him to the sick and dying. Thus, there is no need to have access to the Real Presence in the tabernacle except when one is sick or dying. Based on this argument, they wrongfully conclude that the best place to put the tabernacle is in a separate room where it will not be a distraction. Finally, some point out that the tabernacle in St. Peter’s Basilica is not in the main body of the church, but in a separate room, thus establishing an example given by the Pope himself. None of these objections have merit.
The Church has always taught that the Real Presence, though present in tabernacles throughout the world, does not multiply “the unique and indivisible existence of Christ the Lord.” God cannot detract from Himself. Furthermore, God’s presence is never static. He is eternally active. To believe God is “static” or “inactive” at any given point in time would be to deny His omnipotence and eternity. Furthermore, such an opinion implies that the Blessed Sacrament is not the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, who is God. The Mass is not merely an act of the people, but primarily an act of God, who delivered Himself over to death in order to save us from sin. In a mysterious way, the Mass is a representation of this sacrifice (cf. Catechism, no. 1366). Whether the congregation is present or not, the Mass takes place through the actions of the priest. When we are present, His sacrifice demands that we participate through our adoration, praise, and thanksgiving.
While it is true that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved for the sick and dying, historical also evidence shows that the faithful reserved the Blessed Sacrament for the purpose of adoration and private prayer. Further, the tabernacle at St. Peter’s Basilica is located in the main body of the church. It is in full view on an altar of its own, highly decorated and in an area of the basilica that is conducive to prayer. It is not in a separate room.
Even if the tabernacle at St. Peter’s were not in the main body of the church, a basilica such as St. Peter’s is an exception provided for by law. In a church where large numbers of people visit for purposes other than prayer, the tabernacle may be placed outside the sanctuary in a side chapel or alcove that is part of the main body of the church. This allows the faithful to pray without undue disruption by visitors. It also allows the visitors to freely walk through the church without dishonoring the Blessed Sacrament.
How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place?
The presence of Jesus Christ in the world came before any tabernacle or church that houses His presence. Because of His Real Presence, they are built. Just as the Temple of the Old Testament was built “around” the ark of the covenant, so must the church building be designed so that the tabernacle is “prominent and conspicuous.” The most prominent and conspicuous place is generally within the sanctuary. Because of Christ’s Real Presence in the church, the church becomes a focal point for the parish community. This presence of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle makes the church structure distinctly Catholic and encourages true worship of His Real Presence. When His Real Presence is removed from the church itself, the focus is placed not on God but on the community. This runs contrary to the true purpose of the Church. For the community that seeks Christ must lose itself in the process (cf. Jn. 3:30).
If confusion or even scandal exists in your parish concerning this issue, it is important that you provide an example of faith and charity for love of God. The Church has provided a clear line of authority and proper means for addressing conflicts. To guard against further confusion or scandal, these means should be used to address the situation. Our Effective Lay Witness Protocol explains the necessary steps. For a free copy, call CUF at (800) MY-FAITH (693-2484).
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND GROUP DISCUSSION:
1. How do I understand the significance of the tabernacle in my parish church? Do I show proper reverence and respect for the Real Presence within the tabernacle?
2. How is the placement of the tabernacle and Eucharistic devotion related?
3. How can I charitably encourage a better understanding of the Church’s position on placing the tabernacle within the main body of the church?
Holy Bible (Catholic edition)
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Vatican II Documents
Eucharisticum Mysterium (Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery)
Pope Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith)
Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., and James Monti In the Presence of Our Lord
Michael Gaudion-Parker, Real Presence Through the Ages
Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God
Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions
Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew
Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel
Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life
To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.
AVAILABLE FAITH FACTS:
• “This Is My Body”: The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist • St. Augustine’s Real Faith in the Real Presence • Come, Worship the Lord!: Promoting Adoration of the Most Holy Eucharist • Defending Our Rites: Constructively Dealing With Liturgical Abuse • Following Our Bishops • “We Believe in One God….”: The Nicene Creed and Mass
© 2002 Catholics United for the Faith
Last edited: 12/2014
 Translation from: Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition, (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America) 1983.
 Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum (Instruction Concerning the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery), 1980, no. 24. Cf. General Instruction to the Roman Missal (GIRM), no. 315.
 Pope Paul VI, Credo of the People of God (1968).
 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia. xiv. 2.
 Cf. Very Rev. H. A. Ayrinhac, D.C.L., Administrative Legislation in the New Code of Canon Law (New York: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1930), vol. 3, 132-36; Pope Paul VI, encyclical letter, Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith), no. 56.
 Cf. Mysterium Fidei, no. 68.
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