Volume Three

Number Three


The Reserved Eucharist

M. Francis Mannion

Few liturgical issues are more controversial today - at least at the popular level - than the placement in church buildings of the tabernacle in which the Eucharist is reserved. Catholics who grew up before Vatican II tended to view the tabernacle as the central element in a church building. Benediction, Eucharistic processions, Forty Hours Devotion, and Mass celebrated coram sacratissimo, that is, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, were perceived by many to be the fullest expressions of Eucharistic solemnity. Before liturgical reform, Mass without singing and incense was the norm; but these more solemn forms were a standard part of Benediction. The great Baroque altar represented the fullest development of high liturgical devotion centered on the reserved Eucharist.

After Vatican II, the tabernacle was removed from the altar in order to highlight the centrality of the action of the Mass as the basis of the church’s Eucharistic life. The intentions of the liturgical movement, of Vatican II, and of postconciliar initiatives were to redress the imbalance between the Eucharist celebrated and the Eucharist reserved (in which the imbalance was perceived to be in favor of the latter). Serious theological reasons and weighty historical protocol were advanced to highlight the priority of the Eucharist celebrated over the Eucharist reserved. In tandem with this came a renewed emphasis on the importance of receiving frequent communion and on the church itself - not only the consecrated host - as the Body of Christ. A clear definition of the purpose of the Eucharist reserved was articulated: for communion outside Mass (including communion to the sick), for private prayer, and public Eucharistic devotion. The tabernacle was moved to a separate chapel or to a non-dominant position in the body of the church. Given the preconciliar imbalance, Eucharistic devotions were simplified, constrained and shorn of much of their former grandeur. The undergirding aim was that Eucharistic devotion be seen to flow from and back to the Mass, but never be in competition with it. The renewed emphasis on the priority of the Eucharist celebrated and received rather than reserved led in some places even to a discontinuation of Eucharistic veneration outside Mass altogether.

Yet something about this whole process offended the sensibilities of a great body of Catholic worshipers. Many complained that Christ in the tabernacle had been “dethroned” - a perception unwittingly compounded by the repositioning in some instances of the priest’s chair where the tabernacle used to be. The appearance of displacement was most severely underlined in renovations of older buildings in which an elaborate reredos was conserved but the priest’s chair was now inserted into the place where the tabernacle was originally located.

In my experience as a pastor, few liturgical matters are more difficult to explain to Catholics than the reason for the displacement of the tabernacle from its preconciliar location. The average Catholic will “buy” arguments for free-standing altars brought forward into the assembly; for the need for a single, dignified ambo or lectern; for a significant place for the priest’s chair (many, however, do not care for the neoclericalism that often accompanies this new placing); for the face-to-face option in confessionals; for immersion (or even submersion) baptismal fonts. But the eyes of not a few Catholics glaze over when one tries to explain the rationale for removing the tabernacle from its central location.

Having considered this matter for a long time, I have come to the conclusion that there exists a legitimate intuition in the popular sensus fidelium about the place of the tabernacle that has not received adequate articulation in liturgical - specifically Eucharistic - theology and practice since Vatican II. This intuition has to do with an additional reason for Eucharistic reservation: as an eschatological statement. The word “reservation” itself is an important key here. Though the church may celebrate and receive the Eucharist on its earthly pilgrimage, there is an aspect of the Eucharist that is literally reserved until the coming of the Kingdom. The famous hymn attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas praises the sacred banquet “in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace, and the pledge of future glory is given to us.” The Eucharist is the pledge of future glory - a glory not yet fully embraced. I suggest that the dimension of a pledge of future glory, by virtue specifically of its future character, is one of the elements operative in Eucharistic reservation. The dimension complements those which are recognized and rehearsed in current liturgical documents. Since we live in a world of symbols and symbolic dimensions, it is necessary to give this dimension of the Eucharist adequate expression.

The traditional placing of the tabernacle certainly achieved this end (though the eschatological theme may not always have been made adequately explicit), but it did so at a price: that of a troublesome imbalance in Eucharistic thinking and practice, so that the role of the tabernacle was accorded excessive weight. Postconciliar reform rightly recognized that veneration of the reserved Eucharist should never be at the expense of the celebration and reception of the Eucharist (as was the case in the Baroque era), but in proper balance with them. By the same logic, it may be argued that celebration and reception should not be at the expense of reservation; the Eucharist is, after all, never received without remainder. There is a whole matter of what might be called Eucharistic ecology here needing careful delineation and articulation.

The question of the proper ecological balance in this matter underlies current tensions in Eucharistic theology. Some popular Eucharistic writing seems to regard the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements primarily as a projection or exteriorization of the presence of Christ in the worshiping congregation. Consequently there is thought to be little in the Eucharistic elements that surpasses the holiness of the congregation; hence Eucharistic reservation makes little sense, except for purely functional purposes outside of Mass. This view stands in tension with perspectives that appear to take the reserved Eucharist as the starting point for Eucharistic consciousness. This more “traditionalist” outlook often intentionally conducts worship in view of the reserved Eucharist, so that, for instance, the celebration of Mass can appear as something of an interruption of Eucharistic adoration.

What is at stake here is a proper conception of the relationship between the various modes of the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic liturgy. If before recent reform the presence of Christ in the people was inadequately emphasized, so that certain exaggerations occurred in relation to Christ’s reserved presence (one being that communion was not regularly received), today perhaps the pendulum has swung in the other direction, with the result that devotion to the reserved Eucharist is seen as a threat to the identity of the worshiping community as Christ’s Body. A correlation may be sensed here between a downplaying of the reserved Eucharist and its devotional apparatus and the desire to build up the people of God as Christ’s living Body. But the problem here is artificial. A church that regards itself as the Body of Christ without qualification suffers from a collapsed eschatology and ultimately an impoverished self-understanding. By the same token, when the eschatological factor of the Eucharist is appropriately symbolized, the church is drawn beyond itself toward the fullness of being to be realized only at the heavenly banquet. In short, the correct balance is predicated on the relationship between the incarnational and eschatological dimensions of the Eucharist.

This leads to the practical matter of the proper place of the tabernacle in churches. While Eucharistic theology continues to regard reservation of the Eucharist for the functional purposes generally stated (distribution outside Mass, private contemplation, and liturgies like Benediction), then the position of the tabernacle in the church building is of no great significance, as long as the placement is dignified and fitting. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal of 1969 names two appropriate locations for the tabernacle: in a separate chapel or in a dignified but non-dominant place in the church proper. These locations serve the ends of Eucharistic reservation as formally defined. If, however, the reserved Eucharist stands as a permanent statement in the liturgical assembly of the eschatological nature of the Eucharist, then it is reasonable to suggest that the tabernacle be in a position visually and proportionately related to the altar and even act programmatically as a tacit feature of the celebration of Mass. It becomes clear in this perspective that the matter of the place of the tabernacle is not merely a functional consideration.

The perspective of this editorial may be disturbing to some liturgists and even be viewed as promoting a “restorationism” in Eucharistic theology and practice. No such program is being advocated here. The separation of the tabernacle from the altar, the new priority given to the altar over the tabernacle, the simplified style of newer tabernacles, the bringing forward of the altar into the assembly, and the retraining of Eucharistic devotion outside Mass - all these are to be welcomed as highly important and entirely valid elements of liturgical reform, and they should never be compromised. By the same token, the line of argumentation advanced here does not justify the preeminence of tabernacles or (ordinarily - unless strong artistic considerations should prevail) the renovation of preexisting churches so that the old high altar may simply stay in place with its tabernacle intact and a new altar installed in front of it facing the people – the typical solution in “conservative” church renovations. The altar must be (by appearing to be) the primary focal point in the church - a focal point achieved by good architectural planning - while the tabernacle should be so designed and placed that there is no doubt that it derives its significance and importance from the altar. History provides some useful models: the hanging pyx, the Eucharistic tower, the wall tabernacle (perhaps as an element of an eschatological iconographic program). There may also be a need to revise the protocols of reverencing altars and tabernacles both within and outside of Mass so that certain ambiguities and tensions now current are resolved.

Is this proposal out of kilter with the liturgical norms of the church? I do not think so. I suggest that a more contextual reading of the documents on Eucharistic devotion and tabernacles may lead to other than standard conclusions. Indeed, the official documents themselves do not present an entirely consistent picture. They also stand in some tension with the desire of Pope John Paul II and many bishops to advance Eucharistic devotion. In this regard, liturgical legislation can appear to be lagging behind some new emphases in Eucharistic spirituality. Again, some commentators rightly note that the purpose of Eucharistic chapels separated from the body of the church is to encourage veneration when it cannot otherwise occur decorously in the main area of the church (as in major churches and basilicas overrun with tourists). In his book Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), Monsignor Peter J. Elliott has suggested that a trend in favor of a more central placing of the tabernacle may be detected in an historically consecutive reading of postconciliar documents on Eucharistic theology and practice. While this thesis encounters some difficulties, it does merit further exploration and consideration.

Not least in all this, there is the question of history. Liturgists correctly point out that historical and cultural factors must be considered in matters of Eucharistic practice. But this principle can work in more directions than one. In mid-twentieth Catholicism, there did, by most calculations, exist a need to redress imbalances in Eucharistic practice. These have been generally achieved over the past three decades. But at the end of the 1990s, the need may be for corrections in other directions. Surely there is much to be said in favor of a reconsideration of the place of the tabernacle and the reserved Eucharist in an environment in which there exists much ambiguity about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements and at a moment when an excessive congregationalism threatens to overwhelm the Eucharistic life of the church.