In response to the current national Eucharistic revival, Cardinal Dolan has recently encouraged archdiocesan pastors to consider moving the tabernacle in their parish church to the center of the sanctuary, where this is possible. This initiative is intended to emphasize the centrality of the Eucharist in the lives of the faithful and the entire parish community.
Following this announcement, the Liturgy Office has received some questions concerning why tabernacles were sometimes moved from the sanctuary to another location in the church in the years following the Second Vatican Council. While Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum concilium did not call for tabernacles to be relocated to a side altar or other space in parish churches, several other official ecclesiastical documents promulgated in the decades after the Second Vatican Council did encourage placing the tabernacle in a chapel that is separated from the body of the church, including the Sacred Congregation of Rites’ 1967 Instruction on Eucharistic Worship [Eucharisticum Mysterium], the first edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1969), and the ritual book Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (1973). In promoting the use of a Eucharistic chapel, these documents sought to create a distinct space that would be conducive to quiet prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Other statements of the period additionally maintained that the presence of a tabernacle in the sanctuary might become a distraction to the liturgical action at the altar during the celebration of Mass (cf. NCCB, Art and Environment in Catholic Worship, 78).
Beginning in the 1980’s, there was a noticeable shift in the guidance given by the Holy See on this issue, wherein the possibility of situating the tabernacle in the body of the church was placed on equal footing with the practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in a separate chapel. For example, the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship’s 1980 Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharist [Inaestimable donum] stated, “The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is kept can be located on an altar, or away from it, in a place in the church which is very prominent, truly noble and duly decorated, or in a chapel suitable for private prayer and for adoration by the faithful.” The most current edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal explicitly speaks of the possibility of placing the tabernacle in the sanctuary, on an old altar that is no longer used for the celebration of Mass (315). These developments in liturgical legislation are likely a response to more recent concerns that many Catholics have lost an awareness of the Eucharistic presence of Christ in the tabernacle and an appreciation of the Eucharistic mystery, in general.
Irrespective of whether the tabernacle is placed in the sanctuary or a separate chapel, the current legislation clearly indicates that the tabernacle should be situated in a place that is “truly noble, prominent, conspicuous, worthily decorated, and suitable for prayer” (GIRM, 314). Furthermore, it is up to the judgement of the diocesan bishop to determine the location for the tabernacle in parish churches, “in accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs” (Ibid).
In responding to the Cardinal’s recent initiative, parish communities that are considering moving their tabernacle to the center of the church are encouraged to consult with the archdiocesan Liturgy Office concerning any relevant factors involved in such a move, such as the size and arrangement of the other principal appointments in the sanctuary. As well, parishes should consider ways to prepare the faithful for this change, including, for example, a catechesis on the Eucharist via a preached parish mission, bulletin inserts, a series of homilies extending over several weeks, and special scheduled times of communal prayer before the exposed Blessed Sacrament.