On Maundy Thursday, the day that the Church remembers the Last Supper and so the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, Bishop Daniel Jenky of the Diocese of Peoria in the United States sent out a letter to all the clergy and faithful in his diocese. He writes about the location of the tabernacle in churches and chapels, and since tabernacles hold the Blessed Sacrament, their location will reflect the place of the Eucharist in our liturgy and faith.
I decided to share the letter in my blog, because the topic is not endemic to Peoria, or even the United States. Here in the Netherlands too, tabernacles are sometimes found in side altars or off to the side in the main sanctuary.
Emphases mine, to underline some points that are vital, in my opinion.
April 1, 2010
Dear Priests, Deacons, Religious and Faithful of the Diocese of Peoria,
The Mass, of course, is our most important act of worship — the very source and summit of all we do as a Church. A profound reverence for the Reserved Sacrament is also intrinsically related to the Eucharistic liturgy.
The Reserved Sacrament must therefore be treated with the greatest possible respect, because at all times the Blessed Sacrament within that tabernacle, as in the Eucharistic Liturgy, is to be given that worship called latria, which is the adoration given to Almighty God. This intentional honor is incomparably greater than the reverence we give to sacramentals, sacred images, the Baptistry, the Holy Oils, or the Paschal Candle. The Sacrament is reserved not only so that the Eucharist can be brought to the dying and to those unable to attend Mass, but also as the heart and locus of a parish’s prayer and devotion.
There is a kind of bundle of rituals in our Catholic tradition with which we surround the Tabernacle. As we enter or leave the church, we bless ourselves with holy water, we genuflect towards the Tabernacle, we prepare for Mass or give thanks after Mass, consciously in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament. At prayers and devotions, during the Liturgy of the Hours, in any private prayer which takes place in a Catholic Church, we truly pray before the Risen Christ substantially and really present in the Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle.
These core Catholic convictions and their architectural ramifications have recently been reaffirmed by many Bishops in the United States. As bishop of this Diocese, I am also convinced that where we place the Tabernacle — and how we ritually reverence the Reserved Sacrament — is as important for the continuing Eucharistic catechesis as is all our preaching and teaching. With Jesus truly present in the Blessed Sacrament at the physical center of our places of worship, how can He not also more firmly become the center of our spiritual lives as well?
After consultation with my Presbyteral Council, I am therefore asking that those few parish churches and chapels where the tabernacle is not in the direct center at the back of the sanctuary, that these spaces be redesigned in such a way that the Reserved Sacrament would be placed at the center. In some cases, this change can be easily achieved, but given financial and design restraints, plans for redesign may be submitted to the Office of Divine Worship at any time during the next five years. Monastic communities whose chapels are open to the faithful as semi-public oratories may also request a dispensation from this general regulation according to the norms of their particular liturgical tradition. There may also be some very tiny chapels where a change could be impossible. These requests should be submitted in writing to my office.
I would also like to remind everyone in our Diocese that at Mass, in accord with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Tabernacle should only be reverenced at the beginning and end of the liturgy or when the Sacrament is being taken from or returned to the Tabernacle. At all other moments and movements in the liturgy it is the Altar of Sacrifice that is to be reverenced. [Er… Yes, this is perfectly in line with the rubrics of the Novus Ordo, but it is so counter-intuitive once one is aware that Christ is truly present in the tabernacle. Outside of Mass I genuflect when passing the tabernacle, so not doing that when I’m performing my duties during Mass just seems… wrong.]
It is my conviction that Eucharistic Liturgy and Eucharistic devotion are never in competition but rather inform and strengthen our shared worship and reverence. May all in our Diocese grow in greater love and appreciation of the gift of the Eucharist.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Daniel R. Jenky, C.S.C.
BISHOP OF PEORIA