To approach this question fairly and adequately, we need to understand some of the liturgical laws through history surrounding tabernacles. Actually the first norms governing tabernacles were promulgated in the Middle Ages. Until this time, no uniform custom regarding where tabernacles were located in churches existed. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decreed that the Blessed Sacrament be kept in a secure receptacle and placed in a clean, conspicuous place. The Synods of Cologne (1281) and Munster (1279) stipulated that the Blessed Sacrament be kept above the altar, sometimes in tabernacles shaped like doves and suspended by chains. Overall, during these times, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in four possible ways: in a locked cabinet in the sacristy, a custom originating in the early church; in a cabinet in the wall of the choir area, or in a cabinet called the “Sacrament House” which was constructed like a tower and attached to a wall near the altar; in a “dove” receptacle suspended from the baldachino above the altar; and in a tabernacle on the altar itself or in the reredos of the altar.
In the sixteenth century, the Blessed Sacrament became customarily reserved in a tabernacle that was placed on the altar or part of the reredos. However, only in 1863, did the Sacred Congregation of Rites prohibit the use of suspended doves and sacrament houses.
The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council prompted a “rethinking” of the location of the tabernacle in the Church. Two important points must always be kept in mind: First, reverence for the Holy Eucharist must be preserved and promoted. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reminded us that the Holy Eucharist is “a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us” (#46). We must not forget that being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is being in the divine presence of our Lord and Savior.
Second, the significance of the offering of the Mass itself where the Holy Eucharist is confected must be preserved and promoted. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church asserted, “Taking part in the eucharistic sacrifice, the source and summit of the Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God and themselves along with it” (#11).
Accordingly, the Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (1967) issued regulations (later incorporated into the Code of Canon Law) concerning tabernacles (cf. #52-57 and Canons 934-944): The Holy Eucharist may be reserved only on one altar or one place in any Church, and a vigil lamp must burn at all times to indicate and honor the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. This tabernacle must be immovable, made of solid and opaque material, and locked to prevent theft or desecration of the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle “should be placed in a part of the Church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (Canon 938).
Here is where some confusion emerges. To promote prayer and devotion, the Instruction stated, “It is therefore recommended that, as far as possible, the tabernacle be placed in a chapel distinct from the middle or central part of the church, above all in those churches where marriages and funerals take place frequently, and in places which are much visited for their artistic or historical treasures” (#53). For example, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, which has a constant flow of tourists, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in Our Lady’s Chapel located behind the main altar; this beautiful chapel provides a quiet place for the faithful to pray without the distraction of the comings and goings of people. A similar situation exists at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
However, this recommendation does not necessitate the interiors of “old” churches be destroyed to move the tabernacle: The Instruction stated, “In adapting churches, care will be taken not to destroy treasures of sacred art” (#24). Moreover, any renovation should be done with “prudence.” I hate to think of how many beautiful churches have been whitewashed and their beautiful artwork thrown out or sent to the antique dealers because of someone who wanted to do liturgical renewal. I also wonder how many hearts have been broken because of imprudent renovations. Sadly, I have visited some churches– new ones and renovated ones– where it looks like the position of the tabernacle was more of an afterthought than an attempt to provide a prominent, conspicuous place.
Moreover, the Instruction’s recommendation does not prohibit having the tabernacle in the center of the Church, stating, “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” (#54). The tabernacle can be located in the “center of the church,” perhaps on an elevated area behind the altar so as not to diminish the attention to the Eucharistic sacrifice. Actually, the visual alignment of the tabernacle and altar emphasizes best both the reverence for the Holy Eucharist and the significance of the sacrifice of the Mass.
From a purely educational perspective, the goodness of having the tabernacle in the body of the Church either in the center, or at least to the side, is that it fosters devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. For instance, people genuflect in reverence to the Blessed Sacrament. Since the one day most parishioners visit their Church is on Sunday, having the tabernacle visible in a prominent and conspicuous location makes them aware of the Eucharistic presence of our Lord. The people are more mindful that church itself is the “House of God” and a sacred space, not just a meeting house. In an age of doubt and disbelief, we need to do all we can to promote and foster devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and one clear way to accomplish this is by highlighting the tabernacle.