By Dr. Judy Bullock
Why do Catholics reserve the Blessed Sacrament from the celebration of the liturgy?
In one of the earliest accounts of the liturgy, Justin Martyr described how liturgy was celebrated in Rome in the year 150 A.D.
In this description Justin reported that at the conclusion of the liturgy deacons were sent out with the Eucharist to those unable to be present for the liturgy.
This care and concern for the sick and dying has been an ongoing ministry of the church since those early years. U.S. bishops recount this history in “Built of Living Stones.”
The reservation of the Eucharist was originally intended for the communion of the sick, for those unable to attend the Sunday celebration and as Viaticum for the dying. Even though reservation was an ancient custom, the act of devotion to the reserved sacrament developed centuries later.
A growing appreciation of Christ’s presence in the reserved sacrament led to the external, public devotional practice of prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
When did the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the church begin?
The first account of the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in a church was in the fourth century, although there is some evidence that portable containers may have been used for taking communion to the sick some time prior to this. Centuries later, a pyx, frequently shaped like a dove, containing the Blessed Sacrament was sometimes suspended above the altar.
It was also common practice to store the Blessed Sacrament in a closet or cupboard in the sacristy. By the 12th century, more permanent locations were used, such as tabernacles ensconced in the walls of the church. Concerned about the security of the reserved sacrament, the importance of lock and key for the tabernacle was emphasized.
In Italy, during the 16th century, the preferred place of reservation was on the altar. Tabernacles were then either placed on the altar or built into the church’s high altar, a permanent part of the architecture.
After the Second Vatican Council the emphasis was placed on the primacy of the altar of sacrifice and the table of the Eucharist during the celebration of the Mass. New directives were given for the placement of the reserved sacrament.
What are the current directives for the tabernacle?
Honoring the presence of Christ in the reserved Sacrament, there is to be one tabernacle that is immovable, made of solid and opaque material and, for security reasons, must be locked.
There are no instructions given on the shape or particular materials which must be used. However, there are specific guidelines given for the location of the tabernacle.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says, “The Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church which is noble, worthy, conspicuous, well decorated and suitable for prayer.”
Two possible locations for the tabernacle are given: either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, or in another chapel, integrally connected with the church building and suitable for adoration and the private prayer of the faithful (GIRM). The bishop in each diocese has the final approval of the tabernacle’s location.
Although the historic preservation of the architecture in some churches may be taken into consideration, more recent construction of new churches seems to prefer a separate chapel. This model allows for the focus during the Mass to be on the altar of sacrifice and provides a separate, sacred, quiet space for adoration and private prayer.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.