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NCR Staff

Near the end of the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene runs to the disciples after discovering Jesus’ empty tomb and exclaims: “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have put him!”

Some liturgists and church activists, disgruntled with the approach to church design that has prevailed in American Catholicism since Vatican II, say they know how Mary Magdalene felt.

Their discontent pivots above all on the placement of the tabernacle, the container in which consecrated hosts are stored after Communion. In the wake of Vatican II, when the altar was turned around so the priest could face the people, the tabernacle in most churches was placed in a side chapel or some off-center location.

Today, some Catholics are clamoring: “Bring it back!” By removing the tabernacle, they say, the church has effectively exiled Jesus.

The demand is usually not for a return to the pre-Vatican II design, but for placing the tabernacle in a central spot behind the altar or in some other immediately visible place.

To people stumbling across the debate for the first time, it can seem hopelessly arcane. But the tug of war over the tabernacle is fueled by some of the deepest tensions in contemporary Catholicism.

“From an architect’s point of view, it’s very simple,” said the University of Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik. “You put out front those things you care about. So we’re really asking, ‘What do we value?’ In the years since the council, we’ve lost some of our sense of the sacred, and the tabernacle goes right to the center of that.”

Which presence of Christ?

The editor of the journal Sacred Architecture, Stroik is among the leading voices calling for the tabernacle’s return.

David Philippart agrees the placement of the tabernacle is a matter of values but rejects Stroik’s conclusion.

“We’ve failed to appropriate the traditional Catholic teaching which Vatican II tried to reemphasize about the many ways Christ is present in the liturgy,” said Philippart, a specialist in liturgical architecture for Liturgy Training Publications of Chicago.

“Christ is present in the assembly of the baptized, in the person of the minister, in the proclamation of the Word, and in the elements of the Eucharist. We still have a hard time believing in the first three of those four,” Philippart said. “Putting the tabernacle back is not going to help.”

The tabernacle question forms the leading edge of a broader controversy over the look and feel, the sights and smells, of Catholic churches in the period since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The council called for “noble simplicity” in design, and many of those concerned with the tabernacle believe that has led to a general impoverishment of Catholic art and architecture -- and with it, a loss of depth in the church’s spiritual life.

At the national level, the controversy focuses on a new document on church design being prepared by the U.S. bishops. Called Domus Dei, or “House of God,” the document was discussed for the first time at the November 1999 bishops’ meeting and should appear in 2000.

Those who carried out Vatican II’s liturgical reforms say the tumult over the tabernacle is a poignant reminder that the tradition asserted by their opponents is often skin-deep. Having the tabernacle on the altar is merely one option offered by church history, they say, and far from the norm.

Because the early church celebrated the Eucharist only on Sunday, retaining consecrated hosts met the practical need to minister to the sick and dying during the week. Devotion to the host arose later, and the custom of placing the tabernacle on the main altar dates only from the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Church law did not require the tabernacle to be fixed on the altar until the 19th century.

Rome’s major basilicas store the tabernacle in a separate chapel rather than on the main altar.

The council fathers wanted to focus on the presence of Christ on the altar and in the people -- the so-called “active” presence of Christ -- as well as his “static” presence in consecrated hosts. The Eucharist, they felt, should be seen as the fruit of the consecration in the Mass.

Critics say the example of the Roman basilicas is a red herring, since most American churches lack the grandeur and scale of their European counterparts. U.S. churches have no tradition of Eucharistic chapels -- and when they try, the result is often little more than a reconfigured cryroom or broom closet with a fresh coat of paint.

More generally, they blame the removal of the tabernacle for a decline in faith in the Real Presence -- the doctrine that Jesus is truly present in the consecrated bread and wine. As Santa Fe, N.M., Archbishop Michael Sheehan put it at the November bishops’ meeting: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Experts say that to understand the present controversy, one has to go back to the Protestant Reformation in the mid-1500s. As a way of underscoring Catholic identity, church leaders in that era stressed the Real Presence -- a doctrine that Protestants generally denied. This emphasis led to enormous Baroque altars featuring large and ornate tabernacles.

Devotion to the consecrated host, also called the “reserved Eucharist,” became so strong that when John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism in the 19th century it struck him as the central point of the church’s worship. He wrote of his awe at the “Presence of our Undying Life, hidden but ever working,” betokened by “the distant glimmering lamp.”

At the popular level, eucharistic piety was expressed through devotions such as liturgies of benediction, eucharistic processions, and the 40 Hours Devotion.

This “high eucharistic theology” led many Catholics to rarely receive Communion, feeling unworthy of so great an honor. As early as Pope Pius X at the beginning of the 20th century, church leaders began calling for greater balance and more frequent reception of Communion; supporters of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms say that is what they achieved.

Criticism, however, was swift and scathing.

Separating altar and tabernacle

Pope Paul VI issued his rules for the new Mass in April 1969. In September, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani -- head of the Holy Office, today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- presented a document now known as “the Ottaviani intervention” to the pope. Reflecting the ideas of a group of conservative Roman theologians, it is a blistering indictment of the new Mass, claiming that it “teems with insinuations or manifest errors against the integrity of the Catholic religion.”

Prominent among the errors cited was the “separation of altar and tabernacle.” Ottaviani’s theologians accused the reforms of a “disparaging attitude towards the tabernacle, as towards every form of eucharistic piety outside of the Mass.”

“This constitutes yet another violent blow to faith in the Real Presence,” the Ottaviani report said.

Critics of moving the tabernacle say that Ottaviani’s prophecy has been borne out in spades. They point to a 1994 New York Times poll, which found that 63 percent of self-identified Catholics see the consecrated bread and wine at Mass as merely “symbolic reminders” of Christ, rather than his actual body and blood. For those aged 18-29, a full 70 percent said the bread and wine were symbols; even 51 percent of regular Mass-goers called them symbols.

The decision to remove the tabernacle is at least partly responsible for these results, according to Stroik.

“We give people theological truths in physical form, especially the young,” Stroik said. “There’s no question that there is a decline in eucharistic sensibility and in reverence for the liturgy as center of our lives, and the location of the tabernacle is part of that.”

Fr. Andrew Greeley, the well-known novelist and sociologist, disagrees. The charge that Catholic belief in the Real Presence has declined is “right-wing propaganda,” he told NCR.

The problem with polls such as that conducted by the Times, according to Greeley, is that respondents often don’t understand the theological baggage carried by words like symbol or real. Thus their answers may express the content of the faith without using its technical vocabulary.

Philippart called the argument that Catholics have lost faith in the Real Presence “specious.”

“Look at the number of Catholics who go to the Eucharist every Sunday,” Philippart said. “Lots of them suffer through banal music and insipid homilies just to receive Communion. You’re telling me they don’t believe this is the body and blood of Christ?”

Some say that just as Trent launched a wave of eucharistic piety in a time of danger to the faith, a similar peril exists today in secularization, and restoring the tabernacle would help.

Philippart sees it differently. “This is really a fear about Catholic identity,” he said. “It’s the same fear as in the Ex Corde debate. And the cheap, easy response is to say we’re not Protestants, so let’s play up anything that makes us different.”

“But that is so contrary to the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II,” he said.

Catholic church design after the council generally emphasized austere interiors and Spartan appointments. The idea was to peel back distractions in order to focus on the altar and the assembly.

This approach was enshrined in a 1978 document of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Liturgy titled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.

For critics, the demise of Environment and Art cannot come too soon.

Church is more than Wal-Mart

The document “sees a church as merely a tent,” Stroik said. “Going into a church should not be like walking into Wal-Mart.”

“You want to come into contact with Heaven, to participate in the Heavenly liturgy. There should be a sense that what’s happening is not just our action here and now, but that we’re participating in something much bigger.”

Stroik said the constellation of design changes that followed Vatican II -- the movement of the tabernacle, the diminished presence of statuary and icons, the shedding of bells and incense -- has attenuated the sense of the sacred in Catholic life.

“It’s almost as if the reformers wanted to reach back to the first century and bring it into the present, skipping past the other 1900 years of tradition,” he said.

Stroik suggested the bias against dense imagery embodied in Environment and Art is “iconoclastic” and essentially Protestant.

The conclusion that Vatican II impoverished the church’s sense of the sacred does not sit well with many reformers.

“That’s rubbish,” said Benedictine Fr. Aidan Kavanagh, a liturgist at St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana and a pioneer in post-Vatican II liturgical renewal. “People who say those things are just ignorant of liturgical history.”

“Sacredness and awe are in the eyes of the beholder,” Kavanagh said. “I think Vatican II did a pretty good job of reinstilling awesomeness to the service. A lot of that post-Tridentine stuff was cutesy and fluffy, ‘good night sweet Jesus’ kinds of junk,” he said, referring to customs that developed after the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

“If you start gooping up churches again, it’ll end up looking like a mob scene out of ‘Carmen,’ ” Kavanagh said. “The main liturgical symbol is not supposed to be a plaster angel; it’s the altar.”

Kavanagh said he wasn’t defending poorly designed church interiors that “look like somebody’s living room.” But he insisted that a design that properly reflects the council’s call for noble simplicity can “take your breath away.”

Philippart said the suspicion that austerity is a Protestant aesthetic “burns me up.”

“Austerity is St. Bernard of Clairvaux objecting to the lavishness of Abbot Suger’s Cathedral of St. Denis in France,” he said. “The Cistercians responded with iconoclastic whitewashing. These are both strains of a Roman Catholic liturgical aesthetic.”

Philippart said that another oft-forgotten aspect of the debate is why the bishops at Vatican II expressed a preference for simplicity. It wasn’t just theology or aesthetics, but also a sense that solidarity with the poor is compromised when church design is too lavish.

The present draft of Domus Dei expresses a preference for having the tabernacle in a side chapel. During discussion at the November U.S. bishops’ meeting, however, most bishops who spoke supported the movement to return it to the center.

“I’ve always had concern over the location of the tabernacle,” Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., said. “If the Blessed Sacrament is nowhere to be seen, our Catholic people are missing something very important in our theology and spirituality.”

The mood in the United States contrasts sharply with the Canadian Bishops’ Conference. Its 1999 document on church design, Our Place of Worship, says it is “strongly recommended” to place the tabernacle in a separate chapel. In any event, the tabernacle “should not lie on a central axis behind the altar, nor should the place of reservation compete in importance with the altar.”

Monsignor Francis Mannion, editor of Antiphon magazine and founder of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, says there is a “popular sensus fidelium” in favor of bringing back the tabernacle. “It isn’t just the conservatives,” he told NCR. “The very people who buy all the other principles that flowed out of Vatican II just aren’t buying this one.”

Mannion is slated to head up a new liturgy institute in Chicago founded by Cardinal Francis George (see story).

Wearing it on the head

Philippart rejects the argument. “That’s conjecture,” he said. “But even if it’s true, so what? I’ll agree to put the liturgical issues up for a vote as soon as they decide to hold a vote on birth control. You don’t decide what’s right by polling.”

At the bishops’ meeting, both Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Francis George of Chicago suggested that a new edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the main collection of Vatican instructions on the Mass) will contain new language about the tabernacle.

Sources told NCR that the new edition is likely to drop the preference for a side chapel, though it will not call explicitly for restoring the tabernacle to the center.

This change, however, will simply express neutrality among several options. The debate over the placement of the tabernacle will likely still be fought out at the parish and diocesan level.

Philippart said there are problems with Domus Dei that go beyond the tabernacle. Prominent among them, he said, is the lack of multi-cultural awareness -- the document cites only three churches as examples of its principles, and none is an African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic place of worship.

“I was floored that nowhere does the document mention the Spanish mission churches of the Southwest, the only indigenous form of Roman Catholic church architecture in the country,” he said.

“You can’t just pick ‘em up and build ‘em in New York,” he said, “but the mission churches should be a prod to contemporary architects to do what those designers did: build something drawing on local materials and principles that is truly magnificent.”

Philippart said the core challenge is to design the church and celebrate the Mass in such a way that God’s closeness shines through. In that light, there are more important considerations than where the tabernacle goes.

“If the Mass is being celebrated so poorly that people aren’t aware of how Christ becomes present in the Eucharist, the priest can wear the tabernacle around on his head and it’s not going to make any difference,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000