June 2002, Volume 7, Issue 11   
Crisis in the Church
Rev. Mark Connolly
Distortions, Complexities and Resolutions
Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti
Thought for the Month
God in a Box
Henry Hardinge Menzies, AIA
Saint of the Month
A Call to Love
Rev. David Marcotte
Only a Dad
God in a Box

Henry Hardinge Menzies, AIA

A Protestant was visiting a Catholic church accompanied by his Catholic friend, and after entering, he was admiring the beauty of the architecture and decorations.


He was particularly impressed with the altar and the tabernacle on top which was surrounded by angels and many candles. He asked his Catholic friend, "And what's in that box there on the table?" The Catholic replied, "Jesus Christ himself is really present in that box. Our faith tells us that.." There was stunned silence. Finally the Protestant said, "If 1 believed that, I would crawl down this aisle on my knees!"

This happened many years ago. Times have changed, and now you don't see many people crawling on their knees. Today, when visitors enter many churches, the problem is to find the tabernacle in the first place. Some tabernacles are hidden from view behind columns, in walls or placed in closets. Others are located in separate chapels or oratories. Others do remain in the sanctuary but in a secondary location. Fortunately, many are still given a conspicuous place directly behind the altar. However, generally there seems to be no uniform place to it. Each church has its own preferred location. This apparently random placement of the tabernacle gives the impression that it doesn't make much difference where it is, and that it is not much more important than the baptismal font or the ambo. Is it any Wonder, then, that many people barely notice his home? They pass by without any sign of recognition, neither a nod, or a bow or a genuflection...treating Him worse than they would even a stranger.

It is no wonder that a number of bishops at the recent US Bishops meeting expressed deep concern about this matter. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick (Newark, NJ) said: I've always had concern over the location of the tabernacle. If the Blessed Sacrament is nowhere to be seen, our Catholic people are missing something very important in our theology and spirituality and when revisions are made, I hope we can emphasize what the code says, that the tabernacle be placed in a place that is prominent and conspicuous." James Cardinal Hickey of Washington, DC, said.: "It (the centrality of the tabernacle) reinforces our belief in the Eucharist and the Real Presence, as it is greeted, genuflected before, and as it helps keep prayerful silence in a church .... If tabernacles are reinstated," he added, "it will help restore a sense of prayer in our churches." Other bishops agreed, among them St. Louis' Archbishop Justin Rigali: 'What was a recommendation (of the controversial document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship) has been so often infelicitously applied over the last 30 years, and the tabernacle has been relegated to places that are neither prominent nor beautifully decorated.

The Design and Beauty of the Tabernacle

But beside the question of location, what is also of vital importance is the appearance of the tabernacle, that is, its design and beauty. If God deigns to confine himself to a box for us and he is really and substantially present there, doesn't that box deserve to be of the best and most beautiful design? Besides the Church's admonition to have it 'dearly visible", it also insists that it be "truly noble and duly adorned. And if we truly believe that he is there, is there any other rational conclusion? Without going into a "history" of tabernacle design or entering into the current "placement" controversy, serious regard for the design of tabernacles needs urgent attention. It would do no good, for instance, to maintain that all the tabernacles of the past, say before 1964, were outstanding for their beauty and nobility and that the current ones are in poor taste. Certainly the Victorian marble "wedding cake" reredos-altars (many of which have already been ripped out of churches) varied across the board in terms of their beauty. It is true that the tabernacle itself sometimes got lost in the massive tiers of niches, angels, arches, lights, etc. and hence lost its unique identity. On the other hand, we have a number of quite exquisite modern tabernacles in churches today.

But we frequently come across ugly ones. On the one hand we find strange forms consisting of spheres, abstract sculptures and surprising amorphous aggregates of different materials. On the other, there are simple boxes of different sizes covered with various weird projections, like glass doorknobs. Far from eliciting reverence and devotion, or simply being ordinary but acceptable in design, many tabernacles are poor and some are ugly and in an affront to everything we call holy.

I sometimes wonder it the designers were not actually trying to make them as ugly as possible. If we talk about the church as a sacred place, as God's house, here we are speaking not in terms of large spaces, but about a specific concrete object a box in which he dwells. God lives today in every Catholic Church throughout the world in a box! To paraphrase lines relating to Our Lady, he whom the whole world cannot contain encloses himself in a box for love of us.

A subtle attack on the Blessed Eucharist

When we add the ugliness of its design to the confusion about its location, one is tempted to think that this is part of general and progressive downgrading of the tabernacle, and is, therefore, a subtle attack on the blessed Eucharist. Quoting Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe [also at the Bishops meeting] "... we have all experienced a lessening of devotion to the Eucharist, a loss of the sense of the Real Presence; the sense of the sacred has suffered. I can't help believing that placing the Eucharist in a separate chapel, often hidden and often small, is part of the reason we have a crisis in belief in the Real Presence. Out of sight, out of mind is what has happened." During the celebration of the liturgy the altar represents Christ, but outside the liturgical ceremonies the tabernacle is the most important object in the church. The Holy See is very aware of this tendency to downgrade the Blessed Sacrament. The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts said recently:

Christ's faithful are to hold the blessed Eucharist in the highest honor...They should receive the sacrament with great devotion and frequently, and should reverence it with greatest adoration (can. 898). Catechesis should reacquaint the Christian people with the whole of Eucharistic worship, (including) the frequent adoration, personal and communal, ... of the Blessed Sacrament, and the loving concern that the tabernacle ... in which the Eucharist is kept... be placed on an altar or in a part of the church that is clearly visible, truly noble and duly adorned, so that it is a center of attraction for every heart in love with Christ.

Edited and reprinted with permission of Henry Harding Menzies and the Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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