Rorate Caeli

The tabernacle is not an obstacle

Rorate Caeli is pleased to offer the following translation of the article Ma il tabernacolo non è un ingombro, written by Michele Dolz of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and published in L'Osservatore Romano on January 16, 2010. The translations of the Bible verses are taken from the Revised Standard Version.

The translations of the citations from Vatican documents (except for the brief passages from Sacrosanctum Concilium #122) are taken from the English version of the Vatican website.

Dear readers: this article is not "traditionalist" in any sense, and Traditional Catholics will certainly find certain passages to be objectionable. However, this article at least serves as yet another "bullet" in the continuing struggle against modernism in Church architecture, sacred art, and the place of the reserved Sacrament.Take what is helpful, and discuss with charity those passages that seem to reflect the spirit of unwarranted innovation.

Architecture and sacred art

The tabernacle is not an obstacle

On the themes of Sacred architecture proposed by Paolo Portoghesi on these pages on October 19-20 of last year, we publish here a new intervention after the contributions of Maria Antonietta Crippa e Sandro Benedetti.

by Michael Dolz

Pontifical University of the Holy Cross

It is to be hoped that the stone thrown into the pond by the architect Paolo Portoghesi will produce a long wave of reflections among those who are in his profession. The point he is emphasizing can be seen clearly: the Conciliar re-evaluation of the community aspect, which is so essential for the Christian faith, has -- when applied -- led to a desacralization which has nothing to do with the teachings of the Vatican II.

There is no lack of theological and scriptural reasons for this; on the contrary, there is a vision of the Ecclesia as the depositary of the sacred, or better said, of sanctity. Jesus explains to the Samaritan woman: “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father (...) But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him”. (John 4:21-23).

There are no sacred places, properly speaking, in Christianity. God is everywhere and He is especially present through grace in man, which Origen proudly said was the most exact image of God: ”There is no comparison between the Olympian Zeus, sculptured by Phidias and man made to the image of God, the Creator” (Contra Celsum, 8, 18). Man is holy (or can be holy) and the Church is holy. And “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”. (Matthew 18:20).

On this basis, (which however is) the authentic ancient faith of the Church, we had an over-emphasis (on community), which sometimes arrives even at the denial of the validity of individual religious action. In this way the church building is seen as the headquarters for the reunion of the assembly or community. There a sacred action is performed when the community is present, but it remains an empty shell, and it is not considered to be for use as a personal, individual, “private” place. But the church which has been transformed into a conference room does not need pictures, and even these could be a hindrance. Let us think of a conference hall or a hall used for conventions: the emptier they are, the better they are for the gathering for which they are used since this helps the participants to concentrate their attention on the speakers.. The churches used as assembly halls do not need pictures because pictures do not serve, they even disturb. And this actually goes well with the minimalist and purist taste of many architects, however creative or repetitive they may be.

Sober and somewhat bare churches are of course not a novelty of the 20th century and have also helped people meeting God in Jesus Christ. But it is not possible to appeal to Vatican II in order to ask it to justify either the absence of pictures, or the invalidity of personal prayer inside the church. In Sacrosanctum Concilium we read that the purpose of works of sacred art is to “contribute as efficiently as possible to turn the minds of men towards God”, that ”the church has always reserved itself, and rightly so, to be the judge and choose between the artistical works those which respond to faith, to piety and the norms religiously transmitted and which are adapted to the use of the sacred” (122) And it goes on to say: “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained(125), while at the same time recommending some moderation in order to prevent the exaggerations which are always possible in this field.

An extreme and very clear consequence of the “assemblist” (assemblearista) position is the loss of the importance of the Eucharist as the real presence of Christ in the Host after the mass. If one does not think of personal adoration, and as community adoration is no longer actually practiced, then the tabernacle becomes cumbersome and difficult to put between what are normally considered as the two liturgical poles, the altar and the ambo. In so many churches it has thus become subject to a progressive marginalization which has made it at times reach total concealment. The absence of faith in the real presence is vividly noticed in some sectors.

And yet, the story of the tabernacle reflects the progressive development of Eucharistic worship, according to that ”progress of the faith” for which Vincent of Lerins already set the parameters in his Commonitorium (434) and which in this case has witnessed two great moments: the 13th century and the initiative of the Catholic Reformation around the Council of Trent. The bishop of Verona, Matteo Giberti (+1543) for instance put the tabernacle on the altar table, and this action was quickly repeated by many. As John Paul II wrote in 2003, “The designs of altars and tabernacles within Church interiors were often not simply motivated by artistic inspiration but also by a clear understanding of the mystery" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 49). The way of looking at the church as a place for assemblies, on the other hand, looks on Eucharistic custody as something subsidiary and not something arising from the union of the faithful with Christ in Holy Communion.

The exhortation of Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis of 2007 (simply) takes up the reflections and the propositions of the Episcopal Synod on the Eucharist, and hence is not to be seen as an expression of one or the other theological current. We read there: “During the early phases of the reform, the inherent relationship between Mass and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was not always perceived with sufficient clarity. For example, an objection that was widespread at the time argued that the eucharistic bread was given to us not to be looked at, but to be eaten. In the light of the Church's experience of prayer, however, this was seen to be a false dichotomy. As Saint Augustine put it: "nemo autem illam carnem manducat, nisi prius adoraverit; peccemus non adorando – no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it (...) eucharistic adoration is simply the natural consequence of the eucharistic celebration, which is itself the Church's supreme act of adoration. (...)The act of adoration outside Mass prolongs and intensifies all that takes place during the liturgical celebration itself." (41). (CAP – These passages are actually to be found in #66 of Sacramentum Caritatis.)

The consequence in terms of planning of the churches, which we find in the same post-synodical document, is simple: “In new churches, it is good to position the Blessed Sacrament chapel close to the sanctuary; where this is not possible, it is preferable to locate the tabernacle in the sanctuary, in a sufficiently elevated place, at the centre of the apse area, or in another place where it will be equally conspicuous. Attention to these considerations will lend dignity to the tabernacle, which must always be cared for, also from an artistic standpoint”(69).

Ultimately, the highlighting of the tabernacle and the exposition of sacred images are in the same line of personal prayer and, as we have seen, cannot detract from community celebration. It follows that also the images are not only ornaments. “Sacred Art” - wrote John Paul II – “must be outstanding for its ability to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church's faith" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 50). And those words are echoed by the Synod in the words of Benedict XVI when he reminds that “religious iconography should be directed to sacramental mystagogy. A solid knowledge of the history of sacred art can be advantageous for those responsible for commissioning artists and architects to create works of art for the liturgy"(41).

There is, therefore, something to reflect on, not to invoke some kind of restoration, but to admit with nobility of mind the mistakes that have been committed and to envisage new lines of development of the sacred art. The next question will necessarily be how to make multi-faceted contemporary art adequately express the mystery of the faith of the Church. Because it is from the contemporary art that the solution must come, not from some nostalgic and impossible revival. But in any case we are faced with a theological and spiritual question, rather than with an aesthetical one.


  1. Tempora mutantur! We are now progressively realizing that our new churches are “as ugly as sin”, as author of the book with this title has proved. But what can be done?
    (1)A formal decree is needed from Rome, forbidding removal of tabernacles from their traditional places, as well as forbidding errection of new tabernacles in any other place even if the old one has been retained.
    (2)Also by a formal decree, a celebration versus populum, if it required of a celebrant to turn his back to the tabernacle, should be forbidden.
    (3)If the old altar is still in place the new one should be removed; and if the old altar has been removed, the new one should be either put in its place, or moved toward the tabernacle leaving only enough space to access the tabernacle. Should these modifications proved too expensive, enough space should be provided in front of the existing altar for ad orientem celebration.
    (4)If the tabernacle is in another place, special instructions are necessary for genuflection on entering or leaving the church; or when one passes along the tabernacle. It is a scandal to see a priest passing along the tabernacle taking no notice of it.
    (5)All plans for new churches, in which the tabernacle and the altar do not make one unit, should be forbidden.

    I thing that none of these measures should involve substantial costs.

  2. Anonymous12:44 PM

    It is this "assemblist" (read Protestant)_ mentality in the Roman Catholic Church which has destroyed countless thousands of Churches by a misguided "updating" or "rennovation". Magnificent churches, from great Basilicas to the ordinary neighborhood parish have been warped into an immitation Protestant church to reflect this new "assemblist" mindset after Vatican II, and which continues in some places still today.
    I've been to 12 countries for my job over the last 6 1/2 months, and of course try to maintain my regular habit of attending Sunday Mass, and sometimes during the week. In most countries I have been shocked how awesome and magestic Cathedrals have been desecrated by having magnifident works of art...some centuries old...pulled off walls, frescos whitewashed, marble high altars either hidden by curtains, false new walls, or actually wripped down and chopped to pieces to turn the Cathedrals into bare, "assemblist" "worship spaces". More often than not, all statures, confessionals, tabranacles, etc. have been removed. The result is a "protestantization" of the building, and concomitantly, a complete collapse of the Catholic Faith and a tremendous drop in Mass attendance.
    This attitude which came in right after Vatican II, has all the earmarks of a radical Calvinistic/Congregationalist approach to religion which has backfired very badly.
    I was in one country last year, and visited towns and villages in the hills where this Vatican II mindset never infiltrated. Many of the parishes and monasteries, and even afew large Basilica type churches still reflect pre-Vatican II Baroque Catholicity. Although most have the protestantized "table altar" in front of the great marble High altars, the Churches themselves have not bee ruined. And in some places the original altars are still used and priests (usually below 50) celebrate Mass ad orientam. Mass is packed...even though there are plenty of guitars and mariachi bands during Mass...which is lively and colorful...and impressive because the people still have clung to their Catholic traditions, and Latin and Gregorian Chant is used also. But just try to suggest a "renovation" of the Church, or pulling down the high altar or taking out confessionals, and these humble and devout people will run you out of town!!! As has happened when some elderly habitless USA nuns and three 65 year old or so burnt out Maryknoll priests tried to do that to 3 parishes they were assigned to by a misguided bishop. The bishop quickly backed down, and the elderly nuns and 3 priests hightailed it back to the USA where they are probably licking their wounds in a well deserved retirement.
    The point is that this "assemblist"...totally Protestant mindset came in immediatly after Vatican II by young radical bishops, priests, and nuns all fired up by the misguided "reforms" of Vatican II. Their agenda was/is a disaster. But these people, and this mindset is now almost 50 years old....and the younger Catholics want a return to Catholic tradition, the TLM, and pre-Vatican II Churches. It's amazing how quickly the damage is being undone in some places.
    And I can attest as an eye witness both in the USA, Mexico, and in France that the aged bishops, priests, and nuns who instigated this mess are absolutely devastated, and angry. They see their life work being demolished.
    All I can say is, Thanks be to God, and Good Riddance.

  3. Anonymous12:46 PM

    The hanging pyx is a possiblity, and still used in some places in churches in communion with Rome. So is the Sakramentshaus in German churches, the rich ornate tabernacle on the Gospel side of the sanctuary.

    Fr. Anthony Chadwick

  4. Anonymous5:49 PM

    As the destruction of churches transpired during the past several decades, Rome refused to employ her awesome authority to preserve the former beauty that had existed at said churches.

    Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, His Holiness, stated the following in 1988...everybody, including Popes, watched as the destruction transpired in broad daylight:

    "After the Council there were many priests who deliberately raised ‘desacralization’ to the level of a program...they put aside the sacred vestments; they have despoiled the churches as much as they could of that splendor which brings to mind the sacred..."

    Popes Paul VI and John Paul II should have prevented the vandalism of churches.

    Cardinals and every holy Catholic amd and woman should have literally stood in front of churches to have prevented the desacralization that transpired.

    But the people, devoid of leadership from Popes and Cardinals, were asleep.

  5. Anonymous5:54 PM

    Another story, another problem within the Church that pertains to Novus Ordo parishes.

    Parishes and chapels maintained by TLM Catholics were not wreckovated.

    Funny, but Vatican II Era problems — lack of Catholic identity, wreckovation, disappearance of confessionals, empty churches, lack of vocations —are Novus Ordo-only problems.

  6. Isabelle7:03 PM

    This is a "bullet in the continuing struggle against Modernism..."? Ah, no. It is not even a spitwad. The last paragraph says it all, including:

    "Because it is from the contemporary art that the solution must come, not from some nostalgic and impossible revival."

    The contempt for the pre-VII Church is still there, and it's stronger than ever.

  7. Yes, but some elements that use the NO Mass have beautiful chapels or oratories, confessionals, Latin is given pride of place...I'm thinking of Opus Dei, of course...their catechesis is faithful and their loyalty to Rome wreckovation there.

  8. Anonymous7:40 PM

    Tempus mutatur
    et Nos in eo.

    Ars Poetica

  9. Anonymous12:58 AM

    Catholic author writing to change a generation

  10. Anonymous11:18 AM

    I live in Canada, and I am so disappointed at the liberalism of the archdiose I belong to.
    I feel so discourage!

    I have felt many times as if I am attending religious services at a protestant church. Priests talk inside the church with parishoners before and after Mass as if the Blessed Sacrament it's not present.
    Reverence for the House of the Lord doesn't exist anymore.

    Priests don't ask people for silence inside the church, people talk in the church as if in a public hall, parties are held in the churches halls or basements and only the Lord knows what kind of jokes and foul language happens in those church held events, since they have an open bar in many cases, well I hate to imagen.

    One other thing to go to confession I have to make an appointment, I have encounter many priests who don't want anyone showing up in church and asking for confession, many of them have told me to comeback on Saturday because they are and this are some of the things they told me: going to play golf, are going to have a nap or they are just plainly heading out and I hate to say this I don't think they are going to bring the sacraments or visit the sick, they don't seem to care about giving priority to the reason of their being priests which is to impart the sacraments and guide the people of God.

    I wanted for a priest I know to bring the Sacrament of the Sick to my mother, we live about ten minutes away from his parish, well he didn't want to do it, because he says he doesn't want to infringe in other priest jurisdiction.
    I reminded him that I belong to the
    Catholic Church, the Universal Church, and not to a protestant denomination and that i could ask any priest I felt confortable with to come to my house and bring the sacraments to my mother.

    Look, I understand that priests are busy and all and that they don't seem to have the support in the faith as they used to, but the liberalism in the world today regarding the Catholic Church it's just rampant and overwhelming.

    Priests following the lack of leadership from the Vatican and its bishops have forgotten the call that Christ gave them to feed his lambs.

    I feel so sad to be part of this religious catastrophe that is the only way I can discribe the state of the Catholic Church today. I pray for the Pope and the bishops and the priests and the whole Church every day, but I don't think it is about not praying enough for them, but it is that many bishops and priests have become so lukewarm about their faith it will require a miracle or the Second Coming for them to be either be brought back into the Faith, and back into the Sacred Spirit of Service to Christ and His Church, or be punished for their betrayal of God and their lack of service to the Lord.

    Dear brothers and sisters I know that many of you who will read my post will identify with the sad reality we are facing for the liberalims within Our Beloved Catholic Church.

    I don't mean to be hard on priests but they are the visible church and they are supposed to work, guide and even sacrifice for God's people on earth to lead them to our Blessed Home in Heaven.
    This is not happening, and I feel for myself and others like me who encouter in their parishes the lack of reverence and lack sacred devotion on how Holy Mass is being said today.

    Many people I know who go to church on Sunday and recite the Creed at Mass don't even seem to believe what it says.
    Many Catholics express themselves about the Church like protestants, and believe like atheists, who keep on arguing that the bible was only written by men and say that "we don't know what was really inspire by God or by those at the Vatican."

    I don't know anymore, I will keep on praying but I feel very sad.

    May God Almighty help us!

  11. The reality is that it is not the Tabernacle the problem. Rather it is the soulless modern architectural mausolea It has to be placed in. Many modern churches are ecumenical in their orientation - a Tabernacle is hardly an appropriate sacred vessel to be placed therein. We should genuflect before the Tabernacle - only very faithful Roman Catholics do this anymore. We should also maintain silence in church before It.Women should not be permitted to go to It and remove the Sacred Host.

    Modern ecclesiastical architecture and neo-catholic norms & values are the problems: not The Tabernacle.

  12. Anonymous10:23 PM

    Anonymous 11:18,

    We are battling against evil - it has always been like this for the Church Militant. If you have time, read the following letter by Jean Ousset from 1973:

    Do not despair - keep the faith.

    John M.

  13. Anonymous11:37 PM

    Sad Catholic laments and John M. exhorts and though I can empathize I have come to believe that is no longer possible to fight this fight within the NO.

    For example listen to the Remnant link that was graciously provided by John M. It dawned on me that those few NO priests that have woke up are still in a fog. All those good points they preach about are exactly what the Catholic Church stood for before Vatican 2.

    No cross, no tabernacle what is left just us and that is not good enough. Duh, no kidding (respectfully).

    You can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear.

    I believe I can make one heck of a statement to the Church authorities and enemies of Christ by offering my support the to TLM communities or other Catholic rites of ancient usage.

    say NO to the NO.

  14. Anonymous2:28 AM

    Anonymous 30 January, 2010 17:54 said...
    Another story, another problem within the Church that pertains to Novus Ordo parishes.

    Parishes and chapels maintained by TLM Catholics were not wreckovated.

    Funny, but Vatican II Era problems — lack of Catholic identity, wreckovation, disappearance of confessionals, empty churches, lack of vocations —are Novus Ordo-only problems.

    Absolutely correct. Happily we Catholics who have clung to tradition are growing and building new churches which reflect a Catholic attitude of worship, prayer and reverence. Instead of following the "reformers" like lemmings we held to what was accepted as Catholic, thus avoiding falling into the same errors as the protestants of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Thanks be to God!


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