The Vatican II document which addresses this issue is "Sacrosanctum
Concilium" (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). Issued December 4th
1963, it emphasizes the nobility of the tabernacle in determining its place in a church.
128. Along with the revision of the liturgical books, as laid down in Art. 25, there is
to be an early revision of the canons and ecclesiastical statutes which govern the
provision of material things involved in sacred worship. These laws refer especially to
the worthy and well planned construction of sacred buildings, the shape and construction
of altars, the nobility, placing, and safety of the Eucharistic tabernacle, the dignity
and suitability of the baptistery, the proper ordering of sacred images, embellishments,
and vestments. Laws which seem less suited to the reformed liturgy are to be brought into
harmony with it, or else abolished; and any which are helpful are to be retained if
already in use, or introduced where they are lacking.
According to the norm of Art. 22 of this Constitution, the territorial bodies of
bishops are empowered to adapt such things to the needs and customs of their different
regions; this applies especially to the materials and form of sacred furnishings and
After the Council the body entrusted with implementing this conciliar decree issued the
following guidance, which emphasizes the respect and honor due to the Eucharist,
especially as the sacrament of the Lord's presence in the midst of His people.
7. An issue closely linked to that of the altar is the tabernacle. We can hardly give
here prescriptions of a general and uniform character. An attentive study needs to be made
in each case, with due attention to the material and spiritual circumstances proper to
Artists will little by little suggest the best solution. But it is the business of
priests to advise them and call attention to the principles that must safeguard the
respect and honor due to the Eucharist. It is important to contribute to the development
of Eucharistic worship, which should continue under all those genuine forms recognized by
the Church as embodying true Christian piety.
Particularly in larger churches, a chapel specially set aside for the reservation and
adoration of the Eucharist is advisable and might well be used for the Eucharistic
celebration during the week, when there are fewer of the faithful participating.
Whatever the solution chosen .... the greatest care should be devoted to the dignity of
the tabernacle. If the local Ordinary agrees to its location away from the altar, the
place should be truly worthy and prominent, so that the tabernacle is readily visible and
is not hidden by the priest during the celebration of the Mass. In a word, the location
should make it possible for the tabernacle to serve unmistakably as a sign and to give a
sense of the savior's presence in the midst of his people. (my emphasis) [Letter of
Cardinal Lecaro to the Bishops, 30 June 1965, Concilium for Implementing the Decree
on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council)
In 1969, revised in 1975, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM)
said the following:
276. It is highly recommended that the Holy Eucharist be reserved in a chapel suitable
for private adoration and prayer. If this is impossible because of the structure of the
church or local custom, it should be kept on an altar or some other place in the church
that is prominent and properly decorated.
277. The Eucharist is to be kept in a solid, unbreakable tabernacle, and ordinarily
there should be only one tabernacle in a church.
The Code of Canon Law codified these developments in 1983.
º1. The Most Holy Eucharist is to be reserved regularly in only one tabernacle of a
church or oratory.
º2. The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a
part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for
º3. The tabernacle in which the Eucharist is regularly reserved is to be immovable,
made of solid and opaque material, and locked so that the danger of profanation may be
º4. For a grave cause, it is licit to reserve the Most Holy Eucharist in another safer
and becoming place especially during the night.
º5. The person who has charge of the church or oratory is to see to it that the key of
the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is safeguarded most
Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
1183 The tabernacle is to be situated "in churches in a most worthy
place with the greatest honor." The dignity, placing, and security of the Eucharistic
tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord really present in the Blessed Sacrament
of the altar.
One evident difficulty seems to arise in connection with 1) having a chapel of reservation
and 2) complying with canon 938, 1. In some places it seems there is a tendency to
read these in an absolutist sense not found elsewhere. By that I mean, if anywhere within
the external walls of the church building there is a chapel of reservation then the law is
satisfied and furthermore there cannot be a tabernacle in the main church. It is my
experience that this interpretation does not prevail in other places, least of all Rome.
When the chapel of reservation is at the front end of a side aisle of a church, or
prominently off of a side aisle (i.e. so that it is truly prominent and conspicuous from
the main body of the church) then it will contain the only tabernacle in the church
building. It is also thereby convenient for prayer and for retrieving and reserving the
Eucharist at the time of Mass.
However, when there is a Eucharistic chapel that is not so prominent and conspicuous
from the main body of the church, even though it be in the same church building, there
will also be a tabernacle in the main body of the church serving as a sign of the Lord's
Presence there. This can certainly be verified by a visit to Rome's many churches.
Ultimately, complying with the mind of the Church on the placement of the tabernacle rests
with the bishop. As the Concilium letter noted, it is impossible to make universal law for
all the particular circumstances of construction that may occur. Even though it is within
the authority of the bishop, the laity certainly have a right to make their desires known
to him. Considering the loss of faith in the Real Presence that is evidenced by recent
polls of Catholics and the obligation to foster adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, it
would seem opportune to suggest to our pastors that the time has come to return the
Tabernacle to a truly prominent place of honor in the main body of the Church. Some
bishops have already concluded this and are doing it.
Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL