Q. When I was young and walked into a Catholic church, I immediately felt the holiness all around me. That seems gone now. More often than not, it is a meet and greet before Mass starts, and it’s hard to focus on prayers. Is it because the tabernacle is moved away from the altar? Why was this done anyway? I have gone to some Catholic churches and can’t even tell which direction to genuflect. I would love to see the tabernacle brought back into our line of vision.
A. It has become a major challenge for many parishes to be that place where people experience genuine community and have an opportunity to socialize, while also appreciating that the church building is first and foremost a temple of prayer, contemplation and – above all – where we gather to partake of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
When churches began to proliferate during the 4th century AD, the basilica structure of ancient Rome was used as the model. It has the notable feature of a large narthex (often known today as the gathering space), where people would interact prior to liturgical celebrations. Once you moved into the nave (main body of the church) and approached the apse part of the basilica (where the altar was), you had entered a sacred space that was revered through silence and prayer.
Many churches today are fortunate to have a large narthex that is separate from the main body of the church, and this is the most appropriate place for socializing prior to and after Mass. Where such a large gathering space is not present, we should be respectful that many prepare for Mass through private, personal prayer. If you are visiting with others, you should move out of the main body of the church to visit elsewhere (being loud and disrupting others as they try to pray is just plain rude). We all need to prepare for Mass in prayer and also take time after to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. What better way to do so than in silent prayer in the midst of a perpetually noisy world!
As for the placement of the tabernacle, each National Bishops’ Conference sets out guidelines as to where the tabernacle should be placed. In the United States and Canada, it says it is to be placed in a prominent location. While it was mandated after the Council of Trent that the tabernacle be connected to the high altar, it is no longer obligatory that it be behind the altar or in the sanctuary. This is why many churches have chapels specifically designed for the placement of the tabernacle and for Eucharistic Adoration. However, a parish is permitted to ask their local bishop about moving the tabernacle. I know of parishes that have asked for the tabernacle to return to the sanctuary, and the bishop granted their request.
On a personal note, I have always loved having the tabernacle right behind the altar or close to it. It allows the tabernacle to become the ever-visible beating heart of the parish, drawing all to spend some quiet time before our Eucharistic Lord and have Him always sacramentally present at each and every liturgical celebration.
The tabernacle in St. John Lateran Cathedral, Rome