21. The Place of Reservation for the Holy Eucharist
Over the last two millennia, there has been a wide variety of common
ways that the Blessed Sacrament has been reserved. In the early
Christian church, the Blessed Sacrament was typically brought home for
members of the community unable to participate in the Sunday Eucharist.
The Sacrament was commonly kept in a small pyx or wrapped in linen in a
small basket. The devotion to the reserved Eucharist grew over time.
Today, we reserve the consecrated bread for private adoration and
prayer outside of the Eucharistic liturgy and to be brought to the sick
and the dying.
In the early basilicas, the Sacrament was kept in a pyx, a cupboard in
the sacristy, or a wall niche. In the fourth century we find the first
account of an actual tabernacle. Later, in the ninth century, we find
an early example of a tabernacle placed on an altar. In the medieval
church, common practices included a small cupboard in the wall near the
sanctuary or built into the reredos, a free standing “Sacrament House”
or tower, a dove or pyx suspended over the altar, and a tabernacle on
the altar table.
After the Council of Trent, greater uniformity developed. The
tabernacle began to be placed as a rule at the center of the main
altar. It became part of the architecture, and the church building came
to be seen as a setting for the tabernacle.
In the years following the Vatican II, while there was a great deal of
focus on the renewal of the sacred liturgy and our participation, a
variety of examples emerged once again. Churches built before the
Council often provided a special challenge. Finding a worthy place for
the tabernacle when the altar was pulled away from the wall was a
difficult task, especially in small churches.
In new churches, small, intimate prayer chapels were often built. Some
of these separate chapel spaces were not connected to the main body of
the church. While they were well suited to private devotional prayer,
they may not have been prominent enough in the church building.
In the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal
we read that “the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a
tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent,
readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (GIRM
no. 314). There is to be only one tabernacle in the church, and it
should be designed to protect the reserved Sacrament to the greatest
extent possible (GIRM
The tabernacle may be located “in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration” in an appropriate form and place (GIRM
no. 315). Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship
the U.S. bishops’ document on the building and renovation of worship
spaces, tells us that when this is done, sufficient distance, controlled
lighting, or some other architectural device should be used to keep
the appropriate focus on the altar, ambo and presider’s chair during
the liturgy (BLS
no. 80). The tabernacle may also be located in an environment or
“chapel suitable for the faithful’s private adoration and prayer and
which is organically connected to the church and readily visible to the
Christian faithful” (GIRM
no. 315). The GIRM
reaffirms the authority of the local bishop in decisions regarding the placement of the tabernacle (GIRM
no. 315). In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, all new churches are
expected to have a reservation chapel, in which the tabernacle will be
placed, and when possible, remodeled or renovated churches will have a
reservation chapel, in which the tabernacle will be placed.
“Christ present in the eucharistic species is a treasure the Church has come to cherish and revere over the centuries” (BLS
no. 70). A careful study and thorough consultation should be
undertaken when a parish plans any renovation or new construction that
would impact the placement of the tabernacle.