Question Box: Question on tabernacle location


Q. Recently, I visited a Catholic church in which the tabernacle was located in a side chapel. I felt an emptiness not seeing the tabernacle in the main church. Am I too hung up on this and missing the bigger picture?

A. There may be nothing more frightening for a priest than to tiptoe into the minefield of the “tabernacle wars” — but here goes nothing!

Fr. Hennen

Some think that the tabernacle must absolutely be central in any Catholic church. Anything less is seen as a slight to our Lord, truly present in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Others will say that the tabernacle shouldn’t be anywhere near the sanctuary because it steals focus from the altar and the actual celebration of the Eucharist. I have also heard people make a distinction between the “active” presence of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist and the “static” presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species. Personally, I don’t know how the living God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, can be anything but actively present. In any case, I think both are wrong.

So, what guidance do we have from the Church on this? The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (most recently revised in 2011) states: “In accordance with the structure of each church and legitimate local customs, the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, conspicuous, worthily decorated, and suitable for prayer.” The tabernacle may be “in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration … not excluding its being positioned on an old altar no longer used for celebration” or it may be “in some chapel suitable for private adoration and prayer of the faithful and organically connected to the church and readily noticeable by the Christian faithful.”


The keys here seem to be that the tabernacle should be located in a place that is noble, prominent, worthily decorated, suitable for prayer, organically connected to the church and easily noticeable. As long as these criteria are met, I think it is in the right place.

Some years ago I remember reading an intentionally “fake news” story on a Catholic humor website with the headline: “Man goes to Halloween party dressed as tabernacle; is promptly placed in the corner and ignored.” I have never been very convinced by the argument that the presence of the tabernacle in or near the sanctuary/altar necessarily “distracts” from the Mass. How can Jesus distract from his own sacrifice? To me that is like saying, “Jesus, do you mind waiting over there? We’re trying to celebrate Mass.”

At the same time, I am not in the camp that the tabernacle must always be central in the sanctuary. Much of this depends on the particular architecture of the church. My rule of thumb is not to get in a fight with a building; the building always wins. In an older, more traditionally laid out church that was built with the intention of having the tabernacle in the middle, that may indeed be the most fitting placement. Why fight that, only to replace it with seasonal decorations? Is that any less distracting? At the same time, in a more modern church that was designed with the option of a separate (but hopefully conspicuous and beautiful) chapel, why try to shoehorn a tabernacle into the sanctuary that was not designed for it? In all cases, I think we want to avoid the tabernacle moving from place to place within the church as pastors come and go, depending on their personal preferences, in which case perhaps a tabernacle on wheels would be most convenient.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to

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