Bring the Tabernacle Back Into the Sanctuary
By: Deacon Keith A. Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
There I said it.
The depth and passion of the heart cry that informs the title of this article surprises even me. I just returned from Sunday Mass at a local parish and I find myself concerned. The "Mass" or the "Divine Liturgy" on the Lord's Day, Sunday, should be the high point in the worship and life of a Catholic Christian. Instead, I am troubled by the experience.
This morning I spent the first ten minutes before the liturgy began trying to pray above the gymnasium level conversations. It was fruitless to try to avoid the distractions around me in my efforts to prepare for the Liturgy. I finally had to leave the "sanctuary" and go to the "Eucharistic chapel", which is a very small nondescript place where the reserved Sacrament is kept.
How particularly sad it all seemed to me this morning. There, in a profound way, the beauty of the Incarnation is revealed in the new "holy of holies", the tabernacle. There, Jesus Christ, who once dwelt in the womb of the Virgin, now dwells in the Sacrament, awaiting a dialogue of love with all who will come and spend time in prayer. "How many come" I wondered? At least it was quiet and I could prepare myself for Mass.
Accompanying my family this morning was a young man who is quite taken with one of my daughters. He was raised in a nominally and generically "Protestant" home. He is in a season of searching for God and we have had some conversations recently that have led me to believe that he is ready to meet the Lord in a new and profound way. I longed for him to experience the very beauty that is Catholic liturgical worship. I hope that he did this morning. My faith tells me he did because that encounter does not depend on anything but grace.
I understand this kind of search. I am a "revert" to the Catholic Church. I returned "home" after my own teenage journey. I love being a Catholic Christian. I believe that the Catholic faith is the fullness of Christianity and I want all who have been created by a loving God to experience the re-creation that is redemption in Jesus Christ and the full incorporation into His Body, the Church. I want all men and women to enter into the rich beauty that is Catholic Christian faith in its imminence and transcendence. I do not want "Catholic Lite" I want Catholicism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes a rich, developed body of teaching in the tradition with these words:
"The Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch. The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God's action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Finally, by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all. In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: "Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking." [Paragraphs 1322-1325]
So the Eucharistic celebration is pretty important, right?
Well, it should be.
It is the time when we who have been baptized into Christ enter into the deepest mystery of our Faith, hear the words of the Lord proclaimed, and actually participate in the great paschal mystery. This is the time when we who are mere mortals enter into the very timeless sacrifice of Calvary and touch heaven itself; a time when we eat the bread of angels; when we come forward to receive the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. This God of the whole universe who condescended to become one of us now gives Himself as food for our journey in this pilgrimage of life.
On that altar, Jesus Christ becomes sustenance for us in our mission and sends us forth from the altar into the world to carry forward His redemptive work. This Mass is the solemn assembly of the faithful where God the father joins us to Himself in His Son; and with one another in His Son, and for the world by the working of the Holy Spirit. This "work of worship" which is what "Liturgy" means, should be a palpable, experiential encounter with the mystery, the grandeur, the intimacy and the pure wonder of a living God!
I am now going to share the thoughts that have led to the title of this article. Before I do let me clarify something. I am not a traditionalist. I have found in the past that when I have written on the subject of the current state of some of our Church buildings or the de-mystifying of our liturgy, I am immediately accused of wanting to somehow "turn the clock back". That is not true. I love the teachings of this wonderful Pope who is now praying for us from his place in the heart of the Lord. In fact, I studied at His Institute. I love the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and I am a great believer in the "New Evangelization" that was proclaimed by Pope John Paul II as a response to the Second Vatican Council.
I have spent decades in ecumenical work, and I find it so disappointing that right when so many of our Christian friends in other confessions and communities are searching for a deeper encounter in formal worship, for sign, symbol and mystery, for a connection with the ancient Church in her divine worship, some within the Catholic community are discarding the very treasures that make her formal liturgical worship so beautiful, full of mystery and so compelling and attractive to those seeking a deeper Christian life.
I have become convinced that the move of the Tabernacle out of the center of the sanctuary was an over- reaction against a privatized piety that some worried was distracting from the experience of the community nature of Eucharistic worship. Well, having now seen its bad fruit, I have joined the ranks of many, traditionalists included, in concluding that it has been an abysmal failure. The cure was worse than the perceived problem.
Along with the tabernacle, the renovation "experts" in some Dioceses have also moved many of the uniquely Catholic symbols of worship, practice and expression out of the sanctuary. What the faithful are forced to accept now is the bad fruit of what one writer aptly referred to as changing "Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces". When a "Worship Space" resembles a cafeteria or a gymnasium, it evokes the kinds of responses that we now experience in our Churches. Rather than calling for prayer, reflection and preparation for worship, these new meeting spaces have been almost entirely de-sacralized.
This has invited a trivializing of Liturgy.
Oh, don't get me wrong. The basics are still there, thank God. The Word is still proclaimed from what still at least resembles an Ambo. There is still an altar, although it is often stripped down and has little grandeur befitting the eternal sacrifice made wonderfully present in the timeless mystery re-presented at every consecration in every Mass. The priest still wears vestments; even though they seem to have such a casual nature to them one does not quickly grasp why he even wears them, or the connection that they bring between the eternal heavenly liturgy and the beauty of the worship of the Holy Church throughout the world. They sometimes seem so "ordinary" that one can fail to discern that they speak symbolically, crossing the span of more than two thousand years and reaching back into the temple worship.
Then there is the issue of the "rubrics", following the rules, the norms, of the liturgy. Though instructions are eminently clear, often, they are overtly disregarded. More often however, it is not overt at all but simply a dialed down kind of "grudging" compliance. For example, in some parishes, the priest either does not elevate, or only somewhat elevates, the consecrated Host and the Chalice, filled with the very Blood of Jesus Christ. In many of our liturgies, the priest only slightly bends his waist afterward, no grand genuflection. This kind of gesture is not "wrong", it is not profane, and it is at least a sign of "reverence." It is a "valid" liturgy of course, and the "rubrics" are technically complied with. However, I so often ask myself "Why such minimalism?"
The extraordinary depth and beauty that the elevation of the consecrated Body and Blood of Jesus Christ conveys; the invitation it is meant to be, for all the faithful, to enter into the heavenly mysteries and thereby participate in the very inner life and love of a Trinitarian God who gives Himself to us, is so vital, so integral, I simply do not understand why any priest would miss the moment and opportunity. There, "in persona Christi", the celebrant mediates the gift of heaven, the mystery hidden from the ages...and there we encounter the Lamb of God, slain for us all from the "foundations of the world". At that moment all the angels of God bow in profound reverence and we are invited to join them!
Why this minimalism?
Perhaps some of it has to do with a new form of iconoclasm, a discarding of sign, symbol and gesture that seems to still be in vogue in some circles. I will again use my local parish building as an example. It looks like too many others that I have seen. There is absolutely no sign or symbol anywhere; particularly any that would make you think that you have entered a Catholic Church. The walls are all beige and nondescript. The few banners there are have nondescript geometric patterns. There are no icons or images reflecting the heavenly touching the earth, drawing you into a transcendent encounter with the God who we are about receive and in whom we are invited to live and move and have our being.
When you do enter for the Sunday Liturgy, this "worship space" is filled with people conversing about the week - no screaming mind you, but nothing that sets it apart as the place where God will manifest Himself and give Himself away, body, blood, soul and divinity, to we who are mere mortals now invited into His throne room. Just like this morning, there is no sense that we are about to enter into the Courts of heavenly worship.
Before the processional, we are invited from the ambo to "greet everyone around us". Oh, I know that the Church is a community of the faithful. But I did my greeting in what use to be called the vestibule, now called the "commons" - also with absolutely no religious symbols at all. There is also no kneeling in this liturgy. Though I understand that kneeling is primarily a western practice, it certainly adds to the liturgical experience; no profound bowing either (primarily an eastern practice), no gestures of humbling ourselves in adoration before the living and true God. In effect, no use of the body in the profound act that is liturgical worship. Our bodies were made for gift and worship gestures are a vital part of the language of worship.
In conclusion, I am not a "traditionalist" Catholic. I am just a Catholic Christian; a "revert", drawn back to the fullness of Christianity that is dynamic, orthodox, faithful Catholic life and practice. I have the utmost respect for my brethren who are Protestants in each of their various confessions and communities. However, I am not one, by choice.
I don't want a Protestant looking church building or stripped down Catholicism whose worship seems more protestant than Catholic. I do not want barren liturgy and symbol-less Catholicism. In short, having tasted the full richness of liturgical life, I want to be fully Catholic. I also want to live my life, bring my wife and children, indeed all those who hunger for God, into a full, rich and beautiful experience of Catholic faith, worship and life.
There was a movement called Iconoclasm ("Image-breaking") in the eighth and ninth centuries in the Eastern Church. It became a full-scale heresy. The term has come to be associated with those who rejected icons, but I think it speaks to a broader problem. Icons are meant to put us in touch with the transcendent mysteries of our faith. I pray with icons and have for many years. I cherish their role in the Eastern Church. In fact, one would never find an Eastern Church, Catholic or Orthodox, without icons.
The contemporary "iconoclasts" are those who seek to de-mystify Christian faith, life, worship and practice. They are not the future of the Church but the past. Ironically they sometimes think they are "freeing" the faithful from antiquated traditions. To the contrary, they are undermining the ever fresh reality of an incarnational Christianity and de-sacralizing the Liturgy.
They think that the symbols of our worship, our faith and our life are somehow a problem. While they strip our sanctuaries, demystify our liturgical experiences, and think they have helped us by somehow making the faith more 'relevant", "meaningful" or "contemporary", they have done the Church and her mission a disservice.
They fail to grasp that, by nature and grace, human persons are symbolic. Man (and woman) is created in the image of God, and is a divine icon. Jesus Christ is the Icon of the Father. Symbols touch us at a much deeper level than words or emotive or affective participation. They touch us at the level where authentic religion and deep worship truly begins. It is there where we hunger the most for God.
So what can we do?
Well, I have come to a conclusion; bring the Eucharistic Jesus back into the sanctuary. Bring the Tabernacle back into the sanctuary. Oh, I know He is present in the people. I know He is present in His Word. However, I also know He is mysteriously and wonderfully present in that Tabernacle and there is no doubt that when the Tabernacle is present in a sanctuary we all act differently. It is time to bring back the full Catholic distinctive to our worship. That would begin the process of making them sacred spaces once again. I cannot imagine that the gymnasium behavior that has come to characterize the church of the meeting place continuing with the Tabernacle in the center of our worship. I know there is some merit in having a quiet place where people can go and meditate in the Eucharistic presence of the Lord. So, have two tabernacles and place one in the Eucharistic chapel.
Along with the Tabernacle, bring back the other signs and symbols of our worship. Fill those walls with the beauty of icons, symbolically and substantially bringing heaven to earth. Bring back reverence, transcendence and beauty to the presidency of the priest and the responses of the faithful, verbal and physical. Bring back the full beauty of Catholic worship.
Bring the Tabernacle Back into the Sanctuary.
Rev. Mr. Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He is a human rights lawyer and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law.
Third Millennium, LLC
https://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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