Altar, tabernacle deserve reverence

Friday, March 08, 2019 - Updated: 12:25 pm

QUESTION: Isn’t the tabernacle the most important thing in any Catholic church?


ANSWER: The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems, and it depends on when one enters a Catholic church.

Liturgically, the most sacred element within any Catholic church is the altar. The altar of sacrifice is the central focus around which the assembly gathers for the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. For this reason, the altar is consecrated with sacred oil (chrism) when a church is dedicated. The altar is also given reverence (kissed) at the beginning of Mass to demonstrate its centrality in the church’s liturgical life.

The altar is not only the focus of the liturgy, but it symbolizes Christ’s presence in the midst of his people. This is why the altar must be made of worthy material and set centrally in the architecture of the church. All of this emanates from our belief that Christ is symbolized by the altar, and Christ and the altar are central in our churches and our lives.

The purpose of the tabernacle can be understood only by appreciating the purpose of reserving (keeping) the Eucharist following Mass. The liturgical documents remind us that the purpose of reserving the Eucharist is in order that it may be given to the sick and the dying. Apart from this primary purpose, the Eucharist is also reserved so that the faithful may pray privately in the presence of the Eucharist so their thoughts might be directed toward thanksgiving for this wondrous gift and anticipation of its celebration once again.

The emphasis, therefore, is on the Eucharist as actively celebrated in the midst of the assembly, not on the Eucharist as privately adored in the tabernacle (worthy as that devotion might be).

Before the Second Vatican Council, much of the popular devotional life of the church was centered on the Eucharist as adored in the tabernacle, such as at Benediction and in processions. Since the council, however, the liturgical documents direct us more toward the Eucharist as celebrated with the assembly of the people.

This was never intended to lessen our respect or devotion for the reserved Eucharist. Rather, it was intended to place the Eucharist squarely at the center of the church’s liturgical life. Some, however, may not experience the same quiet, inner peace at the celebration of the Eucharist as they do from their private devotion before the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle.

In this way, the church attempts to be faithful to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching regarding the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist for an entire assembly while at the same time respecting and encouraging devotional practices before the tabernacle.

The question asked above can be answered in this way. During the celebration of the Eucharist, the altar is the most important focus of our attention. When one visits a church at other times, the tabernacle is the focus where one may encounter the Eucharist as the enduring food for our spiritual lives.


Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.

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