Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, one of the most noted changes in many Catholic churches has been the removal of the tabernacle from the main altar of the church into a separate chapel or on to a side altar. Although those who question the propriety of such a change are often considered to be out of touch with contemporary theology, I strongly feel that, in many cases, their concern is quite valid, if not prophetic.
To be more specific, in many churches today, Mass is celebrated in the same room as the tabernacle, yet with little or no attention or reverence given to Our Lord as the Blessed Sacrament. (As an aside, note that Christ is present as the Blessed Sacrament, asd not, as Luther contended, merely in the Blessed Sacrament).
The problem I have in such a situation is that I am forced by the arrangements of rites and architecture to put my belief in the Real Presence of Christ on “hold”, and thus act in accord with a distorted theology of a merely putative presence of Christ in the tabernacle while celebrating Mass (i.e., Christ is only present in the tabernacle when I choose to acknowledge His Presence). This directly violates Church teaching, which affirms that, of all the modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy, only the Blessed Sacrament is to be given adoration.
As a matter of fact, through the ages, the Church has consistently proclaimed that the Blessed Sacrament is the only reality in the realm of creation that deserves this cult of adoration (cf., CCC # 1183 and 1378). Sadly, this truth has been further obscured by the decision to translate Mysterium Fidei #771 so as to indicate that Jesus Himself, in the tabernacle, is only to be given a most worthy place with the greatest honor in our churches, not the most worthy place. It would seem that, if Jesus is Lord, not just one lord among others, He should occupy the place of honor in our churches (and in our lives), and not merely a place of honor, as would be provided for a portrait of a loved one.
Aside from my feelings of awkwardness when praying the Lord, have mercy to Jesus, while He is really present behind me in the tabernacle, I have some other serious concerns about being required to make such a paradigm shift. Sad to say, over the past few years, these concerns have become obfuscated by the use of the term, ad orientem, to refer to Masses at which the abiding Real Presence of Christ as the Blessed Sacrament is recognized and reverenced throughout the liturgy. And so, in view of the ancient axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi (i.e., the way we pray is the way we believe), I would like to raise some pertinent questions concerning the current approach of many liturgists to Christ’s Eucharistic Presence.
First of all, if our liturgical architecture and actions are affirming that the abiding Real Presence of Christ as the Blessed Sacrament is only a part-time or a putative presence, which is absent once we choose to focus on something else, does not that fluidity of perspective have an impact on other areas of our spiritual life? For example, does such a flexibility undermine our Catholic belief in the fact that salvation is real, and not merely imputed to us by God? Likewise, with regard to objective morality, must we submit to eternal moral truths in our decisions, or do such moral norms become invalid when more compelling pragmatic considerations dictate that we should ignore them?
Secondly, this change of focus also serves to challenge the hierarchical nature of the Church. If, contrary to authentic Church teaching, we affirm that Christ is equally present in the assembly of the faithful, in the altar, in the proclaimed Word of God, in the priest and as the Blessed Sacrament, we will soon find ourselves in an Orwellian Animal Farm dilemma of discerning which Christ-presence is more equal than the others.
There is a hierarchy in the various ways a person can be present to us. For example, I can be present to others through photographs, letters or phone conversations. But I am most present to them when I am physically and psychologically present to them in the same place. Similarly, the modes of Christ’s Presence must be ordered in a harmonious hierarchy with each other, rather than presented in a confusing conflict with one another.
And so, since our Eucharistic theology is intimately intertwined with our ecclesiology, the continuation of the liturgical downplaying of Christ's abiding Real Presence has also cast a shadow of doubt on how abiding is the authenticity of the hierarchical magisterium of the Church. Do we need to respect the solemn teachings of the pope and bishops as valid all the time, or only when our local and “co-equal” church community chooses to impute value into those teachings? In the same way, if Real Presence only means "usually" or "most of the time" presence, are we not free, if we have good reasons, to say that marriage vows are “usually” binding or that infidelity and divorce are not always wrong, but only wrong “most of the time”?
And if Jesus is only to be reverenced when He is functionally present in the Eucharistic action of the Mass, are we to also affirm that human persons are only to be reverenced when they are functioning as productive members of society?
The third issue that has been largely ignored is the modern tendency in many theological circles to ignore a key teaching of our Faith – that, in God, being and acting are one and the same. Thus we have the false dichotomy of the Eucharistic Action of Christ in the Mass from the Real Presence of Christ as the Blessed Sacrament. If the Person of Christ is truly the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, such a dichotomy cannot exist. Wherever the Eucharistic Presence of Christ is, there also the dynamic of His saving grace is also present and active to those who, through authentic repentance and docility, are seeking a more holy communion with Him. Thus it is that we do not say that we do the Mass, but rather that we enter into the Eucharistic Mystery, which is eternally present to and active in God’s Church.
The basic issue that needs to be addressed in this whole discussion of the placement of the Blessed Sacrament in our churches, then, is whether there is any objective truth to our Catholic Faith. If Christ is not really and substantially present as the Blessed Sacrament, and thus the awesome mystery of His Eucharistic Presence may be glibly ignored for the sake of the “smooth flow” of the liturgy, I cannot help but to wonder how authentic is the liturgical reform we are trying to implement (As an aside, it is worth noting that neither the public ministry of Jesus nor His paschal sacrifice was “smooth flowing”). And if there is no absolute truth to our Catholic Faith and to the abiding Real Presence of Christ as the Blessed Sacrament, then we should at least be honest enough either to make each Catholic “faith community” autonomous or to name George Gallup and his pollsters as the new magisterium of the Church.
The measure we have been measuring out over the past four decades has been measured back to us in overflowing measure. As we have ignored Him, Who is the Truth, the truth we seek to proclaim has been conveniently ignored by our world. As we have allowed the supplanting of reverent obedience by a spirit of dissenting arrogance to be called "liturgical reform", so the world has come to call the rejection of virtue and the praise of vice "liberation". As we have allowed the particles of the sacred Eucharistic species to be treated as mere “crumbs”, so we have seen both the marginalized in our world treated as unworthy of respect and embryonic human lives treated as merely disposable research material.
Similarly, as we have consigned the doctrine of transubstantiation to recycle bin of anachronisms, we have helped to condition our society to the idea that the “substance” of a human embryo is merely disposable living protoplasm, rather than a human person. And as we have downplayed the worship of God in order to idolize “the community”, we have witnessed the new tyranny of political correctness both denigrating the sacred truths of our Faith and turning the Mass into an affirmation of the objectively sinful lifestyles.
For nearly two thousand years, the Church has taught that Christ is really and substantially present as the Blessed Sacrament. And He is present not only in a real and substantial manner, but also in an arresting manner (analogous to the way the presence of a state trooper parked along the interstate causes a Pavlovian reaction of glancing at one’s speedometer and a moving of one’s foot off the accelerator), so that those who truly believe are compelled by the light of faith to always reverence this greatest gift of Christ Himself to His Church. True liturgical reform must always respect the reality of this eternal mystery of our Faith. Otherwise, such reforms will become merely a frantic quest to escape the awkward demands of conversion and of obedience to the truth by the distracting appeal of the current fads, fashions and fetishes of our politically correct society.
Sad to say, in recent years, many in the Church have sought to become so relevant to our society that they have become irrelevant to any serious societal discourse, and fittingly enough. For if we routinely consign to oblivion the central salvific mystery of our Faith, how can we expect anyone else to take us seriously? And if we continue to tolerate even sacrilegious abuses as merely liturgical aberrations, how can we effectively stand up to the desecration of human life by the culture of death? Liturgical rites are actions of Christ, into which we are drawn and in which we participate by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And since liturgical postures and rituals effect what they signify in more ways than we can imagine, they must be in absolute conformity to the whole truth of Christ, lest they distort and weaken the faith of those who participate in them.
I pray that all aspects of our liturgy may soon reflect an authentic respect for the awesome gift given to us by our Eucharistic Lord. Only in this way will He, Who is the Truth, be able to set us free from all the ambiguities that are distorting the perspectives and relationships of so many in today’s Culture of Desecration and Death.
Spero columnist Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.