“Ask a Priest: Why Isn’t the Tabernacle on the Altar?”

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Q: Why is the tabernacle kept behind the altar of Sacrifice? If the tabernacle contains consecrated hosts, everyone who assists the priest at the altar, and the priest himself, have their backs to God. Why is not a small tabernacle kept front and center on the altar? Not obstructing the people’s view, but in a place of honor? – K.C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The tabernacle is often kept behind the altar because it is a central focal point for anyone entering a church. It is a natural place for the faithful to direct their attention and genuflect when entering a church.

During the Mass, however, and specifically at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the center of attention is meant to be the altar, not the tabernacle, since the liturgy is a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice.

It is not disrespectful for the priest celebrants and acolytes to be focused on the altar at this moment. In fact, the U.S. bishops’ conference 2000 document “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship” notes that “the Church teaches that ‘the altar is Christ’” (No. 56).

In any case, at and after the consecration the celebrants are facing Christ sacramentally and substantially present on the altar. It would be bizarre for people to have their backs turned to Christ on the altar and looking instead at the tabernacle.

For basically the same reason, the altar is not the appropriate place for the tabernacle, since it would distract attention from the sacrifice that is actually being carried out in the Mass.

For more reading, see Father Edward McNamara’s posting on the “Central Focus at Mass.”

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