God in a Box

by Henry Hardinge Menzies, AIA
Published in Homiletic & Pastoral ReviewMay 2000

A Protestant was visiting a Catholic church accompanied by his Catholic friend, and after entering, he was admiring the beauty of the architecture and decorations. He was particularly impressed with the altar and the tabernacle on top which was surrounded by angels and many candles. He asked his Catholic friend, "And what's in that box there on the table?" The Catholic replied, "Jesus Christ himself is really present in that box. Our faith tells us that." There was stunned silence. Finally the Protestant said, "If I believed that, I would crawl down this aisle on my knees!"

This happened many years ago. Times have changed, and now you don't see many people crawling on their knees. Today, when visitors enter many churches, the problem is to find the tabernacle in the first place. Some tabernacles are hidden from view behind columns, in walls or placed in closets. Others are located in separate chapels or oratories. Others do remain in the sanctuary but in a secondary location. Fortunately, many are still given a conspicuous place directly behind the altar. However, generally there seems to be no uniform place for it. Each church has its own preferred location. This apparently random placement of the tabernacle gives the impression that it doesn't make much difference where it is, and that it is not much more important than the baptismal font or the ambo. Is it any wonder, then, that many people barely notice his home? They pass by without any sign of recognition, neither a nod, or a bow or a genuflection ... treating Him worse than they would even a stranger.

It is no wonder that a number of bishops at the recent US Bishops meeting expressed deep concern about this matter. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick [Newark, NJ] said: "I've always had concern over the location of the tabernacle. If the Blessed Sacrament is nowhere to be seen, our Catholic people are missing something very important in our theology and spirituality, and when revisions are made, I hope we can emphasize what the code says, that the tabernacle be placed in a place that is prominent and conspicuous."1 James Cardinal Hickey of Washington, DC, said: "It (the centrality of the tabernacle) reinforces our belief in the Eucharist and the Real Presence, as it is greeted, genuflected before, and as it helps keep prayerful silence in a church .... If tabernacles are reinstated," he added, "it will help restore a sense of prayer in our churches."2 Other bishops agreed, among them St. Louis' Archbishop Justin Rigali: "What was a 'recommendation' (of the controversial document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship) has been so often unfelicitously applied over the last 30 years, and the tabernacle has been relegated to places that are neither prominent nor beautifully decorated."3

The Design and Beauty of the Tabernacle

But beside the question of location, what is also of vital importance is the appearance of the tabernacle, that is, its design and beauty. If God deigns to confine himself to a box for us and he is really and substantially present there, doesn't that box deserve to be of the best and most beautiful design? Besides the Church's admonition to have it "clearly visible", it also insists that it be "truly noble and duly adorned."4 And if we truly believe that he is there, is there any other rational conclusion?

Without going into a "history" of tabernacle design or entering into the current "placement" controversy, serious regard for the design of tabernacles needs urgent attention. It would do no good, for instance, to maintain that all the tabernacles of the past, say before 1964, were outstanding for their beauty and nobility and that the current ones are in poor taste. Certainly the Victorian marble "wedding cake" reredos-altars (many of which have already been ripped out of churches) varied across the board in terms of their beauty. It is true that the tabernacle itself sometimes got lost in the massive tiers of niches, angels, arches, lights, etc., and hence lost its unique identity. On the other hand, we have a number of quite exquisite modern tabernacles in churches today. But we frequently come across ugly ones. On the one hand, we find strange forms consisting of spheres, abstract sculptures and surprising amorphous aggregates of different materials. On the other, there are simple boxes of different sizes covered with various weird projections, like glass door knobs. Far from eliciting reverence and devotion, or simply being ordinary but acceptable in design, many tabernacles are poor and some are ugly and an affront to everything we call holy.

I sometimes wonder if the designers were not actually trying to make them as ugly as possible. If we talk about the church as a sacred place, asGod's house, here we are speaking, not in terms of large spaces, but about a specific concrete object: a box in which he dwells. God lives today in every Catholic church throughout the world in a box! To paraphrase lines relating to Our Lady, he whom the whole world cannot contain encloses himself in a box for love of us.

A subtle attack on the Blessed Eucharist

When we add the ugliness of its design to the confusion about its location, one is tempted to think that this is part of a general and progressive down-grading of the tabernacle, and is, therefore, a subtle attack on the blessed Eucharist. Quoting Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe [also at the Bishops meeting]: "... we have all experienced a lessening of devotion to the Eucharist, a loss of the sense of the Real Presence; the sense of the sacred has suffered. I can't help believing that placing the Eucharist in a separate chapel, often hidden and often small, is part of the reason we have a crisis in belief in the Real Presence. Out of sight, out of mind is what has happened."5 During the celebration of the liturgy the altar represents Christ, but outside the liturgical ceremonies the tabernacle is the most important object in the church. The Holy See is very aware of this tendency to down-grade the Blessed Sacrament. The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts said recently:

Christ's faithful are to hold the blessed Eucharist in the highest honor .... They should receive the sacrament with great devotion and frequently, and should reverence it with greatest adoration (can. 898). Catechesis should reacquaint the Christian people with the whole of Eucharistic worship, (including) the frequent adoration, personal and communal, ... of the Blessed Sacrament, and the loving concern that the tabernacle ... in which the Eucharist is kept ... be placed on an altar or in a part of the church that is clearly visible, truly noble and duly adorned, so that it is a center of attraction for every heart in love with Christ.

L'Osservatore Romano [4 July 1999] pronouncement of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (published in 14 July '99) quoting can. 898 of the Code of Canon Law

The pronouncement goes on to deplore "deliberate acts of hatred and or con-tempt for the Blessed Sacrament (which) certainly constitute by reason of their matter ... a very grave sin of sacrilege." It says that when the Church is forced to impose penalties she does so "in order to safeguard the greatest Good she has received from the divine mercy, i.e. Christ the Lord himself, who has become 'the bread of eternal life' (cf. Jn. 6:27) in the most blessed Eucharist."6 Of course we are not speaking here about extreme acts of hatred for the Blessed Sacrament but rather the early progressive stages of neglect and indifference that could lead to the evils the Council mentions.

The Chapel at Guadalupe

Likely most of us have seen tabernacles which are poor or even ugly. One of the worst cases I have seen is in a church where you would expect the best. It is at the new Villa Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The old classic basilica was listing to starboard and sinking, and had to be replaced. The new basilica contains the famous painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Patroness of all the Americas. It is the focus of constant pilgrimages by millions of the faithful from Mexico and all the world. The interior of the new basilica is large, plain and uninspiring. It is not beautiful, nor is it conducive to prayer, but, on the positive side, it does permit the faithful a clear view of the sacred painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

But the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the crypt below is truly appalling. You enter by going down a ramp into a cavernous, gray concrete space which appears like those bare concrete loading docks in a New York skyscraper. The wall at the far end contains a mural painting in pastel colors. The central willowy, effeminate figure of the Risen Christ is carrying a banner in one hand, and pointing with the other hand to what appears to be a large wooden ice-box, very much like the one great-grandmother had in her kitchen. That is the tabernacle! At first you don't believe it, but there it sits, in the most prestigious shrine in all of the Americas! It is a travesty of good taste apart altogether from not helping or inspiring the faithful in any way to fall to their knees to worship and love their Creator and sovereign Lord.

What is alarming in this junky design is the completely free-wheeling spirit with which many of these tabernacles are conceived and executed as if the designers are either incompetent or are trying hard to make them as offensive as possible. Even more alarming is the fact that the authorities permitted their installation in the first place! Perhaps this mirrors the same attitude with which many of the new churches are designed. The difference is that church design is a very complex and multi-disciplined affair wherein the beauty and appropriateness of elements can vary among the many parts, but the design of the tabernacle is of a concrete, particular object and should be judged on its own merit. Furthermore, the immediate surround, that is, the table on which it rests and the elements in its immediate vicinity should also be noble and duly adorned.

Faith and Obedience are needed

Certainly more faith, love, and study should go into the design of this one box, which is God's home. If you truly believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the blessed Eucharist, you don't have to be a theologian to insist that the tabernacle be as beautiful as man's talent is capable of making it. Our God deserves the best, the most beautiful, the richest we can offer him. When we truly love him we wouldn't think of offering him anything less.

In the Old Testament it is striking how obedient Moses was in fulfilling the Lord's detailed instructions in setting up the tent of the Lord and the ark of the covenant. In twenty-two verses of Exodus it is repeated eight times that Moses "did as the Lord commanded him."7 As a result, the "glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle,"8 and the power of the Lord protected the people by day and by night.9 If we had more faith, reverence and love in making our tabernacles "truly noble and duly adorned", God would undoubtedly be all the more generous in protecting and blessing all the Catholic faithful, and all mankind.

  1. Dec. 2, 1999 'The Wanderer'
    by Paul Likoudis "Is Domus Dei D.O.A.?"
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Canon 983.2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law
  5. Op. cit.
  6. Ibid
  7. cf. Exodus 40:16-38
  8. Exodus 40:34
  9. cf. Exodus 14:21-22