Is it a Bird? New Tabernacle, Old Form

Is it a Bird?

Imagine that you were asked to design a sacred vessel to house the Blessed Sacrament in a new church. Where would you start?
Most people would immediately think of the style of tabernacle with which they are most familiar - a large, solid metal container mounted on a firm base or fixed to the wall in a parish church.
A good designer, however, is not confined by assumptions that ‘what is’ is the way it has always been and must always be. So other possibilities need to be explored.
The basic rule of design is ‘form follows function’. The appropriate size and shape for an object or space depend on the purposes for which it will be used.
The tabernacle is a receptacle in which consecrated hosts are reserved for the purposes of taking communion to the sick and for adoration by the faithful of the abiding real presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Imagine that in this particular case that the space for which the object is required is a small chapel which accommodates around 30 people, is not accessible to the general public and from which communion would rarely, if ever, be taken to the sick. In other words, the purpose of reserving the sacrament here is solely for the purpose of adoration.
The size of the chapel and the purpose of the reserved sacrament suggest that the vessel for the Blessed Sacrament needs to be smaller than the tabernacle found in a typical parish church.
What about its shape? An exploration of the history of reserving the Blessed Sacrament would be instructive.
Early documents indicate that the reserved Eucharist was kept in a small case which was then placed in a cupboard in the sacristy. At that time the purpose of reservation was solely for the giving of communion and not for adoration.
References to suspended doves containing the body of Christ for adoration are found from the fourth century. St Basil (330-379) had a dove of pure gold made into which he placed a portion of the body of Christ and hung over the altar.
The practice is probably the basis of this wonderful quote from Chrysostom: “For the Body of the Lord will be set before them, no longer, as it once was, wrapped in swaddling clothes, but, in every way clothed with the Holy Spirit”.
Eucharistic doves became very popular during the Middle Ages and an example from this period still hangs in the church of San Nazario at Milan. The dove, of course is a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit, as for example in the account of Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan.
Hosts for communion to the sick were still kept in a pyx and locked in a cupboard.
Eventually, consecrated bread for adoration and for communion came to be housed together in a permanent wall tabernacle (meaning ‘tent’) or ‘sacrament house’ in the church. It is this form with which we are most accustomed.
Now, if the receptacle for the Blessed Sacrament to be designed was for a chapel under the patronage of the Holy Spirit, the traditional form of a dove would seem to be particularly appropriate.
And that is just what was chosen for the chapel of the new Holy Spirit Seminary in Brisbane.
In accordance with liturgical requirements, this Eucharistic dove is made of solid and inviolable material that is not transparent and can be locked and is in a part of the chapel that is ‘truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer’ (GIRM 314).


Elizabeth Harrington