Worth Spaces, Vessels and Books

When it comes to the arrangement of churches, the order in which different items are dealt with in the document reflects their importance in the celebration of the liturgy: first altar, ambo and presider’s chair; then places for the faithful and for music; finally the tabernacle and sacred images.

Paragraph 314 of the “General Instruction” says that the Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, conspicuous, worthily decorated, and suitable for prayer.

This may be either in a chapel that is connected to the church, clearly visible to the faithful and suitable for private adoration and prayer, or in an appropriate place in the sanctuary. It is not permissible for a tabernacle to be on the altar where Mass is celebrated.

The “General Instruction” does not exclude the possibility of the tabernacle “being positioned on an old altar no longer used for celebration”.  But this conflicts with a clear directive elsewhere that in churches where the old “high” altar is not suitable for the current celebration of Mass but cannot be moved, another fixed altar is to be erected and the sacred rites celebrated on it alone. “In order that the attention of the faithful not be distracted from the new altar, the old altar should not be decorated in any special way.” (GIRM 303)

It seems to me that placing a tabernacle on an old high altar, accompanied by elaborate veils, lamps and flowers as is often the case,  does indeed draw attention to it and serve as a distraction from the altar of celebration.

The requirements regarding the tabernacle stipulated in the “General Instruction” are that there is only one in a church, that it be made of solid and inviolable material that is not transparent, be irremovable, and locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is prevented to the greatest extent possible.” (GIRM 315)

The tabernacle needs to be a worthy and dignified receptacle that is positioned in such a way that people are encouraged to spend time praying in the presence of Christ. Respect for the Blessed Sacrament is shown by marking the tabernacle with lamps, using appropriate gestures of reverence and observing silence in the immediate area.

Sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal or from other solid materials considered precious or noble, provided that such materials are suitable for sacred use. Preference is always to be given to materials that do not easily break or deteriorate. (GIRM 328, 329)

As regards the form of the sacred vessels, it is for the artist to fashion them in a manner that is in keeping with the customs of each region, provided the individual vessels are suitable for their intended liturgical use and are clearly distinguishable from vessels intended for everyday use. (GIRM 332)  Domestic utensils are simply inappropriate for sacred ritual actions.

Liturgical books should likewise be worthy of their sacred purpose:

Special care must be taken to ensure that the liturgical books, particularly the Book of the Gospels
and the Lectionary, which are intended for the proclamation of the Word of God and hence receive
special veneration, are to be in a liturgical action truly signs and symbols of higher realities and hence
should be truly worthy, dignified, and beautiful. (GIRM 349)


Elizabeth Harrington