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Architecture and the Tabernacle

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 1: See America First; Chapter 4


Romanitas Press recommendation

For a more detailed understanding and visualization of the prescriptions for the construction of an altar, see The Liturgical Altar, A Guide for Altar and Sanctuary, and Candles in the Roman Rite.

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“It seems strange,” said the Antiquary, “to regard so small a structure as the tabernacle as a bit of architecture, yet there is much to be said for your theory. It certainly is a house, a temple within a temple, a little palace for the Lord God. But I, for one, have been thoroughly sold on the idea that the proper tabernacle, the ‘rubrical’ tabernacle (if you’ll allow me still to make use of the phrase after what you said just now), is the free-standing  affair, veiled all around, and not built into the gradines, if any. Now you tell me that I’m wrong (and a lot of superior men with me who think very well of themselves)!”


“Not wrong, dear Pere,” answered the Liturgiologist, who could smile when he wished, and who wished to often. “There is no doubt in my mind but that the norm, or ideal, of the ‘approved authors’ and of the S.R.C. itself, is the free-standing tabernacle of the Gothic spirit, if not the Gothic style. The Romanesque tabernacle, with its columned canopy, shows the same liturgical spirit, though it is quite different architecturally. Every decree of the Congregation of the Sacred Rites on the subject shows, by implication, the mind of the Church on this important matter. But they show, also, and no less clearly, that the S.R.C. does not set itself up to be a criterion of taste, or an architectural arbiter. They have settled the question of the tabernacle veil, definitely and authoritatively.


The tabernacle must be covered with a veil while it contains the Blessed Sacrament. By implication this veil is regarded as covering the tabernacle, front, sides, back and all. (S.R.C. 3520.) The ornamentation of the door has nothing whatever to do with the matter.


Nor is it necessary that the tabernacle be lined with silk, though this is usual and quite proper. The curtains or veil across the front, inside the door, are not required, and certainly do not take the place of the external and (if possible) enveloping veil called for by the decrees. It should be gilded inside. (S.R.C. 3254 ad 7 et 8.) Apparently either the gold interior or the silk lining suffices. Both need not be used. (S.R.C. 3709 and 4035.)


The tabernacle, whatever its exterior appearance may be, should have an inner shell of wood to prevent undue dampness.[1] The little wooden cupboard one so often sees in smaller churches does not comply with the law of the Church. On the other hand there is a great deal to be said in favor of the modern tabernacle safes, of various styles. They are not against the rubrics, ornate or not as the taste or pocketbook of the purchaser determines…”


“But, Pere,” interposed the Antiquary, “I’ve never seen one that didn’t have a flat top, and a flat top on a tabernacle is simply an invitation to break the law which forbids locating flower vases or other articles on the top of the tabernacle, or the placing of the altar crucifix in the same spot as that whereon the monstrance rests.” (S.R.C. 3576 ad 3.) The crucifix, according to the Ceremonial of Bishops,[2] should stand behind the tabernacle.


“Now what I want,” said the Liturgiologist, dreamily, “is a perfectly plain altar of stone. It will always, except on Good Friday, be hidden by an antependium, as the liturgical books recommend. It will be wide enough so that the tabernacle and candlesticks can stand at the back without encroaching on the necessary space of the mensa. It can, and will, by the favor of the bishop, be consecrated. For the present, I shall not try to build the reredos, but shall make use of the mediaeval arrangement of a dossal.[3] Later a great triptych[4] will tower above it, but there will be space to pass completely around the altar, not only on the day of consecration but always. The Sacristan will appreciate that. And the lower part of the reredos will have ample accommodation for extra decoration for the great feasts.”[5]


“An idea arrangement, Pere,” agreed the Liturgiologist. “Your tabernacle will, without doubt, conform to all the requirements of the S.R.C., and, knowing you, I’m sure it will all be a thing of beauty. But don’t find fault with the majority of your confreres who do not have things so. You can criticize so many who have no veil at all, on the grounds of their lack of loyalty to the law of the Church; but for the rest, it is so largely a matter of taste that the old axiom de gustibus…”[6]


“A heathen maxim,” snorted the Antiquary. “So’s de mortuis![7] If we never discuss matters of taste, how is taste to be improved? Must we go on carrying out thoroughly bad traditions, to such an extent that the priest who tries to have things right is regarded as a crank and freak.”


“Bolshevik!”[8] laughed the Liturgiologist. “You’ll be telling me next that you’ll have no tabernacle on your side altars!”


“Indeed it’s exactly that I’ll tell you!” cried the Antiquary. “St. Inveteratus is not a cathedral, and needs no tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is customarily reserved. In fact, there’ll be but the one altar in the church (if it interests you to know). It would hardly happen once in a decade of years that two priests would actually have to say Mass during the same half hour. The Repository need not have an altar, as you’ve told me more than once.[9] And the pyx can be carried over to the oratory in the Sisters’ house during Forty Hours, and if the missa pro pace[10] cannot be said at the high altar, a temporary one might be erected.”


“I see you’ve thought it all out,” mused the Liturgiologist. “If only more of us would do that, instead of glancing through a catalog and taking what we can get for the money we have! It never seems to occur to us that a ‘side altar’ if necessary at all, isn’t a little high altar poked off at one side. Though it may never be used from one year’s end to another, it has a tabernacle, plenty of candles (which are lit ofttimes while the Benediction is going on at the high altar, though every ‘approved author’ tells us not to do so) and a crucifix, generally so small as to fail to meet the requirements if Mass, by any chance, happens to be said there. And for these unnecessary things we pay out money that might better have been spent in furnishing adequately the one real altar of the church.”


“But the people expect the traditional arrangements,” suggested the Antiquary, though he was (for once) in perfect accord with his old friend’s viewpoint.


“What, after all, are our traditions in this country?” asked the Liturgiologist. “Can it really be said that we have any—for a custom, in the canonical sense, a certain practice must have been in vogue, unrebuked, for at least forty years. But ‘traditions’ especially ceremonial and artistic traditions, are another matter. Are we to go on building brick parallelograms,[11] or ‘strawberry Gothic’ chapels,[12] because forty years ago such were the best we could do? Think of the magnificent churches we saw last summer, the Domciscan church in New York,[13] St. Agnello’s in Lakeburg,[14] that charming Lombard place in Cincinnapolis.[15] None of them could have been built forty years ago by any Catholic congregation in America. All of them are direct defiances of your popular ‘tradition,’ and, thank God, they are the dawn of a better day in Catholic church building and furnishing. To which abridged list we’ll add, please God, the new St. Inveteratus at Centerville within the next few months.”


“Well,” replied the Antiquary, musingly, “it’s one thing to build a church on paper, and quite another to put it up in brick and mortar. As for paying for it… that’s a tertium quid[16] which all but terrifies me. However, Deus providebit[17]—let’s go for a ride!”



1 We must remember that this was written before the invention of modern insulating techniques as well as air-conditioned churches.


2 The Caeremoniale Episcoporum, a rubrical book for pontifical ceremonies, the last edition of which was printed in 1888.


3 A dossal is a curtain suspended behind the altar; the side curtains were hung from riddel posts, thus were known as riddel curtains. Some excellent examples can be view both The Liturgical Altar and Candles in the Roman Rite.


4 A structure made of three-panels (hence tri), which can be seen in many European churches secured to the reredos.


5 That is, of candles, flowers, or even buntings (or banners) made either of boughs or rich textiles.


6 The start of the Latin axiom, “De gustibus non est disputandum”, “There is no arguing about taste”.


7 Another Latin saying, “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum”, meaning, “Of the dead, nothing unless good”.


8 Meaning, either a “revolutionary”, but perhaps even more so, “a barbaric iconoclast”, since the Soviets were in the habit of destroying churches, sacred images and the like.


9 Here “Repository” refers to the vessel used for reservation of the Host (in the chalice) as practiced in the pre-1955 Holy Week rite of Good Friday.


10 The votive Mass for Peace—which perhaps is a tongue-in-cheek reference to helping the sisters “keep the peace” in their house!


11 Here the mathematical term for parallel shapes is being used in reference to the unfortunate contemporaneous fad of building “cookie-cutter” churches, that is, from the same mold or all looking similar.


12 A reference to the red brick with white limestone trim churches that were commonly built in the United States around the turn of the 20th century—which again, look remarkably similar.


13 That is, the magnificent St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Manhattan, New York built in 1918, which is run by the Dominicans.


14 This reference is to St. Agnes Church in Cleveland, Ohio, designed by John T. Comes and completed in 1916. Unfortunately this beautiful church tragically suffered a fire and shortly later, was demolished completely in 1975, save the bell tower which remain standing.


15 Meaning St. Augustine Church [this link for the church goes to a private Flickr account] in the Cincinnati suburb of Barberton which was completed in 1926. “Lombard” refers to its pleasing Italian Lombard-Romanesque architectural style.


16 Latin for “a third thing” referring to an unknown quality in relation to the previous two.


17 “God provides”—of course.

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