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The Removal of Tabernacles and the Desacrificialization of the Mass

Photo: Saint-François de Molitor, Paris, France.


Why was the tabernacle removed from the high altar or kept away from the center of so many churches during the past fifty years?

There are many reasons one could give for this decentering of our Lord Jesus Christ in the miracle of His abiding Eucharistic Presence among us, including the specious academic rationales that propelled the widely lamented wreckovations of the postconciliar period. But it may be that a subtler dynamic was also at work—and, sadly, sometimes still is.

As I discussed in my article here a month ago, “The Sacrificial Nature of the Mass in the Usus Antiquior,” the classical Roman Rite enshrines and expresses in the most perfect way the reality that the Mass is essentially the Sacrifice of Calvary made present in our midst, the immolation of the Son of God who wrought our salvation by His death of love on the Cross and never ceases to enfold us in it down through the ages.

The expression of this sacrificial dimension is not merely muted in the Novus Ordo, it is largely absent. In a vernacular Mass said versus populum in the usual manner, with Eucharistic Prayer II as a default, how much is there in text or ceremony that strongly and unambiguously conveys the Sacrifice of the Cross? In the traditional Roman Rite, the Offertory luminously foreshadows this very sacrifice, clearly establishing the priest’s right intention; the Roman Canon is permeated with the language of oblation and sacrifice; the consecrations for which the offertory prepares, with their double genuflections and glorious elevations in the midst of an ocean of silence, piercingly evoke the lifting up of the Son of Man on Golgotha (Jn 3:14; Jn 12:32). In contrast, one might say that the Novus Ordo (at its best) emphasizes the presence of Christ in our midst, but not His sacrifice.[1]

The Difference in Catechesis

A difference in catechesis follows upon this difference in phenomenology.

When teaching children what happens at Mass, one says something like the following, which comes in different packagings for different age levels:

Jesus dying on the Cross offered His life to God, so that our sins could be washed away in His precious Blood. Jesus wanted to make it possible for us to be right there, so that our sins could be washed away, too, and we could be one with Him. So He gave us the Mass. The priest at the altar takes bread and wine, as Jesus did at the Last Supper, and, by God’s power, changes these things into the body and blood of Jesus and raises them up on high, as Jesus was raised up high on the Cross. God rejoices in this perfect gift of His Son and, in His love for Him and for us who belong to Him, He lets us receive the body and blood of Jesus in communion. This makes us as completely one with Jesus as we can be in this life; the Father is pleased with us as He is pleased with His Son; and we are prepared for heaven, when it is our turn to offer up our own life to God, with Jesus, at the moment of our death.

Granted, one might find a better way of putting it, but something along those lines will get a conversation going. Yet what really struck me years ago in working with my own children was how little catechesis, relatively speaking, was required in order for them to be able to perceive the meaning of the gestures of the priest at the traditional Mass—and how powerfully those gestures remind us of the meaning we have learned and continually reinforce it, burning it into the memory. Once you know a little about what Jesus did at the Last Supper and on Good Friday, the actions and prayers practically hit you over the head with a chain of mysteries—mediation, redemption, atonement, satisfaction, adoration. It doesn’t take a lot to be equipped to perceive the traditional Mass as an awesome sacrifice joining earth to heaven, the sinner to the Savior, the altar to the cross.

Conversely, I discovered that children did not as easily see the same connections at the Novus Ordo Masses we attended. The connections were not nearly so obvious. This Mass seemed like a ritual loosely related to the old Mass but rather different in its purpose—more focused on the people, with a lot of talking, winding up with the reception of Communion. What was most of all hidden to the senses was that this liturgy is a sacrifice. It looks like a handling of bread and wine over a table, a meal in imitation of the Last Supper. What I realized, to my chagrin, is that I had to assert, without much in the way of supporting evidence, that the Novus Ordo really was the Holy Sacrifice, even though it didn’t look like one and didn’t have the marvelous array of texts and ceremonies that underline the sacrificial nature of the action.

That bothered me then, and it still bothers me now. It’s as if the rite was designed by someone who wanted it not to be easy to perceive, by the combined strength of a simple catechism and a complex liturgy, that the Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of the bloody sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary. In the sphere of the Novus Ordo, we need a complex catechism to go with a simple liturgy, because otherwise the truth won’t be known. Because the liturgy does not embody and proclaim it the same way, we have to spend more time explaining, asserting, and keeping our fingers crossed that the brittle fideism will not give way to the ravages of forgetfulness, boredom, or heresy.

So Why Were the Tabernacles Moved?

Now for a theory about the moving of the tabernacle.

The overwhelming miracle of Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the Tabernacle sets, if you will, a challenge to the Mass. To speak in halting human terms, the only way the Mass could be or do something greater than that miracle—the only way there could be no confusion of different “orders” of symbolism—is if the liturgy had the wherewithal to show forth the very Sacrifice that allows for the abiding presence of the divine Victim in the tabernacle. The Mass must be seen and felt to outweigh the Tabernacle, so that there can be no confusion between the two orders: Sacrifice and Presence.

That this is the case with the traditional Mass vis-à-vis the Tabernacle I have no doubt; even in European churches with enormous gilded tabernacles bedecked with extravagant decoration, the ancient Mass holds its own, drawing all eyes and hearts to itself while it is happening and remaining the total master of the building, the altar, and the furnishings. It is clearly the reason for everything else, and its earnest spirit of prayer, with invisible arms spread out and raised aloft, gathers all into a single offering of praise.

In contrast, a Tabernacle has the wherewithal to overwhelm the Novus Ordo, which is, in many respects, thin and fragile, barely able to hold its own in a magnificent church or at a splendid high altar. The Sacrifice is phenomenologically overshadowed by the Presence (both as it resides in the Tabernacle and as it will reside upon the table). Therefore, by a kind of instinct for compensation, “the Tabernacle has to go!”: it must be removed, decentralized, hidden, so that a shy liturgy can muster some communicative force of its own. The liturgy has to be unobstructed, with no symbolic competition and no larger context, or it will vanish into the background. It has to claim as much space for itself as it can and push out all vestiges of a world of greater mass and gravity.

Doesn’t this make more sense out of the postconciliar epidemic of ecclesiastical wreckovations and artistic monstrosities? Not only must the tabernacle go, but so must the high altar, and maybe the crucifix or stained-glass windows or elevated pulpit or communion rail, etc., etc. Maybe we need to tear it all down and replace it with an empty gray box that has no symmetrical curves and no ornamentation. At last, against that sterile stage, the clean, efficient, succinct lines of the Novus Ordo will ring out with metallic clarity. And the people who still care for old-fashioned “devotions” might find the reserved Sacrament behind or over to the side somewhere, as if placed in an Ordinary Time-out.

The Need to Repeat What Is Not Evident

Why, ever since the liturgical reform, has there been so great a need for the Church’s pastors to emphasize the truth—never disputed since the Council of Trent—that the Mass is really and truly a sacrifice? Why such a stream of papal and curial documents, most of them ignored? Why do the statistics get worse and worse?

If what is done at the Novus Ordo Mass looked more like a sacrifice, if it expressed the sacrificial reality in a sensible and intelligible way, there would be no need for endless reassertions and clarifications. The doctrine that the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice was taught de fide by the Council of Trent and all denials of it were anathematized. The Mass of St. Pius V embodies that Tridentine doctrine perfectly. As long as the Mass remains faithful to the fundamental principle of sacramentality—namely, that something ought to signify what it does and do what it signifies—it will be known to do what it really does by a manifest and unambiguous signification.

This is why Ratzinger could observe this connection with Trent in the liturgy wars:

Only against this background of the effective denial of the authority of Trent can one understand the bitterness of the struggle against allowing the celebration of Mass according to the 1962 Missal after the liturgical reform. The possibility of so celebrating constitutes the strongest and thus (for them) the most intolerable contradiction of the opinion of those who believe that the faith in the Eucharist formulated by Trent has lost its validity.[2]

The Uphill Battle of Catechesis

We have seen the polls that prove the loss of faith among Catholics in the real, substantial presence of Our Lord in what used to be called by everyone “the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.” What would be enormously interesting to see is a poll that, having first identified mainstream Catholics and traditional Catholics with a few deft questions, proceeded to ask each group: “Do you believe that the Mass is a real sacrifice—that of Christ on the Cross?” It is not hard to imagine the results: the former group would mostly say no (as a matter of fact, more than a few might be surprised or shocked at the question itself, which could introduce a concept they have never heard), and the latter group would mostly say yes. Their answers would mirror perfectly their experience of the liturgy.

If someone says that the difference is that the traditional Mass-goers are better catechized than the mainstream group, that only pushes the question further back. Why are the better catechized so often attending the usus antiquior? Why is this their choice (when they have a choice)? Or why are the faithful who attend it more inclined to seek their own formation and to offer authentic catechetical formation to their children?

One cannot point to more or less adequate catechesis without pointing to a real empirical connection between the level of catechesis and the type of liturgy attended. The causality flows in both directions. The classic axiom lex orandi, lex credendi tells us not only that the way we pray shapes the way we believe, but also that what we believe is going to shape the way we pray—and the choices we make about where and how we pray as Catholics.[3]

Although its work is the glorification of God and the sanctification of man, the liturgy has always been a powerful catechizer. With the reformed Mass, there is a dearth of symbolic and textual catechesis at the heart of Catholic life. Although repetition is always necessary for human learning, there is a big difference between the repetition that works because it functions mnemonically and the repetition that indicates a failure of something actually “sticking.” Catechists, preachers, parents, need to keep repeating that “the Mass IS a sacrifice” because the Novus Ordo has so little that even remotely suggests it. Trying to convince people of something they cannot glimpse with their own senses is, to say the least, an uphill battle.

We rejoice, again and again, to be the unworthy heirs of such a tremendous liturgical treasure as the traditional Roman Rite of the Mass, which beautifully, reverently, and unambiguously expresses, confirms, and exults in the holy mysteries of the Catholic Faith.


Photo credit: Sacred Spaces.

[1] The architects of the liturgical reform were enamored of ecumenism to such an extent that they admitted they were trying to recast the Roman Rite in a manner that would be acceptable to Protestants. The conservative Protestants were only too happy to concede a “presence” of Christ in the Mass, but talk of sacrifice was anathema to them (if one might so speak). On this, see Michael Davies, Pope Paul’s New Mass (Angelus Press, 2009).

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Complete Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius, 2008), 544.

[3] It has been said that such a discrepancy would simply be the result of self-selection: because more educated, more devout, and more old-fashioned Catholics select the usus antiquior Mass, their answers will be skewed in favor of traditional doctrine. But isn’t this just a re-affirmation of the very point we are arguing? If those who believe what the Church teaches and wish to worship according to it seek out the usus antiquior, often making great sacrifices to get to it, or if they rejoice in it when they unexpectedly discover it, doesn’t this point to a massive lack in the Church’s mainstream worship and a mighty perfection in the classical form? Nor can we take seriously the view that the problem is a failure to implement the “real intentions” of the Council or of Paul VI. For more than fifty years, 90% or more of celebrations of the Novus Ordo have been done in a spirit of rupture and discontinuity with the Catholic past, yet almost nothing has been done to correct the status quo. This indicates a tacit acceptance of the connection between the new liturgy and the rupture with ecclesiastical tradition, which has now become an explicit policy under Traditionis Custodes and Archbishop Roche. In any case, it is enough to read what the Consilium members and Paul VI himself said to know that they had no intention of continuity with the Tridentine heritage.

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