The incessant pounding of construction has finally come to a close at St Thomas More and at the vigil Mass Saturday evening our bishop dedicated, blessed, or consecrated quite an array of buildings: a 29,000 square foot parish center that includes a social hall and professional kitchen, a parish library, the St Lawrence fireplace, adult faith formation classrooms or meeting spaces, a large nursery, and offices for the parish staff as well as new parking lots and entrances, a gymnasium, an art and music building and athletic fields for the school, a columbarium, and several renovations to the existing church space where reconciliation rooms have been added and a new tabernacle was installed directly behind the main altar. Undertaking such a project was of course long and the buildings’ uses will indeed be many, however, I wanted to share two reflections: first on how a liturgist came to terms with a large tabernacle being set like a reredos in an otherwise contemporary and simple church and, second, the distinction between dedicating, blessing, and consecrating these various spaces for community life.
I must confess to being less-than-enthusiastic when we were first asked to relocate the tabernacle in accord with the
additional particular norms for the celebration of the sacred Mass promulgated just over two years for our diocese, however, with our pastor who was likewise not initially a proponent of the change, I set about to make the transition beautiful and harmonious with our church, conducive to prayer, and a reverent reposition for the Body of Christ. Our diocesan norms state that
church buildings in the Diocese of Raleigh, whether new or existing construction, are to be adapted (110) so that
the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle located in or near the sanctuary of the church building such that is truly noble, prominent, readily visible, beautifully decorated, suitable for prayer (106). Our existing Blessed Sacrament chapel, built just over ten years ago, was situated within a beautiful steepled space, conducive to quiet prayer, but was unfortunately a less-than-conspicuous location for the tabernacle retained from the original 1940s church building. Because we did not feel it would be appropriate to simply move the existing tabernacle as it would have been diminished in the space of our church, we commissioned John Buscemi to design a new tabernacle. When he visited our church two major ideas emerged. First, in keeping with the USCCB guidelines, Built of Living Stones, we sought to make sure that the placement of the tabernacle within the sanctuary would be done in such a manner
so that the placement chosen does not draw the attention of the faithful away from the eucharistic celebration itself (§79) which lead John to propose grillwork with candlestands to mark off the space so using
distance, lighting, [and] some other architectural device [to] separate the tabernacle and reservation area during Mass, but that allows the tabernacle to be fully visible to the entire worship area when the eucharistic liturgy is not being celebrated (§80). Second, in order to have the tabernacle harmonize with the existing space, designed in a Prairie School style and simply decorated in an Arts and Craft Movement style, we had an opportunity to vertically integrate the space. An initial spire-like design was proposed to do so which was revised by John Buscemi following our feedback. But the imposing verticality of the design was retained and is how I was lead to see this tabernacle as a statement of liturgical catechesis that united previously separated elements in our church. Upon entering Saint Thomas More two important axes or lines of sight are unfolded to the faithful. One axis runs from the crucifix carved by Norbert Koehn which hangs directly over the altar to the stained-glass window depicting the resurrection installed in the back wall of the sanctuary and retained from the original Saint Thomas More church building. The other axis runs parallel and below from the octagonal, massive granite baptismal font placed near the entrance of the church down the center aisle to the altar. These two dimensions of our faith: the cosmic and eternal realities of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and the sacramental life of the Church by means of which those of us on earth participate in the divine life depicted on the higher plane were, through this design, conjoined and thus bridged the Paschal Mystery and our divine worship. The strong vertical lines of the tabernacle, reminiscent of a free-standing neo-gothic designs, mediate the heavenly and the earthly. The new tabernacle has been a great way for me to understand more fully and share with those in our parish that, just as Christ came down from heaven in the incarnation, so too does the Body of Christ again come down and make his dwelling among us each time we celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist so that we might come one day to share in the glory of the Father. The new tabernacle visually invites us to gaze first upon the sanctuary wherein Christ is made really present upon the altar each time we gather for the Mass and wherein the Blessed Sacrament is now to be reserved then draws our eyes heavenward toward the Lamb of God seated at the base of the resurrection window giving us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that awaits those whose names are written in the Book of Life upon which he is seated. The plinth of the new tabernacle was milled and stained to match the existing altar, ambo, and presider’s chair and incorporates the same recurring book motif. An oculus over the door of the tabernacle flanked by two small pinnacles combine with the prominent illuminated spire to give a luminous gothic feel to the design. Abbot Suger of St.-Denis, credited with promoting the gothic style at its inception in the twelfth century as the first theologically driven style, summarizes these themes beautiful in reminding us that
being nobly bright, the work should brighten our minds so that they may travel through the true lights to the True Light…rising to the truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, be resurrected from our former submersion. The wrought iron grillwork, topped with tall candles, has visually set apart the tabernacle in a dignified manner but has also lent a symmetric formality and tying the tabernacle to the surrounding pillars as if creating an entrance to this holy of holies, further enhancing the vertical connection between the sacraments celebrated by the faithful here and the heavenly liturgy depicted above. The grillwork incorporates free form branches and leaves in order to bring contrast to the strong angularity of the existing space, connect with the woods visible outside the existing clerestory windows, and recall the vine and branches—one of the earliest of eucharistic motifs reminding us that Christ remains in us so long as we remain rooted in his Body. Catechizing the assembly of the need to genuflect when entering the church rather than bow to the altar as has been the case in the present arrangement of the church and to maintain a sacred silence so that all may come and pray before the Blessed Sacrament before and after Mass as well as other times when the church is open has proven much easier than initially expected as the newness of the design catches the eye of everyone immediately. When preparing the assembly for the forthcoming change I used a beautiful quote from the Cistercian Father, Baldwin of Forde, which was also shared by Bishop Burbidge during his homily:
Build in me your tabernacle and rest in me, that I may rest in you…that I may desire nothing apart from you, nothing at all, save only you or for your sake. Thus will I find peace and in my heart will be at rest.
At the liturgy we naturally made extensive use of processions as well as the Book of Blessings (and the Spanish Bendicional) but tried to help the assembly distinguish between dedicating the tabernacle, consecrating the columbarium, and blessing all the other facilities. Does it matter? In addition to the common observation that blessings tend to be brief while dedications and consecrations tend to be considerably longer, I tried to share with people the distinction that the Church makes between rites and blessings with the former taking place between the Liturgy of Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist and transforming the status of something, like that of the gifts presented or a couple being married, through their participation in the liturgical rite while the latter, taking place in the Concluding Rite, is not so much transformative but, as what anthropologists would call a ceremony, rather confirms the status of the person or building and blesses them; a couple being blessed on the occasion of the anniversary of marriage does not, for example, become any
more married than they were before. So rites (what anthropologists would call a ritual) create a binary before-and-after status in a manner that blessings do not. At the vigil Mass Saturday evening though we did not dedicate our Church we opened using the Blessing and Sprinkling of Water from the Rite of Dedication of a Church in order to reconnect this following dedication of the tabernacle with that of the whole church. We followed the
Order for the Blessing of a New Tabernacle (Book of Blessings 1192ff.) which takes place in two parts: first immediately after the General Intercessions (1194) when the presider incenses the tabernacle and prepares it to receive the Body of Christ to be consecrated from the elements presented only moment later. Like the bread and wine to be itself transformed and those of us invited to receive it likewise are transformed in this ongoing sacrament of initiation so too is the tabernacle transformed as it is made immaculate to bear the presence of Christ. Occurring when it does, namely at the same time as other rites, though included in the Book of Blessings, and by virtue of its binary transformation it effects on the tabernacle, it seems most appropriate to see this as a dedication, a setting apart ritual. Following the Prayer After Communion (1200), the bishop once again incensed the tabernacle now tabernacling the Real Presence before closing the door. This tabernacle, like we who have been incorporated into Christ, has been transformed. Following the Mass we joined a great procession singing Taizé
Laudate Dominum and
O Lord, Hear My Prayer down the hill to the new gymnasium, art and music building, and athletic fields where the bishop prayed the blessing and sprinkled the spaces (847ff.) which, like any ceremony, could be repeated and did not transform the nature of the space. The procession then continued and entered the new parish center where, in the Friends and Family Hall, the bishop blessed this space for social activity and religious education (779ff.). Once again these spaces are to continue to serve as they were built and do so with the blessing now of the local church and our Lord. Finally, the bishop and some others proceeded to the columbarium where, following the
Order for the Blessing of a Cemetery, he consecrated this space, blessing it to forever
be a place of rest and hope (1432). Next week, following the Mass for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day), we will once again enter this columbarium to inter in their permanent place of rest those who have died and have been awaiting the completion and consecration of this space.