Liturgy Lines: Do We Really Know What We Are Doing?

by Elizabeth Harrington

This post originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on December 14th, 2016


Actions I have witnessed and comments I have heard made lead me to wonder whether people really understand some central tenets of Catholic faith and practice, namely, (a) our participation in the Eucharist, (b) the difference between unconsecrated bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ, and (c) the distinction between the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament. I’ll consider each of these in turn.

(a) At the celebration of Eucharist, the past events of the paschal mystery – Christ’s life, death and resurrection – are made present so that we become part of the story and participate in it. Through the readings, prayers, actions and symbols of the Mass, we recall our faith story and remember who we are and always will be. We eat the body of Christ so that we might be the body of Christ, blessed, broken and shared for the life of the world.

(b) I have seen processions of gifts accompanied by lighted candles, smoking thurible and grand music, giving the clear impression that it is about something more than simply bringing forward bread and wine and our gifts for the poor. At one Mass a gift bearer tripped and spilled some hosts onto the floor. The fluster and consternation that ensued (about the hosts, not the person!) convinced me that most people present considered the dropped bread to be the body of Christ.

In the Middle Ages, theologians determined that the precise point at which the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ was at the words of institution (“This is my body… This is my blood…”), and this part of the Eucharistic Prayer came to be called ‘the consecration’. The current theological understanding is that the whole of the Eucharistic Prayer consecrates the gifts. During the Eucharistic Prayer we pray that the Holy Spirit will make our offerings holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(c) Continued calls from some quarters for the tabernacle to be put (back) on the altar or immediately behind it demonstrate the confusion that exists between the sacrifice of the Mass and adoration of the reserved Sacrament.

The sacrifice of the Mass is an act of Jesus Christ who offers himself to the Father. Worship offered to Christ in the reserved Sacrament on the other hand is always a human act, often an act of private devotion. (I thought it was time to give the bloggers something to work themselves up into a lather about again!)

More than 50 years ago, Pope Pius XII stressed the importance of keeping the Mass as an act of sacrifice separate from the worship of adoration so that the faithful would clearly understand the distinctive character of each:

“The altar surpasses the tabernacle because on it is offered the sacrifice of the Lord. In the tabernacle, on the other hand, Christ is present as long as the consecrated species remain, without, however, offering himself perpetually.”

The connection between sacrifice and communion is broken and confusion between altar and tabernacle reinforced when the faithful are fed week after week from the tabernacle and not from what was consecrated on the altar at the Mass being celebrated. Actions speak loudly!

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane.


  1. When parishes regularly distribute Communion mainly from the tabernacle at each Eucharist, I can understand why people see “not much difference” between a “Communion service” and the Eucharist. Thanks for this concise and informative piece.

  2. Regarding b) in “Do we really know what we are doing?”: the preparation and offering of the gifts in the Roman rite (not withstanding any of it’s uses or sub-rites) was quite simple and unadorned prior to the revisions following Vatican II, which then simplified it even more, even with the addition of a procession. A cursory glance at the same in any of the liturgies of other Churches shows much more elaborate and complicated rites, from the choosing of a loaf to be sacrificed in the Coptic liturgy, to the Great Entrance during the Divine Liturgy of the Churches that use the Byzantine rite. No one has any doubt that until the consecration within their respective anaphorae, those gifts are nothing but bread and wine, even if they are censed, veiled, lifted up and carried about. They are treated with respect as they are prepared and being offered to God to be turned into the body and blood of His Son by the operation of the Holy Spirit. I’m confused that a similar and very simplified sort of outward respect (lights, procession and incensation) in the Roman rite is thought to give a clear(?) impression that they are anything but bread and wine.
    As to the second half of b) can someone provide an official pronouncement regarding the current theological understanding spoken about that the entire prayer is now consecratory and that the consecration no longer takes place at the words of institution? That being the case, by making the prescribed genuflections after the each of the words of institution isn’t the priest adoring bread and wine since he has not yet finished the prayer and the consecration has still not occurred? That is clearly much more problematic.

  3. Here’s the quote from Pius XII in context: “To these considerations We should add some remarks on the tabernacle. In the same way that We were just saying: ‘Christ is in some respects greater than the altar and the sacrifice,’ We could now ask: ‘Is the tabernacle where our Lord, come down among His people, dwells, superior to the altar and to the sacrifice?’ The altar surpasses the tabernacle because on it is offered the sacrifice of the Lord. The tabernacle, doubtless, possesses the sacramentum permanens; but it is not an altare permanens, because it is only during the celebration of the holy Mass that Christ offers Himself in sacrifice on the altar – not after, nor outside of, Mass. In the tabernacle, on the other hand, He is present as long as the consecrated species remain, without, however, offering Himself perpetually. One is fully justified in distinguishing between the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass and the cultus latreuticus, the supreme form of worship offered to the God-man hidden in the Eucharist. A decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, dated July 27, 1927, limits as much as possible the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament during Mass: but this is easily explained by the desire of keeping habitually separate the act of sacrifice and the worship of simple adoration in order that the faithful would clearly understand their proper character.” (A.A.S. 48 (1956), 711–725; trans. The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, November, 1956)

      1. @Robert Addington:

        Yes. Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass, para 52:

        During the exposition of the blessed sacrament, the celebration of Mass is prohibited in the body of the Church. In addition to the reasons given in no. 6, the celebration of the eucharistic mystery includes in a more perfect way the internal communion to which exposition seeks to lead the faithful.
        If exposition of the blessed sacrament is ‘extended for an entire day or over several days, it is to be interrupted during the celebration of Mass. Mass may be celebrated in a chapel distinct from the area of exposition if at least some members of the faithful remain in adoration’ [cf. Eucharisticum Mysterium, 61].

  4. After working for many years in Roman Catholic parishes I, too, reached the conclusion that many people do not understand some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism. The distinction between Eucharist and Communion is often not understood. I tried very hard to get cantors to announce communion songs by saying “as you come forward to share in the Body and Blood of Christ” rather than “as you come forward to receive Communion”. A subtle distinction? Perhaps. But I think significant. And how many parishes offer any type of Adult Education, even for liturgical ministers?

  5. I have my own term for those who still insist that the tabernacle should be ‘front and centre’: tabernaculist.

    By the way, in colloquial Canadian French, ‘tabernac’ is a swear word, as are ‘hostie’, ‘calice’ and ‘ciboire’. That is why the French-speaking bishops of Canada want ‘coupe’ instead of ‘calice’ in the revised French Missal.

  6. Warehousing consecrated hosts, a practice alive and well in parishes in our diocese, is one of several vestiges of a time when it was assumed that few if any of the congregation would communicate. Though this practice vitiates the purpose and sign of offertory processions, and so is not officially accepted, a few other practices from earlier eras have remained in present masses. Let me mention the larger size host that belongs to the priest-presider, and the fact that he communicates before anyone else. Consuming the sacred species as he faces the people, of course, undermines more visibly the sense that we are one body in Christ.

  7. In my opinion (always humble), one of the great prophets of our age was Joseph Gelineau, whose wicked humor would regularly highlight the misunderstandings or downright abuses of our Eucharistic practices. Being in no sense sacrilegeous, he would draw attention to the greater importance which people attached to the little round host than to the mystery which it contained. ‘The Lamb of God?’ he would question, ‘more like the mutton chop’ would be his comment. As to the custom of the priest with his eyes glued to the sacramentary (oops, sorry, missal) greeting the assembly, ‘The Lord be with you’, the faithful in their wisdom and spirit of tolerance would reply, ‘and also with your book’. Decades ago he was insisting that there was no magic moment of ‘consecration’ but that the anaphora was a prayer which ‘concsecrated’ the entire assembly who, gathered in faith, made ‘transubstantiation possible. And in his popular hymn ‘What is this place’ (which is really a bad translation of the Dutch text), Huub Oosterhuis maintains that the great mystery or miracle is not ‘transubstantiation’ but the fact that the faithful continue to gather around the table of remembrance week after week for over two thousand years. Many (if not most) of us are still locked into medieval metaphysics in an attempt to ‘explain’ transubstantiation’, but as the world has evolved, and particularly the role that science has played in our understanding of reality, we are still centuries behind in our Eucharistic beliefs. How did we lose the value of assembling to share a common meal in remembrance by imposing the weight of sacrifice on it, almost to the exclusion of the humble origins of chaburah?.

  8. More from HCWEOM:

    [Therefore,] to express the sign of the eucharist, it is more in harmony with the nature of the celebration that, at the altar where Mass is celebrated, there should if possible be no reservation of the sacrament in the tabernacle from the beginning of Mass. The eucharistic presence of Christ is the fruit of the consecration and should appear to be such.

    (para 5)

    The place for the reservation of the eucharist should be truly pre-eminent. It is highly recommended that the place be suitable also for private adoration and prayer so that the faithful may easily, fruitfully, and constantly honour the Lord, present in the sacrament, through personal worship.
    This will be achieved more easily if the chape1 is separate from the body of the church [my emphasis: bishops, please note], especially in churches where marriages and funerals are celebrated frequently and churches which are much visited by pilgrims or because of their artistic and historical treasures.

    (para 9)

    1. @Paul Inwood:

      In my cathedral the sanctuary was rebuilt immediately after the Second Vatican Council. The tabernacle was moved to a side chapel just off the sanctuary. I believe this complies with the document you have quoted.

      1. @Robert Addington:

        The document is dated 1973. But regarding the positioning of the tabernacle it has received backup from the unlikely source of Redemptionis Sacramentum, 2004, para 130:

        “According to the structure of each church building and in accordance with legitimate local customs, the Most Holy Sacrament is to be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is noble, prominent, readily visible, and adorned in a dignified manner” and furthermore “suitable for prayer” by reason of the quietness of the location, the space available in front of the tabernacle, and also the supply of benches or seats and kneelers.

        [quoting Eucharisticum Mysterium 1967, para 54, and Inter Oecumenici 1964, para 95]

        A moment’s thought on the second half of that sentence will show that a tabernacle placed centrally on the sanctuary is not in a quiet location, has no space in front of it, and no benches, kneelers, etc (those in the nave are a long way away). The instruction is clearly envisaging a separate chapel, as at somewhere like Westminster Cathedral, which has never had a tabernacle on the main sanctuary but whose Blessed Sacrament Chapel is certainly noble, richly-decorated and suitable for prayer. The same is true, of course, of St Peter’s and other major churches in Rome: no tabernacle at the back of the sanctuary area there either. Then there are the numerous abbey churches where the expected location of a tabernacle is occupied by the abbot’s chair.

      2. @Paul Inwood:

        Quite so. And I believe the Ceremonial of Bishops 1615 states that in cathedral churches the tabernacle should not be placed on the high altar. So the tabernaculists (as I call them) are historically wrong here. The ‘new’ arrangement is not an invention of trendy post-Vatican II liturgists.

      3. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Well, it’s traditional for *cathedrals* to have the cathedra in the apse and the tabernacle in a transept or prominent chapel.

        While it may be “traditional”, I can think of numerous cathedrals where the cathedra is not located in the apse at all. Halfway down one side of the sanctuary is quite common, either facing across the sanctuary or angled at 45 degrees to face towards the people; another common position is in front of the first pillar of the sanctuary, again often angled at 45 degrees to face the people.

      4. @Paul Inwood:

        I get that. I was just pointing to the fact that the norm for tabernacle placment in cathedrals has a preconciliar antecedant (which fact often surprises people today, it seems), though it’s less evident in postconciliar sanctuary designs because cathedra are much less likely to be in the head of the apse, as it were. In the preconciliar layout, the bishop as the head of the local church was emphasized visually – a different emphasis on the body-ness of the local Body of Christ, as it were – and and there was a pontifical ritual at the tabernacle, et cet.

  9. Paul Schlachter : Let me mention the larger size host that belongs to the priest-presider, and the fact that he communicates before anyone else. Consuming the sacred species as he faces the people, of course, undermines more visibly the sense that we are one body in Christ.

    Or simply means the celebrant is aware of and compliant with the rubrics. The celebrant is to receive first. This moment used to be marked with a ring of the bell, both to indicate the completion of the sacrificial act and that it’s time for the people to go forward to receive.

    1. @Scott Knitter:
      Scott has proved my point by citing exactly the liturgical instructions that allow and even require a class division in our celebrations. The rubrics perpetuate the situation of a long lost era when the priest alone was expected to communicate. And when he follows them religiously, especially when he has turned around to face the assembly, he receives a kind of permission to violate the sacramental sign of one body in a way that is visible to everyone.

      1. @Paul Schlachter:

        So, it sounds like you saying the priest should not pray the Eucharistic Prayer nor Commune while facing the assembly, in order to preserve the sacramental sign of one body.

  10. I am reminded of the recent visit from our bishop who taught us that we go to Mass above all to adore the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.
    He is apparently a Catholic bishop.

      1. @Robert Addington:
        It can impact on the way they celebrate Mass also. This particular bishop (who spent at least 20 minutes in prayer before the tabernacle before Mass) rushed the actual celebration. Music was cut short, people weren’t given time to settle on their knees before he launched into the Eucharistic Prayer. The invitation to the Lords Prayer cut across the final cadence of the great Amen etc. But a massive emphasis was placed, in word and gesture on the words of institution.
        It was almost as though the Mass were a mechanism for filling the tabernacle.

  11. Our parish has always had a non traditional priest from the diocese Even our priests who assist who are retired have been also non traditional . This past year a traditional priest has been serving us at St. Josephs Fort Atkinson,Wi with no discussion not explanation by the bishop. about 25% have left and it appears that many are parish hopping to find another Catholic Church to worship. This has caused serious stress on all including the pastor . there must be a better way of transitioning priests . I would propose that the bishop and his staff assist all in this important change and explain to the parishoners the why and the how and the reasons which may help all understand. God be with us and all the Catholics in our diocese.

  12. I would reframe questions of the early modern prominence of the tabernacle on altars as important but not over-arching themes in the tableaux of the counter-reformation and the Tridentine era. Some questions immediately come to mind: is the prominence of the reserved Eucharist a determined rebuttal of Protestant worship traditions and theologies? It would appear, then, that the presence of an often architecturally obtuse tabernacle served not only to foster faith in the Eucharist, but also very purposefully state to any and all who see the “high” altar that Catholicism’s orthodox identity is indelible.

    Unfortunately, we cannot create a historical algorithm which allows us to see the cultus of the tabernacle unfold and then recede in the modern postconciliar age. The ability to witness history as a mathematical-computational action is not available to us. But still, the creation of architecture without at least a cursory nod to the progression of the past is a travesty which robs the faithful of a sturdy rationale for the placement of the tabernacle.

  13. What a shame it is that some bishops fail to celebrate the sacrament(s) in a way that inspires, edifies, and fully welcomes the entire assembly. It is one thing to foster a love for praying in the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, quite another to promote a near worship of tabernacles. Moving the tabernacle to the center, that’s the ticket that will stem the exodus of Catholics, especially the young, from the church. Great gatherings of youth always feature youthful, pious priests, processing with the BS amidst torches, candles, and incense. The youth ministers always say how much our youth are impressed by this pageantry, but we have perpetual adoration and I don’t notice these youth joining in. Not enough pageantry I guess just sitting or kneeling in the presence of our Brother and Lord.

  14. Thanks to this thread, I made sure to pay attention and observe, and well, whaddayaknow, we the people in the pews were indeed fed hosts that were fetched from the tabernacle, and not those consecrated at the Mass.

    Which I now understand is all kinds of wrong. Gah.

    1. @Elisabeth Ahn:

      The Church started encouraging us to move away from that as long ago as 1969 (see GIRM), but most people still haven’t realized….

      “Pre-consecrated Jesus” doesn’t help people to understand, really understand, how their offerings are integrated into the sacrifice of the Mass, but instead perpetuates Mass as a kind of spectator thing with being fed by “anonymous bread” at the end of it, consecrated at a Mass that you most probably weren’t at.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        In Mediator Dei Pope Pius XII praised those who desire to receive from the sacrifice at the Mass they themselves participate in (though he did not require it, as no more did Vatican II). In support of this position he cites Pope Benedict XIV, writing in 1741.

  15. Perhaps the problem is that many priests don’t pay attention to the words that are said at Mass. The exception seems to be the magic moment theology of the institution narrative.

    Examples of what I mean: 1) The words “Let us acknowledge our sins…. are rarely followed by time to do that.
    2) “Let us pray” is immediately followed by the Collect but there has been no time for the people to pray, no prayers “to collect.”
    3) Too often the reading are bunched together with no pause between them. They are not proclaimed. How many ever see the psalm as having been selected in the light of the first reading.
    4) The prayers for the preparation of the gifts should be changed to “it will be changed to “….the bread of life for me.” and “…my spiritual drink.”

    But we certainly emphasize “This is my Body.

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