Question on the historical placement of the Tabernacle, etc


Hello everyone. I watched a video on youtube from this young Franciscan Friar whose youtube channel is called “Breaking in the Habit.” I commented on one of his videos that a church that he was going to speak in was, well, ugly and looked like a whitewashed protestant church. And as is sadly the case with many of these churches, the Tabernacle was not in the middle. To make a long story short, in our conversations he told me that the tabernacle was not placed in the center of the altar until medeval times and that in the early days the priest faced the people rather than east or liturgical east. Can someone point me to links that prove that the tabernacle was in the center of the sanctuary and that the priest from earliest times faced east? Here is one of his responses to me:

I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. I said nothing about putting the priest at the center (although, if I did, I think the letter to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation, both of which describe our early worship, would agree with me. The priest, in persona Christi, is the center of the worship. But that’s neither here nor there.) What I am saying is that the sacrifice taking place–not some sacrifice that took place yesterday and is being held for the sick–is the central purpose of the mass.

I’m not really sure what you’re getting at with traditions as the tabernacle only became a central feature of churches in the middle ages, as with “ad orientem.” It should also be pointed out that “ad orientem” does not mean “facing the tabernacle” or “back to the people,” but obviously, “to the east.” This idea only applies to some churches as it was not always the practice to build a church facing east. St. Peter’s in Rome, for example does not face east.

I recommend, truly, that when we start using the word “tradition” as an argument, we use it to mean something more than just “medieval” or “baroque.” Our tradition dates back much farther than these recent times, and there is a whole rich (and varied) history that has accommodated many different traditions. We are the “catholic” Church, a Church that recognizes the universality of our faith, that it cannot be held to a particular custom or culture, and throughout our history our worship has taken many different forms.

Thanks in advance.


@oralabora has talked about this issue.


I can’t seem to find any posts about my question on his site


The tabernacle has never been exclusively at the centre of the main altar. For instance, in cathedrals and monasteries, as concelebration was not ordinarily permitted before the council, the tabernacle could be on one of the side altars used for priests saying their daily private Mass.

In churches and basilicas frequently visited by tourists, out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament, the tabernacle could be in a side chapel. Side chapels were common in monasteries as well.

I have a 1934 ceremonial from France that outlines proper placement of the tabernacle. I will try to dig it out later but in short, it did not have to be at the centre of the main altar.

Edit: found the book and the relevant sections. Translated from the French:

Normally the Blessed Sacrament should be reserved on the main altar as being the most noble and honourable, unless an other altar seems preferable for the veneration and cult due to this august Sacrament.

However in cathedral churches, collegial churches and conventual churches, where choral functions are held at the main altar, it is opportune to habitually reserve the Holy Eucharist at another altar than the main altar. (Manuel de Liturgie et Cérémonial selon le rit Romain, Paris, 1934)

So as you can see the placement of the tabernacle somewhere other than the center of the main altar was never a hard and fast rule.


Thank you for that response. I knew that already. I’m talking about the standard parish church. Up until V2, the churches were built so that the focus was, of course, on the sanctuary with the Tabernacle in the center.


See the edit I just added, while that was clearly the preferred option, it was permitted to have it elsewhere even in parish churches, if it was deemed preferable. Again, it placement at the centre, while preferred, was not a hard-and-fast rule.


Thank you for that. Can you offer any historical document that “proves” that priests faced the congregation in the early days of the church with the ad orientem posture beginning to take place in the medeval period?


Try searching for the word tabernacle, you will get much discussion of your question.

You will understand these discussions better if you read a bit about the “sacrifice of the mass.”

1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:

[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit. (council of Trent)

This sacrifice is the heart of mass and the basis for our communion with Christ in the Eucharist. In our memorial of the sacrifice of Christ the bread becomes the Body he offered for us. The Eucharist in the tabernacle is a constant reminder of Christ’s presence for us, but the Eucharistic prayer is what makes Christ present. That is why the priest reverences the altar when he enters, the place of the sacrifice he will present, rather than genuflect to the tabernacle.

Some trace the central placement of the altar to St Francis, who did it because some chapels had no other place for it. That may also help explain your bloggers viewpoint.


Dovekin, thank you for that post from the catechism but I have no need for it since I am well aware of what the Eucharist is. I am Catholic after all.


The same ceremonial has instructions for both celebration facing the people or the altar. It varied on the configuration of the church. In particular in churches with a choir in the sanctuary, the celebration could be ad orientem for the clergy in the choir, thus facing the people in the church, or vice-versa, when the altar was between the sanctuary and the choir.

So facing the people was not a foreign concept either. In monasteries it was frequent for the priest to face the choir (thus versus populum for the monks), because of the community dimension of Benedictine spirituality.


You are most welcome.

You seemed to be having difficulty reconciling the “central purpose of the mass” with ancillary purposes like adoration. If that is not the problem you were having, forgive me for misreading your note.


I’m not sure what you want from us, because the person with whom you are arguing is correct.


Oh no worries. That seems to be what everyone else thinks as well. Having grown up Novus Ordo and then experiencing a Traditional Mass about 15 or so years ago, I have been preoccupied with these “issues” if you will. I have no problem with the Novus Ordo if it is done according to the books which, btw, presupposes that the priest is facing ad orientem. IN any event, I know that if proper form and matter are used, then we have a valid Eucharist.


If you are speaking about Oraetlabora, I didn’t say he was incorrect. If you are talking about the friar, I think he is clearly wrong.


And also the obligation to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in a place that is both noble, and safe.


Well yeah, you basically did when you asked:

So, no we can’t becuase he is correct.


Look, I didn’t say he was incorrect. You’re just looking to start an argument.


Yes I agree that wherever the Tabernacle is, it should be in a noble place. But, to me, it makes sense that the taberancle should be in the center of the Sancturary as that is the focal point. I attended Mass at a church where the tabernacle was hidden behind the altar which made no sense whatsover.


The friar is correct – so I’m not sure what you’d like us to provide?


St Peter’s in Rome could not be built facing the east, because of where the original tomb of St Peter was found in the pagan cemetery. The Emperor Constantine in order to preserve the exact spot had to build the Basilica in the nontraditional way Secondly the High Altar of the Basilica is facing East. Ancient liturgical documents show that when the church for some reason could not be built facing the East, just before the Eucharist Prayer the Deacon call out, “Let us turn to the Lord!” Which of course meant to the East! This was certainly done in Rome as the records indicated

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