Side Altar Tabernacles

I’m wondering why side altars traditionally had tabernacles on them. Would the Blessed Sacrament be reserved in multiple tabernacles in the Church prior to Vatican II? What was the rationale?

They were moved there after Vatican II. When altars started to face the people, the tabernacle was taken off of them- they blocked the view of the congregation.

Fortunately, many churches are restoring the tabernacles to the apse, even if it means a separate tabernacle behind the altar. Hopefully before too long the altars will be pushed up to these tabernacles once more.

Many parishes built before Vatican II had side altars with tabernacles simply because the manufactures of such items did not construct altars on demand after the Industrial Revolution. With the rapid expansion of Churches in Mission territories like the US Canada, and other countries, and the founding of new parishes, they built altars in wood, and marble at the factory, if you look through old churches, and compare the altars in churches to religious goods catalogues from days gone by (Benziger Brothers is a good example of an old catalogue that has been reprinted for collectors of such things) You will see standard styles.

Other reasons for having more than one tablernacle in a church include, the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday, and the need to move the Blessed Sacrament if there is contruction/repairs that need to be done in the sanctuary, or if there is damage to the tabernacle on the main altar. Sometimes the Blessed Sacrament would be removed if the Church, (sometimes the largest meeting place in a small town) had to have a secular meeting. I know one parish that used to be used for interior shots in movies, and the priest would move the Blessed Sacrament into a tablernacle in a side Chapel so people could still adore our Lord while Sanctuary shots were being filmed.

Prior to Vatican II, the sign that the Blessed Sacrament was present in the Tabernacle was the Veil over the Tabernacle. So the un-veiled tabernacles on side altars would be simply ornamental, and not used.

The altar should actually be freestanding, regardless of the orientation of the Priest, so it can be censed around.

The Tabernacle on the Main altar of the average parish Church should not preclude a free standinig altar. Altars against the wall, and large attached rerdos’ are more the reaction to the destruction of altars by the Protestants, during the Catholic Counter Reformation.

It is however a long standing practice in Cathedral Churches, and Major Basilicas, or Churches that are also attractive to tourists, to have a Blessed Sacrament Chapel so our Lord will get proper respect, when tourists tamp through, and in the case of a Cathedral with Chapter, so the Bishop and the Canons of the Chapter can recite or sing the Office and the Bishop may vest prior to major feasts, (when he does not vest in the sanctuary) in accordance to the EF rubrics.

In a parish that has both space and funds, one would expect to see a private chapel for the Blessed Sacrament, in a place of greatest honor, and a funeral chapel, where the corpse, (in a casket) can be laid before the Funeral Mass and other rites began. Since most parishes did not have the funds or space (prior to Vatican II) The Blessed Sacrament was usually reserved on the Main Altar. You can see in larger Churches in Europe, where there is an ambulatory around and behind the main altar, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a private Chapel behind the Main Altar. These Chapels are usually well appointed, and a place of great respect.

Interesting. As was your first post.

The Church I go to (built in the 30’s, and never [well, barely] renovated) has side altars with (unused) tabernacles, and I always wondered why they were there. I suppose now that it was for occasions when the sanctuary was unusable for whatever reason.

The High Altar is not freestanding, and the Tabernacle still sits on top in the middle, but the Altar itself can be walked around- although not in a way where it could be censed. It’s hard to describe.

We also have the privilege of having Our Lord in an adoration chapel as well as front and center on the main altar. So we get the best of both (this was a renovation, however- originally the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was part of the altar boys’ sacristy)

Another consideration however minor is that usually people would sponsor various features of a Church, stained glass windows, altars, statues etc. Some people had a sense of pride in being able to provide the very best for God, and the Church. I have seen Churches that have multiple side altars and chapels in which some alars had a tabernacle door, others an empty seplucher and still others a matching slap of marble that covered the space where the door to the tabernacle would be placed. With all the planning and rubrics for erecting a new parish church, sometimes soliciting sponsors, and picking appointments out of the catalogue was a very big task. Something that not all priests are as good at as others. A priest who was well versed in the rubrics, and had an eye for detail may be a bit more picky than one who was not as focused on such details. Neither priest was a bad priest, it is just that some focused on things more than others.

I remember visiting a parish that had removed the stations of the cross for cleaning, and a little retouching of the paint on them. When they were restored to their places the priest (a friend of mine) forgot to put the little wooden crosses back in place below the nice scupted Satations. I reminded him that a set of stations of the cross has the indulgences attached to the wooden crosses and not the depictions when they are erected. I don’t fault him for forgetting this, as there are so many things to remember, and nobody can remember them all.

Side altars were used for priests saying mass. There was a time when different masses would occur in the same church at the same time…or starting at different times but irregardless of another mass happening, even on the main altar. You will often see this at St. Peter’s in Rome where different tourist groups are celebrating Mass in the different chapels all at the same time. In the crypt at our seminary there are about 10 altars on both sides of the chapel that were used by priest saying private masses. This was at a time when they could not concelebrate.

Yes, this is true. I always thought that the tabernacles on those altars were so that the hosts that were consecrated during those masses and not consumed would be put there after communion and later would be taken to the tabernacle on the main altar. Otherwise there would not have been a need for a tabernacle on every altar. What do you think?

Yes, that is correct, though Filioque’s reasons - standard catalogue styles, Holy Thursday and during devotions like the Forty Hours - also played a part.

Another custom came from before the Liturgical Movement and was especially prevalent upto the 1920s, though it could be found in many places to the1950s even. Holy Communion was not always placed in its proper place in the Mass. Generally, the two was sort-of separated from each other - in practise, even if not theory. Communion was often looked on as a kind of devotion, and often you would read how so-and-so would receive Communion and then hear a Mass in thanksgiving. Most Masses would have only the celebrant receive Communion. What happened if the people wanted to receive was this:

  • they would receive at an earlier Mass especially on Sundays
  • they would receive after Mass or before Mass (though this was forbidden for a Missa Solemnis)
  • while one priest was still saying Mass, another priest would distribute Communion at a side altar using reserved Hosts and the Rite of distributing Holy Communion outside of Mass. You can find reports of such practices in the USA in the 20s and 30s, and side tabernacles were often used to temporarily reserve the Sacrament for such a purpose.
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