ASHTON — Like centuries of Catholic priests before him, the Rev. Tait Schroeder consecrated the communion bread at a midday Mass last week, turning it into what the denomination’s faithful believe is the actual body of Jesus Christ.
After offering the sacramental bread — referred to as the Eucharistic host — to parishioners, Schroeder walked the unused portion to an ornate, safe-like box behind him at the front of the sanctuary.
In this secure shrine, called a tabernacle, the host would dwell until needed for the next Mass, available all the while for the faithful to pray before it or for Schroeder to take it to home-bound parishioners.
As Christians around the world mark the birth of Christ in Bethlehem this Christmas season, many Madison-area Catholics are learning more about the profound role of the tabernacle in their parishes. Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino has directed priests to move the tabernacle to a prominent spot at the center of the sanctuary at all diocesan churches.
The directive was announced at an annual gathering of priests in September and could affect about half of the 134 worship sites in the diocese, although no exact count is available, said Patrick Gorman, director of the diocesan office of worship, which coordinates liturgical matters for the bishop and will be leading the effort. At these churches, the tabernacle may be off to one side of the sanctuary or in a separate side chapel altogether.
Because church law requires that a tabernacle be immovable and made of solid material, the directive will require some cost and effort at some parishes, Gorman said. The bishop is giving priests three years to accomplish the goal, until October 2018.
Gorman said the bishop’s intent is to place more emphasis and reverence on the Lord’s presence at the Eucharist, the term used by Roman Catholics for communion.
“This isn’t just another piece of furniture in the sanctuary,” Gorman said. “It is housing the living God.”
Morlino had been moving in this direction for a decade or more, encouraging priests in general to relocate tabernacles and requiring it during parish renovation projects, Gorman said.
St. Peter Catholic Church, where Schroeder is priest, is an example of what Morlino considers an ideal placement of a tabernacle, according to the diocese. The neo-gothic church, constructed in 1901, is in Ashton, an unincorporated Dane County community northwest of Middleton.
The tabernacle is at the central axis of the church, right behind the communion table and part of a soaring, decorative high altar that includes an array of statues and religious iconography.
“It really is the focal point,” Schroeder said of the tabernacle. “It draws our hearts and minds to Christ and to our belief that he is really present with us.”
Schroeder said the tabernacle at St. Peter had moved around some over the decades, residing for a time off to the side of the sanctuary. His predecessor moved it back to its current, original spot.
Following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there was a movement toward placing tabernacles to the sides of sanctuaries or to locate them in smaller chapels within the larger church buildings, Gorman said. One thought behind this was that the host could be more respectfully worshipped in a separate, quieter space, away from such events as wedding rehearsals, or, as is often the case with large cathedrals, tourist groups, he said.
While the motivation may have been sound, “in reality, the tabernacle ended up just being bypassed by people,” Gorman said. “It didn’t accomplish what it set out to do. I think most priests would agree with that.”
The tabernacle at the Ashton church is built into an elaborate wooden structure, but this does not need to be the case in every church, Gorman said. Some tabernacles are on pedestals that can be unbolted and moved to a more central spot with relatively little effort, he said.
“I think, in most places, there will be a solution that will not be very costly,” he said.
St. Bernard Catholic Church on Madison’s East Side is in the process of moving its tabernacle from a side of the sanctuary to the front as part of a much larger $240,000 restoration project that includes new carpeting and upgrades to electrical and sound systems, said the Rev. Michael Radowicz.
“I was aware of the bishop’s desire to have the tabernacle front and center, and that did play an important part in the project,” he said. “It wasn’t, however, the sole reason for beginning the project.”
Some parishioners are very happy about moving the tabernacle, while others are taking some time to warm to the idea, he said.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” Radowicz said of the varied opinions. “I will point out, though, that I needed to go to the parishioners to ask for financial support so we could do the project. I received the support, so it’s my feeling that there are more in support than not. I also feel that once the parishioners see the project completed, they’ll be pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
The Rev. Brian Wilk is pastor of a Catholic church in Middleton that also is named St. Bernard. When the church, built in 1959, was remodeled in the late 1980s, the tabernacle was moved to a chapel off the sanctuary, he said. During Mass, Wilk or a deacon must go to the side chapel to retrieve the host.
Wilk said he’s just begun talking to the parish council about the need to move the tabernacle to the center of the sanctuary. There are no definitive plans yet, but he said he hopes the project can be undertaken in 2016, perhaps as part of other improvements.
“I like the idea,” he said of making the tabernacle more prominent. “There’s the practicality of having the host close at hand when celebrating Mass. And then there’s what it represents. I think it can lead to a more reverent nature in the church building itself.”