By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD
The Church asserts that there has always been due diligence exercised as to her responsibility in giving precautions for the care and security of the reservation of the Holy Eucharist in tabernacles. Such is the emphasis made by the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments in its instruction given in 1938 with the title “Nullo Umquam Tempore.” I would like to translate this Latin title as “Never at any time,” that the Church has been remiss and careless in giving norms and instructions for the safekeeping of the Holy Eucharist in church tabernacles.
Lately, there have been alarming incidents of burglary and theft of tabernacles in the country. If the purpose of the crime is to steal the tabernacle as an artifact is bad in itself, it is unspeakably worse when it is for the profanation of the sacred specie. Worst still if such is carried out for both evil purposes.
In a span of 70 days, there have been already three incidents of this kind: at St. John the Evangelist Church in Hydes, Maryland (March 25), at St. Bartholomew Church in Katy, Texas (May 8), and at St. Augustine Church, Brooklyn (May 28).
In the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917, the Church law provides that: “The most holy Eucharist must be preserved in an immovable tabernacle located in the center part of the altar. The tabernacle shall be well-constructed, closed on all sides, decently decorated according to the norm of liturgical law, empty of all foreign things, and thus carefully kept so that any sort of danger of sacrilege or profanation is excluded” (canon 1269, §§1-2). This provision for care and safety of tabernacles is continued in the actual Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983. To wit, “The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved habitually is to be immovable, made of solid and opaque material, and locked in such a way that the danger of profanation is avoided as much as possible” (canon 938 §3).
For due care and safety of church tabernacles, I can see two keywords here: immovability and inviolability.
Immovability. For security, the tabernacle should be immovable. My research on further elucidation relevant to the requirement of immovability yields no findings of official interpretation on the matter. I think it is common sense and practicality to understand the concept of immovability. In the tradition and custom of the church, it means that the tabernacle should be built-in, fixed or secured (perhaps with bolts and screws), making the tabernacle immovable. If one can move it without much effort, or with use of an instrument, then it is movable. The requirement, then, is not complied.
Inviolability. The tabernacle should be inviolable. The law says it should be made of solid and opaque material and locked. The question here is whether solid but transparent material such as fiberglass can be used as material for tabernacles. The general principle is that the sacred vessels containing the Holy Eucharist should not be continuously visible.
The tabernacle made of transparent materials, even though they may be stronger than steel, would not provide invisibility. In other words, the requirement of opaqueness is not so much for security as for theology.
Alarmed by the recent incident of burglaries and profanation of churches, those who are responsible for the care and safety of tabernacles should take prompt precautions. As we do regular inspections of our physical facilities, why not do a checkup of our due care and safety for our tabernacles to avoid profanation the best we can?
Msgr. Achacoso is the author of “Due Process in Church Administration” (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican), and pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside