Up to the Brim

Safekeeping of the Tabernacle Key

By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD

The safety and protection of tabernacles where the presence of our Lord is real in the form of the consecrated host is a matter of supreme importance.

Herein lies the grave obligation for the safekeeping of the tabernacle keys, the instrument to lock and unlock access to this sacred chamber. The key to the tabernacle is just a small piece of metal cut in a way to fit the wards of a lock system. Obviously, all precautions in relation to the safety and protection of the tabernacle will be in vain if the safekeeping of its key is neglected.

The Code of Canon Law requires that the safekeeping of the key to the tabernacle should be carried out with utmost care. “The person responsible for the church or oratory is to take care that the key of the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is safeguarded most diligently” (canon 938 §5).

I would like to stress here the manner of care that is rendered in the superlative form. The original Latin version reads “diligentissime custodiatur” to express that the safekeeping of the tabernacle key should be done in the highest form of diligent custody.

Abuses happened and still are happening. There is an unfortunate case that in a parish church, the tabernacle does not have a door and lock. No door, just a curtain to cover the ciborium containing the consecrated host.

This case happens not in an impoverished parish that cannot afford a proper tabernacle. One can draw the sad conclusion of indifference or negligence by the ones responsible. Another abuse is the malpractice of leaving the tabernacle key hanging in the key cylinder or leaving the key on the altar, especially in the down times when there is no one in the church. In terms of security, the tabernacle having a door and a key is not a better case than not having any at all.

In the actual canonical legislation, the person responsible for the safekeeping of the key to the tabernacle is not anymore specified to be a priest, unlike the norms given previously in Nullo unquam tempore (1938). Logically, the person responsible for the key can be presumed to be a priest.

The exclusive right to keep the key to the tabernacle belongs to the pastor of the parish. In a non-parochial setting, the rector is responsible for keeping the tabernacle key of the shrines, the chaplain for oratories of institutions, or the administrator for certain places.

The above mentioned normative document contains very interesting provisions on the safekeeping of the keys to the tabernacle. For instance, there is a standing prohibition for a lay person to keep the tabernacle key, even if they are patrons of the place. Where there is a grave reason to have a lay person be in charge of the key, an apostolic indult is required.

The person responsible for the custody of the key to the tabernacle is under a grave obligation of conscience to fulfill his duty. He must take care that unauthorized persons can not get hold of the key. He must not go away without entrusting the safe keeping of the key to another priest.

When the key is not used, it must be kept in a safe and secret place in the sacristy. There should be a second key kept in a separate place by the person responsible for its safekeeping.

Where there are special privileges given to keep the Blessed Sacrament in private chapels, the key to the tabernacle should be kept in the sacristy, under the care of the family. Or the key can be entrusted to the priest who usually celebrates Mass in that chapel.

As often as demands of prudence require, the competent authority should diligently find out and obtain ocular knowledge of the provision made for the safekeeping of tabernacles. Deficient safekeeping should be dealt with promptly, and appropriate actions to address issues should be taken at once. Negligence is not justifiable in absence of untoward incidents resulting from such carelessness.

The diligence in the custody of the key is ultimately under the command responsibility of the local ordinaries. They are encouraged to leave nothing undone to root out abuses in this regard and, of course, to promote and foment good practices in the care of tabernacles. They should consider severe penalties, including the removal of those responsible from their office or position.

Furthermore, it should not be too easy to grant requests for keeping tabernacles in pri- vate oratories or chapels where proper care cannot be assured. It is more tolerable that sometimes even a notable part of the faith- ful be deprived of the means of adoring the Blessed Sacrament than that the same should be exposed to the probable danger of profa- nation.