Question: A friend of mine was told that having the Blessed Sacrament reserved on the altar is a modern custom not in use until the 17th century, confuses the people, and was forbidden by Vatican II. Is any of this correct? --- DMR, Boca Raton
Answer: All good propaganda contains a substantial element of truth. We will come back to why somebody might want Catholics not to have the Blessed Sacrament in plain view in their churches later. First, it will be helpful to take a brief look at the history of reserving the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass.
We know that, in spite or because of general persecution, Catholics reserved the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass from the earliest times. Written records of the second and third centuries speak of carrying Communion to those unable to attend Mass and of keeping It between Masses for those who become seriously ill. Obviously the practice began sometime before it could be written about. Countless references can be found in subsequent centuries.
At first, reservation had to be in private dwellings. Prior to the fourth century, Catholics were persecuted throughout the empire. Leaving the Blessed Sacrament in other than the personal care of a reliable priest or layman was unthinkable. Laymen might be entrusted with the Host to permit reception between infrequent Masses. Likewise, hermits living in the desert, far from the services of a priest, might keep the Blessed Sacrament in their cells for daily Communion.
With the exception of the desert dwellers, reservation consisted of hiding the Host, perhaps in a locked box, so that It would be safe from Pagans (as well as pests). More than any other consideration, safety was paramount. It would remain so, even when the Church became a legal part of the Roman Empire.
Shortly after Constantine recognized the rights of the Church, the Empire came under attack from various quarters. Goths and Vandals from northern Europe, Huns from Mongolia, Danes and Vikings from Scandinavia, and Moslems from everywhere south. Churches, with rich vestments and metalware, were a favorite target of invaders. Particularly at the outskirts of the Empire, the Blessed Sacrament was hidden away to preserve It from theft. A locked chest in a sacristy was probably the most common mode of reservation.
Even where the Host was kept in the sacristy, it was common to move it (in a suitable container) to the altar during divine service. As early as the second century, popes and bishops sent a portion of the consecrated Host to their subordinates. This particle, called a fermentum, remained on the altar until it was dropped into the chalice at the words "Pax Dómini sit semper vobíscum" -- "May the peace of the Lord be always with you" -- a practice imitated today with a partticle from the priest's own host. A similar custom had newly ordained or consecrated priests and bishops do the same with a particle from their ordination or consecration Mass during the following forty days. Such particles were often displayed on the altar in a vessel known as a Eucharistic tower.
In relatively civilized areas, somewhere between the fifth and eighth centuries it became common to reserve the Host in a pyx -- often shaped like a dove -- suspended over the main altar. The rope or chain holding the pyx could be routed through a wall so as to be accessible only from a secure room.
In less secure places, a standing pyx might be placed on the altar during Mass, Lauds, and Vespers, or at other times when the church was well attended.
Where the danger of invasion was greater, this same period saw the introduction of aumbries within the sanctuary. The aumbry was a sort of tabernacle built into the wall; much more secure than a box accessible from all sides. Earlier aumbries built in the sacristy wall continued to be used for the Holy Oils. Throughout the middle ages, the aumbry developed into a wall mounted tabernacle, protruding further and further from the wall.
A rather unique method of Eucharistic reservation was devised in medieval Germany. An elaborate metallic cage, known as a Sacrament House, was built large and strong enough to resist vandals, while allowing the pyx to be seen through the bars of the cage. A sort of perpetual exposition; but with mechanical safety.
The tabernacle as we know it, mounted on or over the main altar came into more widespread use toward the end of the middle ages. Better metalworking and lock making techniques, coupled with the expulsion of the Moslems from Europe and the conversion of the Barbarians made it possible. It became the canonical method of reserving the Sacred Host just after the Council of Trent.
Thus, we see that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved by Catholics from the earliest days. Considerations of safety governed the method of reservation, but a desire to have it in the church, in public view, at least part of the time is obvious. By the eleventh century the concept of worshipping our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass became so widespread as to require some method of visible reservation in virtually all Catholic churches.
In cathedrals there is usually a prominent altar of reservation apart from the altar used to sing the Office and Pontifical Mass. This stems from the idea that the some of the rubrics for pontifical ceremonies (eg: wearing the mitre, or sitting on the faldstool) might appear to show a lack of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Monasteries often have a similar arrangement.
The modernists' push to hide the Blessed Sacrament in the churches they control simply parallels the attempt to alter the Mass in such a way as to deny the Real Presence of Christ and the sacrificial nature of the Mass. It stands to reason that those who hold the presence of the "People of God" as the "real presence" would not want to be reminded or "confused" by the True Presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
The documents of Vatican II say nothing about the location of the tabernacle. The 1983 Code of Canon Law says simply that it "should be in a distinguished place in the church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer (n.c. 938.2)." If the main altar of the church is not a location "conducive to prayer," it is only because disregard of the Real Presence has turned too many churches into social halls. The remedy for such a condition is to have people renew their acquaintances and conduct their conversations elsewhere, returning the church to the worship of God. Hiding our Lord is not the solution.
It is hard to imagine how the presence of the Blessed Sacrament on the main altar would "confuse" people. Jesus is truly present in the tabernacle. Why would it confuse anyone that His Body, broken for us, and His Blood, poured out for us in sacrifice, is reserved at the place where that sacrifice is renewed? Why should it confuse anyone that Jesus, present in the tabernacle, also chooses to make Himself present on the altar as His priest renews the Sacrifice of the Cross before Him? The tabernacle contains Christ, the bread and wine become Christ, the altar represents Christ, and the priest is another Christ -- wouldn't it be more confusing to separate all of these than to group them together?