Blessed Sacrament Front and Center: God’s Living Presence Clear in Madison Churches

Bishop Robert Morlino discusses diocesan deadline for suitable tabernacle placement.

(photo: Twitter)

It became common in the years following the Second Vatican Council to move tabernacles from the high altars of church sanctuaries. This was perceived by many as a way to transform a building from being the house of God to being the house of the people — something needed to make Catholicism relevant to the modern world.

However, Bishop Robert Morlino sees the situation differently. The 69-year-old Scranton, Pa., native has taught that a church is not the people’s house, but God’s house (domus Dei). Once that is established, Bishop Morlino believes, reverence becomes the paramount behavioral principle of the faithful.

This belief was the motivation for Bishop Morlino’s decision to move the tabernacle back to the most prominent position of St. Helena Cathedral in Helena, Mont., during his short time there as bishop. Once he was installed as bishop of Madison, Wis., in 2003, the same appreciation for tabernacle placement — in accord with Canon 938 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law — started becoming clear to the priests of his diocese. Some parishes rearranged their sanctuaries accordingly, but others have not yet complied, so a deadline of October 2018 was set late last year.

Bishop Morlino recently spoke of this deadline, the Michigan Diocese of Marquette’s sacred music deadline and general liturgical concepts with the Register.


Why did you recently instruct priests of the diocese to move their tabernacles to the center of the high altar if they weren’t there already?

It comes as a surprise to many outside the diocese, but tabernacle placement is actually not a recent issue. I started talking to the priests of Madison about this topic when I came here 13 years ago. I said that, because a church building is in fact God’s house, the tabernacle should be centrally located in the sanctuary. Since then, a number of priests have followed suit, but there is still some work to be done, so now we have a specific deadline.

The basic understanding behind tabernacle placement or any other practice related to the church should always be that we are speaking of God’s house. If it were simply a matter of the church being our house, then we would have all kinds of latitude for what we put in it and where we put it. If it is our house, we can sing songs we find catchy, we can include artwork that depicts things other than salvation history, and we can even position Our Lord in the tabernacle off to the side.

However, because the church is, in fact, the house of God, his very presence in the Blessed Sacrament should be front and center. Once that is the case, everything else falls into its rightful place. If Our Lord is enthroned in the most prominent part of the church, it immediately becomes clear that only sacred music can be sung there, and only sacred artwork can be displayed there: It is a holy building set apart for worshipping the Lord in spirit and in truth.


What do you think of the objections that moving the tabernacle would displace the choir or prevent people from actively participating at Mass?

Those objections fail to realize the center of our faith: the Person of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is Our Lord and King, we should make that clear in the liturgy, not hide it. The way a church is set up demonstrates what we believe, so if the choir is behind [the altar] or in the sanctuary, the wrong message is being sent — namely, that our music is to be the focus of our worship. The second objection — about active participation — is ridiculous in the extreme. How could Our Lord be a distraction from worship? That’s like saying he’s distracting from himself.

Fortunately, we have had few real objections in Madison. The people have an inherent sense of what’s right, so when there’s proper preparation, they appreciate changes that truly bring us closer to God. There may be some initial misgivings, but those are later replaced by gratitude for liturgy done well. Goodness, truth and beauty have a way of bringing order and peace to souls.


Sacred music is a major means through which goodness, truth and beauty are conveyed. What do you think of Bishop John Doerfler’s recent directive on sacred music for the Diocese of Marquette, Mich.?

There’s probably an analogous relationship between sacred music in Marquette and tabernacle placement in Madison. In both cases, there has been a lot of media attention because of specific deadlines, but those deadlines were preceded by years of catechesis and encouragement.

When Archbishop [Alexander] Sample [of Portland, Ore.] was in Marquette, he taught the faithful about the importance of sacred music. This catechesis served as the foundation for Bishop Doerfler’s recent move. I think it was motivated by a desire to bring people closer to God through the art of music. This desire is understandably important, since the quality of music is very questionable in many churches today. The melodies are banal, and the lyrics are possibly heretical — hardly qualities that inspire reverence and awe of God’s majesty.

We’ve been encouraging the use of truly sacred music in the Diocese of Madison, too, but right now, we have no specific deadlines. We may do that one day, but for the moment, it’s good to point out that the Church gives Gregorian chant pride of place in liturgical services. This humble, reverent and prayerful type of song is gaining ground, due to the work of solid priests with musical expertise, such as Benedictine Right Rev. Abbot Marcel Rooney and Benedictine Father Samuel Weber.


Are there other liturgical and/or architectural concepts you have been addressing in your diocese?

Another example of something we have already addressed in Madison, but which many outside of the area may not be aware of, has to do with the distribution of holy Communion. It is a centuries-old practice that only the Host be distributed to the faithful. It is permissible to have the Precious Blood distributed on certain occasions and under certain conditions, but if you look at the documents of the Church, it is clear that these are exceptions, rather than the norm.

The remedy [for any liturgical question] is very simple: Follow the guidelines of the Church. One document that has not gotten much attention in the United States, but which has the potential to change things for the better, came from John Paul II in 1997. It is called “Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest.” It explains, among other things, how extraordinary ministers of holy Communion are not meant to be a regular part of Mass. They are only allowed to be used when actually necessary, and this necessity occurs far less frequently than many have imagined.


Clear distinctions between clergy and laity help to show the entirety of the Catholic faith better.

Everything we do in the liturgy is catechetical — it conveys a message. That message may be true or it may be false, but there is always a message. When laypeople distribute holy Communion at every Mass, the distinction between the ordained and the laity is blurred. This is a misleading message, but it is, nonetheless, what is conveyed.

If we don’t get the liturgy right, we don’t get anything right. The liturgy is primary in the life of a Catholic; it is an intimate encounter with the living God. It’s clear, then, that this needs to be done in truth, rather than according to our own whims. We need to have the humility to allow God to be God and to reveal himself to us as he truly is. Then he can really work in our souls for the betterment of mankind.


Is that the motivation for what you have done in Madison?

My major motivation is the sanctity of my people. I simply ask myself, “What can I do to help the souls entrusted to my care to become holy?” Then, with God’s help, I go about doing that. It’s not anything extraordinary. It’s just doing what I should be doing as a bishop. That might make headlines, but it really shouldn’t.


Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.