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Sonja LivingstonMay 19, 2022
The tabernacle at Corpus Christi church in Rochester, N.Y.The tabernacle at Corpus Christi church in Rochester, N.Y. (Credit: Gregory Gerard Allison)

Editor’s Note: This month marks the beginning of a nearly three-year-long eucharistic revival called for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, starting with the feast of Corpus Christi on June 16 and culminating with a eucharistic congress in Indianapolis in 2024. The goal of this grassroots campaign is to spark “a movement of Catholics across the United States, healed, converted, formed, and unified by an encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist.” In the spirit of this revival, America will feature regular essays and reflections on the Eucharist for our readers. For more on the revival, visit eucharisticrevival.org.

When Father Daniel announced that the tabernacle at Corpus Christi Church had been stolen, my eyes flew to the back altar. I was tuned into Mass on livestream, so my view of the sanctuary was obscured. I squinted and leaned in. Rather than recount the details now, Father Daniel explained, he would include an account of the theft in the bulletin. But I was watching from a distance, with no bulletin or fellow parishioners with whom to compare notes after Mass. I closed my laptop, feeling gutted and alone.

From the Latin tabernaculum, meaning tent, a tabernacle is a dwelling place. It is the term given to the sanctuary of the Ark of the Covenant carried by the Israelites during the exodus and a word often used in the naming of Mormon and evangelical Protestant churches. But for Catholics, the tabernacle is the ornamental vessel where the Blessed Sacrament is kept outside of Mass. This last point matters most because when we show reverence toward the tabernacle, we do not honor the gilded receptacle but its contents, that is, the consecrated host.

What we claim to believe—or not believe—is often at odds with how we behave.

I have bowed and genuflected toward the tabernacle at Corpus Christi my whole life. Located in the northeast quadrant of Rochester, N.Y., the parish served European immigrants and the city’s growing upper crust in its heyday. But by the time I attended in the 1970s and ’80s, the city was decimated by suburbanization and white flight, and the parish became home to some of the poorest families in the state, mine included. Today, nearly half of Rochester’s children still live in poverty; in national rankings of cities with more than 100,000 people, only neighboring Syracuse has a higher rate.

My family’s neighborhood was inhabited largely by Puerto Rican, Black and poor white families without the option of flight. Single mothers like mine could often be spotted leading their children on the walk down East Main Street to church. Mass was the sweet spot in our week and church one of the rare places with tenderness on open display. The same neighbors and families who struggled or fought during the week were softened by the Sign of Peace and the Agnus Dei. No face ever looked so open as those in the Communion line. Tired mothers, rebellious teens and people so old they could barely unfold their bodies from their kneelers rose and approached the altar with such reverence they appeared to be in love. The parish continued to change over the years, somehow managing to survive the various mergers, consolidations and upheavals.

Now that Corpus Christi’s tabernacle had been stolen, it seemed to me that, along with it, the reverence for the community and the neighborhood had been ripped away. I was so dispirited, I began to skip Mass by livestream and in person. I was surprised by how much I cared. Without its tabernacle, the church seemed no more than a collection of stained glass and old bricks. Without its tabernacle, what exactly was the point?

Tabernacles are rarely stolen, but such thefts do occur. In the past few years, tabernacles have been lifted from churches in Denver, Tacoma, Houston and Boone, N.C. In 2019, a fisherman from Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, found a tabernacle at the bottom of Lake Nipissing, 17 years after it was stolen from the Église de Sainte-Thérèse-d’Avila in nearby Cache Bay. Affected communities range widely in terms of geography and constituency (from African American to Latinx to Southern Anglo and French Canadian), but the one consistency is the devastation reported by parishioners and clergy alike. Devastation may sound a tad dramatic, but I assure you the word is apt.

I assumed the worst—that the vessel had been pulled apart and sold as scrap metal, the ciborium had been melted down or hawked, the consecrated hosts were dumped somewhere, defiled and gone forever. It took weeks to work up the nerve to call the rectory for details. When I finally did, I discovered that the tabernacle had been recovered the same night it was stolen. Abandoned near an unused side exit, the metal door was broken but the gold vessels and Blessed Sacrament were undisturbed. The thief had simply left it and walked away. It turns out that the tabernacle whose loss I had been mourning for over a month had never left the church.

I was relieved but could not shake how upset I had been, so I met with the pastor. Father Daniel was preparing to celebrate the weekly Thursday evening Spanish Mass the night the tabernacle was stolen and described the feeling when the theft was discovered. The first woman to approach the tabernacle to pray upon arrival in church noticed its absence immediately. Parishioners cried and said rosaries. And though their prayers were answered and the vessel was found by police that same night, Father Daniel described the ordeal as the most bitter of his priesthood.

After discussing the details and comparing the range and extent of our reactions, our conversation arrived at the place where any extended conversation about a Catholic tabernacle must: the Eucharist and the real presence. You would think that someone so torn up over a missing tabernacle would have clear thoughts on both, but that was not the case. While I appreciate the beauty and reverence of holy Communion, I had never been able to make sense of transubstantiation. Even as a child, I did not fully grasp the focus on the consecrated hosts and the tabernacle, because what little I understood about God told me he was everywhere.

Corpus Christi is the name of my parish, but I have also come to understand it as the core of my faith.

When I brought up the Pew survey in 2019 that reported only a third of U.S. Catholics believe in the real presence, Father Daniel smiled and shook his head.

“Most of the time we don’t realize where our affections lie.”

“That’s true,” I said, thinking of how grumpy I can be to my husband before morning coffee and how quickly I had corrected that habit during a recent health scare. I love my husband but did not remember to treasure him until I thought he might be sick. On one level, this is the stuff of refrigerator magnets and Joni Mitchell songs, but Father Daniel was hinting at something larger and more important still.

We humans are complicated creatures. What we claim to believe—or not believe—is often at odds with how we behave. This makes some sense, especially when you consider that the greatest moments of our lives are often not sifted through the head. We do not think love; we feel it. We do not describe devotion so much as act it out. Partaking in the Eucharist is likewise not a cerebral event. In the Eastern Church, the consecrated hosts are called the Holy Mysteries. Trying to explain a holy mystery is like trying to catch a butterfly with a broken net.

I am not sure how I would have answered Pew’s question about transubstantiation back in February of 2019. It is possible I would have agreed with seven in 10 Catholics that the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus Christ rather than the actual body and blood. It took the theft of our tabernacle for me to comprehend the sanctity of its contents and, even then, my comprehension was not full understanding but rather a feeling. If you want to gauge a Catholic’s relationship to the real presence more accurately, ask them to imagine their tabernacle carted away in the night. Have them close their eyes and picture their sanctuary without its beating heart. The profound sense of loss I suspect most would feel unites us beyond the particulars of geography, race or politics and connects us in the place beyond words.

Corpus Christi is the name of my parish, but I have also come to understand it as the core of my faith. God offering himself again and again in the most ordinary of elements is the foundation from which all else springs. The body of Christ does not dwell exclusively in the tabernacle, but because he is real and present there, I better recognize him everywhere.

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