Fed from the Table

Although I am a presbyter, my full-time assignment is within academia.  I do help out in my home parish on most weekends and often substitute when others need to take a vacation. However, I have never been actually in charge of a parish.  Hence my liturgical opinions are sometimes discounted as being absolutely impractical and proof that I have never really be a pastor or parish priest.

A case in point is my opinion on the use of the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle during the celebration of the Eucharist. Church teaching is clear on this matter.  Priority must be given to administering Communion that has been consecrated at the liturgy in question and it is much better not to give Communion from an earlier liturgy that is stored in the Tabernacle.  The Tabernacle is to allow for easy access to the Blessed Sacrament for the dying, for the sick and to allow for prayer and adoration.

Number 85 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal tells us that “it is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass.” Here the GIRM is echoing number 55 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which says “that more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest’s communion, receive the Lord’s body from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended.”

This is not some new teaching of the twentieth century. In fact, Pope Benedict XIV devoted an encyclical to this topic in 1742. The full text of Certiores Effecti with an introduction is available here.

Yet many of my presbyter friends think that I am crazy to affirm the importance of this primary symbol of eating Communion from the altar at the Eucharist.  They say it is impossible.  Now I can say from experience that it is possible. Last year, I was asked to organize a daily Eucharist for our students at St. Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth. The celebrations have taken place every class day for the last year. I have been very lucky to find many ordained colleagues who are willing to take turns presiding the Eucharist. There has been no difficulty organizing lectors and cantors. But I did not have much luck finding sacristans, with the result that I have served as sacristan myself and have concelebrated the daily Celebration. Admittedly we do not have a Sunday celebration. But our weekday Liturgies have an attendance of between 10 and 50 students.  In this year we have not had to make recourse to the Tabernacle once.  It is a relatively minor task to get the numbers more or less right.  I put out a dozen individual hosts into the ciborium before Mass and leave the container with other hosts on the credence table. During the Liturgy of the Word, I do an approximate head count and add the hosts I need during the Preparation of the Gifts.  I usually aim for about 2 or 3 more than I have counted and then I consume anything that remains after the distribution of Communion

So now I can say to my colleagues that it is possible to follow the liturgical precepts without causing any excessive tension.  Maybe next year I will be able to change hosts to move away from the precut individual hosts and introduce the more significant broken bread into the liturgy.



Cover image:St Michael the Archangel, Findlay, OH – bread and wine available under a Creative Commons license  – Nheyob (talk | contribs)







30 responses to “Fed from the Table”

  1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    God bless you, Neil, and may your tribe increase! With few exceptions, the recourse to the tabernacle for communion for the faithful at Mass has been an unfortunate constant in US parish churches — despite the Council’s clear directive and the long history that lies behind this principle. There seems always to be some priest in the rotation who habitually over-consecrates, and the whole game becomes “how do we dispose of the ciborium-full?” Our whole policy is driven by this. The rest goes to the wall. We can do better. Thank you for demonstrating that it can be done.

  2. Lee Bacchi Avatar
    Lee Bacchi

    The practice of Communion from the tabernacle for the majority of the assembly and ministers drives me crazy! I agree with both Neil and Rita. We need some consecrated hosts in reserve in case a Sunday Mass cannot be celebrated, but the regular practice of many/most people receiving communion from the tabernacle on a regular basis is ridiculous. If we can’t devise a suitable method as Neil did, we are either 1) stupid; 2) lazy; or 3) both.

  3. Andrew Doohan Avatar
    Andrew Doohan

    I agree with Neil – it’s not that difficult to ‘get right’. Most places where I have the privilege to preside have fairly consistent numbers attending. This certainly eases the general approach. My current posting also means that there’s little likelihood of last-minute arrivals to ‘complicate’ the process.

    My next aim (I’ve only been in my present posting four months), like Neil, is to move completely aware from individual hosts…

  4. Todd Flowerday Avatar
    Todd Flowerday

    The practice is actually a relic of clericalism. In a few ways.

    – How many clergy receive the Eucharist from the tabernacle, either as a presider or concelebrant? It says a lot that the regulation on when and how priests and deacons receive is followed to the absolute letter. But lay people? Meh.

    – If clergy find it “impossible,” it is mainly because a number of them are lone rangers and don’t trust and entrust their sacristans with the full duty of preparing bread for the Eucharist.

    – It’s not hard.

    1. John Bouc Avatar
      John Bouc

      I tend to agree with the clericalism suggestion. Along the same lines, I take note with places (pre-covid) that refused to offer the Precious Blood to the assembly. It is absolutely required for the presider to receive it, but for the rest of the assembly… not so much.

      Now, if we can say “post” covid, I fear how many more places will find a way to never return the chalice to the assembly.

  5. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    Before Covid, there were significant numbers of parishes in England which placed containers of hosts, a bread bowl and a pair of tongs at each entrance to the church before Mass. As people arrived, if they wished to receive they would tranfer a host from the container to the bowl.

    At the time of the presentation of the gifts, the bowls would be processed to the santcuary (from several directions simultaneously if the church had a number of entrances). Those bearing the bowls would routinely add a few hosts before processing to cover those in the assembly (e.g. visitors who are not used to the practice) who had overlooked the bowls on their way in to the church.

    This worked well with congregations of as many as 300-400. Now that we know that Covid is not primarily transmitted by physical contact there is no reason why this practice cannot be reintroduced.

    Objections that it’s too complicated to organize are really not on the mark. Logistically it’s very simple, it avoids the necessity of the priest (as in Fr Neil’s case) having to do a rough headcount during Mass, and the added symbolism of the gifts coming from many quarters is rather powerful. People take responsibility for their own piece of bread which, after all, does symbolize them.

    Parishes that have never done this will find that it takes a month or two to bed in, and after that becomes second nature.

    1. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
      Chuck Middendorf

      I’ve seen this system work quite nicely a few times in monastic or university communities. It probably works best with a church with only one entrance– not that churches with a half-dozen entrances couldn’t make it work– just more work for sacristans.

      Sadly I’ve spent far too many hours discussing this at meetings, and *most* clergy just don’t understand. “What if there’s too many?” “What if there are too few?” All rather easy questions to answer. In response to “what if there are too few,” a minor compromise that we worked out at my church is that I agreed that the sacristan can get the ciborium from the tabernacle towards the very end of communion and put it on the altar, in case the priest runs out; but also so it’s there waiting for extra hosts. (Don’t get me started!!!)

    2. Todd Flowerday Avatar
      Todd Flowerday

      two amusing stories.

      I visited a parish once where it seemed unclear which direction the little altar breads were going. Maybe the regulars knew. I took a pass.

      In my first parish over thirty years ago, we strove for the principle. The pastor went along, but gave me one strike. It was easiest at the early Sunday Mass where my usual sacristan had it down to a science. The pastor approached me a few weeks into it, “Maria makes me so nervous. I’m distributing Communion and at the end I have between three and ten hosts. Tell her not to cut it so close.” I went to my friend and affirmed her accuracy and told her to keep it up.

  6. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
    Fr. Anthony Forte

    We should be clear on what the GIRM and SC actually and do not say. The GIRM says that the faithful receiving the hosts consecrated at the same Mass is “desirable”; SC says that it is “strongly commended.” Neither one says that it is “necessary” or “required.” Unfortunately, absolutizing the recommendations of both documents has been a fault of the post-conciliar reform. Also unfortunate is the confusion generated by labelling these recommendations as “teachings.” Instructions concerning the specifics of the liturgy are, by nature, merely questions of prudential judgment, not doctrine. We should avoid attempts to dogmatize these statement in order to strengthen one’s own opinions and preferences.

    Nor should we think that the recommendation that the faithful receive hosts consecrated at the same Mass requires that each and every individual do so. That a substantial number of the faithful do so would satisfy the recommendation. The insistence that each and every individual need receive such hosts betrays a view of the liturgy as primarily the work of the gathered faithful rather than the work of Christ; as primarily a communal meal rather than the one sacrifice of our Lord made present to us. Even those who receive Communion with hosts from the tabernacle are receiving from that one and same sacrifice.

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      Even those who receive Communion with hosts from the tabernacle are receiving from that one and same sacrifice.

      Yes, it’s the same sacrifice, “the same Jesus” that communicants are receiving, but there is one important difference.

      The bread and wine that are brought up at the presentation of the gifts symbolize us, all that we have and all that we are. When we receive these gifts back, transformed by Christ, in Communion, within the receiving of the whole Christ we are also receiving ourselves, transformed; and we are commissioned to go out and transform the world in our turn.

      When receiving from the tabernacle, this symbolism is lacking. We did not see these particular gifts presented. They may have been presented by us at a previous celebration, or by others. We do not know. We do not know if they actually symbolize us in the same way or not. We do not know if it is us transformed that we receive back, or others transformed. The hosts may well have been consecrated at someone else’s celebration, not this one. In this sense, Jesus becomes more “anonymous” when received from the tabernacle, more “pre-packaged”.

      All of this is why not receiving from the tabernacle is far more than a mere recommendation.

      1. Sean Connolly Avatar
        Sean Connolly

        So are the people who actually walk the gifts to the altar more particularly transformed than the others, since the symbolic relationship is more clear in their case?

        And if they can do that on behalf of those seated in church during Mass, what’s the problem with recognizing that you and I, as baptized Catholics, are represented symbolically in this way by the Gifts at every Mass, including those Masses at which the Hosts in the Tabernacle were consecrated?

      2. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        So are the people who actually walk the gifts to the altar more particularly transformed than the others, since the symbolic relationship is more clear in their case?

        That’s a very naive interpretation. The gift-bearers undertake their service on behalf of the entire celebrating community physically present.

        The symbolism I mentioned forms part of basic liturgical anthropology. It underpins SC 55 (“That more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the faithful, after the priest’s communion, receive the Lord’s body from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended”), Eucharisticum Mysterium 31-32 (“In order that, even through signs, the Communion may be seen more clearly to be participation in the sacrifice which is being celebrated, care should be taken to enable the faithful to communicate with hosts consecrated during that Mass”, and GIRM 85.

        The Bishops of England and Wales go so far as to state, in their 2005 document Celebrating the Eucharist: a Pastoral Introduction, para 206, 6th bullet point, “The faithful are not ordinarily to be given Communion from the tabernacle, an instruction which is routinely ignored in those territories.

  7. Devin Rice Avatar
    Devin Rice

    My (fairly large) byzantine catholic parish has someone count the number of parishioners in attendance and it is written on a piece of paper and shown to the main celebrant during the Cherubic Hymn (Presentation of the Gifts). Based on the number of attendance, the presider will decide how many pieces of bread to place into the chalice. I suppose something similar could occur even in a large mega parish where there are multiple ushers. An usher could be responsible for counting the number of congregant in a given section of pews during the homily.

  8. Peter Haydon Avatar
    Peter Haydon

    “The Tabernacle is to allow for easy access to the Blessed Sacrament for the dying, for the sick and to allow for prayer and adoration.”
    ” …the sacristan can get the ciborium from the tabernacle towards the very end of communion and put it on the altar, in case the priest runs out; but also so it’s there waiting for extra hosts.”
    All sensible but may I add an idea. Would it not be wise to clear out the content of the tabernacle and replace it with fresh hosts from time to time? I am not sure we would wish to keep hosts for as long as a year.

    1. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
      Chuck Middendorf

      I think most dutiful sacristans, myself included, have techniques to make sure no hosts are ever in the tabernacle more than a month at a time.

      For example, despite the entire point of this post, I usually have one weekday Mass per month where I do a complete turnover/refresh. Not ideal, but…

  9. Jonathan How Avatar
    Jonathan How

    I usually get between 6 and 20 for my weekday Masses. It’s easy enough for me to do a count and break the large host into the appropriate number of pieces.
    I am also encouraging communion for the sick to be taken directly to them from Mass, and from the same ciborium.

  10. Dave Riley Avatar
    Dave Riley

    I agree strongly with this post. Our words should always mean what they say, especially at Mass. For example :” …it will become for us the bread of life, ” not for me only. Likewise ” It will become our spiritual drink”. Oh how I struggle with this in these days of covid.

    Thoughts of joy vanished at a funeral Mass. The pastor consecrated enough hosts for the size of the congregation but then at communion time put consecrated hosts from the tabernacle on top of what were consecrated at the Mass. My face must have expressed my horror.

    In my diocese I unfortunately can say that the vast majority of my fellow priests are tabernacle priests

  11. Chris Hayden Avatar
    Chris Hayden

    Hi all. A stimulating discussion!
    Could it be that something of a battle line is being drawn between an existential approach and an ontological one?
    As Catholics, we have an ontological, substantial understanding of the Eucharistic species. Ontologically, substantially, it is, (and, in the tabernacle, remains) the Body and Blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord.
    Existentially, we live not just by fundamental principles but by sign, gesture, time, timing, etc. I think we need to keep both the ontological and the existential in view.
    While doing what the Church asks of us – i.e. what we reasonably can to ensure ‘the more perfect form of participation,’ we might also bear in mind the possibility that too much zeal in this matter might convey the impression that the hosts in the tabernacle are in some manner ‘second rate,’ something less – however slightly less – than the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of the Saviour.

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      I don’t think anyone is disputing that Communion under any form is the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord. That is not the issue.

      The issue is first of all an anthropological one: how is Communion from the tabernacle perceived? Is it even perceived? The symbolism that I outlined in a recent thread is relevant here: we receive back what we present, so what happens if we don’t present it, or don’t know that we presented it?

      The second issue is theological: does a change in the symbolism produce a change in the fruits of Communion, similar to what happens when Communion from the cup is not available?

      So, to answer Peter’s question, it’s not about conveying the impression that Communion from the tabernacle is somehow second-rate. Rather, it’s about admitting that Communion from the tabernacle is different. And yes, that might mean that it’s a “less perfect form of participation”. [Though can one actually have “more perfect” and “less perfect”? Doesn’t the word itself not admit of any gradation? A thing is either perfect or imperfect?]

      1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        You are confusing two separate acts: the presentation of the gifts and receiving Communion from the hosts consecrated at the same Mass. The one does not require the other; one can have Communion from hosts consecrated at the same Mass without have the offerings brought up by the faithful, or an offertory procession while using hosts from the tabernacle. I am not opposed to either, but these two acts are separate nor should they be considered some sort of sine qua non of the liturgy. They are both laudatory, not required.

        You are also confusing the significance of the presentation of the gifts. In it the faithful are merely providing what is needed for the Eucharistic sacrifice; they are not symbolically presenting themselves to be changed by Christ. Indeed, the GIRM states that money and other gifts for the poor or for the Church are also acceptable. Thus it is possible to have a proper offertory procession that includes neither bread nor wine.

  12. Chris Hayden Avatar
    Chris Hayden

    PS. Regarding the move away from individual hosts, I can’t but recall a Christmas morning when I celebrated Mass in a small rural community in the U.S. I had driven a couple of hours to help, as the local priest was not available. In the sacristy after Mass, a minister of the Eucharist was blithely washing a bowlful of ‘crumbs’ down the sink. It was, in truth, a medium-sized bowl filled to the brim with small particles of the sacred host. This is a downside of the move away from individual hosts. Caveat lector.
    A blessed Advent to all!

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      He might have been washing a bowlful of crumbs down a sacrarium?

  13. jeff armbruster Avatar
    jeff armbruster

    Communion isn’t a lottery. Those who receive from the tabernacle do not go away less sanctified than those who receive ‘fresh’ from today’s ritual. Everyone agrees on this.

    The Eucharist symbolizes that which it also brings about. The symbolism is effective if its efficacy remains the same over time. And it does. The blessing over the gifts doesn’t go stale.

    1. Ronald A Franco Avatar
      Ronald A Franco


  14. Jeff Armbruser Avatar
    Jeff Armbruser

    What I like about Pray Tell is its open discussion. Sometimes my posts come off like definitive statements when my intention is to offer a possible perspective.

    Here’s Wikipedia, of all things, in an article about Midrash (which I greatly admire). It may have relevance to this topic.

    Midrash and rabbinic readings “discern value in texts, words, and letters, as potential revelatory spaces”, writes the Hebrew scholar Wilda Gafney. “They reimagine dominant narratival readings while crafting new ones to stand alongside—not replace—former readings. Midrash also asks questions of the text; sometimes it provides answers, sometimes it leaves the reader to answer the questions”.[4]

    In other words, this may be an open ended topic with no definitive conclusion. Because the reality is too rich and nuanced to pin down, perhaps.

  15. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    The issue as I see it is not the occasional need to go to the tabernacle when it has become clear that additional Hosts are needed to distribute to all those who present themselves for Holy Communion during this particular Mass. The issue is priests who make little or no effort to consecrate sufficient Hosts for those who offer each Mass. I know of parishes whose tabernacles have enough hosts in them to feed a large army of people. Because there are so many, they begin consecrating fewer and fewer at each Mass…..until it appears that they may run out so they consecrate way more than are actually needed. It is not rocket science to accomodate the practice commended by the Girm which reflects the teachings of Vatican II. But if the priest believes that having been ontologically changed through Holy Orders he can do pretty much anything he chooses, he will likely use the Girm only where it confirms his own ideas and biases. At 81 it is beginning to feel better and better to be on the crest of the wave. Come, Lord Jesus!

    1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar
      Allan J. McDonald

      Jack, you express basically how I feel—it would be nice to consecrate enough Hosts for those at a particular Mass and then only go to the tabernacle if one needs to do so. It is a kind of art to make sure the tabernacle isn’t packed with Hosts by consecrating too many for a particular Mass due to anxiety about running out. I do find, though, the discussion of “First Class and Second Class” Hosts a bit inane and like the discussion of how tired angels are who dance on the heads of needles. Most laity don’t care about these kinds of nuances. In fact, laity are quite content to receive “tabernacle” Hosts at the much shorter “Communion Services” many parishes have due to the absence of a priest to celebrate Mass. They make almost no distinction between this kind of “Mass” and an actual Mass and prefer it because of its brevity. Holy Communion is what they want regardless of when the consecration took place.

      1. Paul Fell Avatar
        Paul Fell

        To amplify what Father and Allan have said, I have extended family who attend fairly rural parishes. One parish is a mission without a resident priest, so this church literally has to scour the roster and the retirement residence each week to find a priest for Mass. If nobody is available, then the parish has to decide if a “Eucharistic Service” is possible, or if they have to cancel entirely. This is becoming increasing common in their geographical area, as priests are steadily diminishing in supply.

        In this situation, there is an added complication which is not totally unique to rural areas. Since the priest may vary from week to week and since not all priests share the same view on this (or liturgists, Q.E.D.), the sacristan / Mass coordinator / parish life coordinator often receives conflicting instructions (and sometimes unfair lambasting). A relative of mine was read the riot act by an angry priest who insisted that no more than 10 Consecrated Hosts be left in the Tabernacle between Sunday Masses. When a parish doesn’t know from week to week if a priest will be available for Mass, this is an unreasonable burden, as it makes any kind of service in the absence of a priest impossible. The flip side of this issue is an abundance of previously-consecrated Hosts which must be consumed at some point. In small parishes, it can take a while to consume a whole ciborium, assuming that more are not constantly added.

        Like many issues discussed here, the answer is not black or white, as not every parish will fit into a standardized format. Having grown up in a very small and rural parish, but having moved to a large parish in a different state, I have seen first-hand how procedures in one definitely would not work in the other. I think someone mentioned that the documents do not mandate a specific approach but a preferred procedure is provided. That approach seems prudent, given regional shortages of priests and other mitigating factors.

      2. Paul Inwood Avatar
        Paul Inwood

        And all this leads to a discussion (again) of whether “Eucharistic Services” [actually non-eucharistic, if you think about it] should be encouraged or discouraged.

        It seems clear that the Vatican is unhappy (cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum 164-166) about the trend to divorce Communion from the action of the Eucharist, that people are starting to have a “getting Communion” mindset, and that, as Allan reminds us, people appear not to see the difference between these services and an actual Mass.

        Paul says “If nobody is available, then the parish has to decide if a “Eucharistic Service” is possible, or if they have to cancel entirely.” The brief answer to that is not to cancel but to have a service of the Word or a celebration of the Divine Office.

  16. Ren Aguila Avatar
    Ren Aguila

    Having experienced how this is done in my tradition (Anglican/Episcopal), I agree with Fr. Neil that it is possible. For historical reasons, Anglicans have been reticent about reserving the sacrament, though at least in the American and Philippine churches, it is a widespread practice. However, we mostly follow a very important principle: one does not distribute communion from it except when it is brought to the sick or infirm outside of the Eucharist (or in other “special circumstances,” as the American Prayer Book calls it). Sadly, in a (thankfully small) number of parishes I’ve attended, it is more honored in the breach than in the observance thereof.

    For this reason, there must be someone in the church to check the numbers. Usually, these are the ushers or someone near the altar with a good view of the congregation. In my parish, we normally do a count during the homily, and then (in most cases), the appropriate number of hosts is taken out of a bread box by the priest and placed in the ciborium. Anything in excess is reverently consumed (unless it is one of those liturgies where the reserved Sacrament is refreshed).

    We do a head count for another reason: tracking Sunday attendance in our church is a pretty important task for the church’s number crunchers, and these numbers are in service registers that bishops traditionally examine during visitations.

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