Tabernacles versus Tuppernacles

Utilitarianism has beset Eucharistic praxis for a long time



Several writers have already addressed the question of how the Eucharist was treated during the just-concluded World Youth Day in Lisbon. I want to focus on a particular attempt to justify the use of “Tuppernacles” and the way the Blessed Sacrament was mass-packaged in plastic containers (“Tuppernacles” is Peter Kwasniewski’s term [see here].)

Trying to downplay the controversy are Claire Domingues and Pedro Gabriel over at “Where Peter Is” [here]. And note: I already got into an extended tussle with the two over their attempts to whitewash Bishop Americo Aguiar’s remarks about World Youth Day not aiming at conversion, a stance papal apologist Austin Ivereigh still defends [here].

Domingues and Gabriel tell us that their anonymous sources informed them the ciboria containing the Eucharist were prepositioned on Saturday to distribute Communion during the WYD closing Mass. They were in plastic “crates” only to facilitate transport.

The prepositioned Sacred Species were not there for adoration, just logistics. “The crates containing the ciboriums were then placed inside tents dispersed throughout the campsite, to allow a more efficient distribution the next day. These containers were not meant for adoration, only for safeguarding overnight” (emphasis added). There was one official adoration site. Two volunteers per anonymous tent were deployed for security. They “were the only ones meant to know the contents of the boxes.”

So, that makes it OK? As long as nobody else knew the Eucharist was there, a “tuppernacle” could substitute for a tabernacle?

It gets better.

Part of the problem was that the prepositioned tents were not all uniform. Some were small and could be zipped closed; others were big and “could not be completely shut.”

Because of that visibility, “onlookers started to become curious” and asked what was in the boxes. When they found out they contained the Eucharist, “the pilgrims started to adore it.” Once the secret was out, the volunteers decided to remove some ciboria, light a candle, and accommodate those kneeling. That’s how “ad hoc Eucharistic adoration” began. In other words, we could have gotten away with keeping Jesus in the IKEA boxes if it wasn’t for some meddling kids!

(Hey, they’re kids! There was an open tent, it was Saturday night, and there were many boxes in there. As their contents were not of pontifical secret and something appeared prepositioned for the big day Sunday, can you blame them from wondering if they might find some Dunkin’ Donuts or crispy churros? It wasn’t their fault.)

Other sources told reporters that the tents were not announced adoration sites and that, while perhaps some ciboria might be exposed for adoration, the “instructions were for every tent to have the boxes stored underneath the table” hidden by a tablecloth “custom-made for this vigil.” So, a priest argued for putting the Eucharist under a table?

This treatment of the Eucharist should not surprise us, given the utilitarianism that has beset Eucharistic praxis for a long time. I argued in 1982 that the indiscriminate use of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, without real Vatican or diocesan pushback, fostered a utilitarian mentality: the symbol of the alter Christus feeding his people was subordinated to “let’s move this crowd to clear the way for the next Mass.”

If functionality is the primary driver, then sure, have unmarked tents for logistical purposes and Christ mass-packaged in Tupperware until needed.

It seems not to occur to those with this mindset that the reverence due the Eucharist does not depend on your purpose but His Real Presence. And, because the latter remains regardless of the former, your unmarked tents don’t justify your practice.

Those youth that spontaneously recognized the need to be “down in adoration falling” had a greater Catholic sense than the institutional Catholic organizers and their apologists who apparently thought mostly of logistics. Those young people came to Portugal because they wanted to be with their Lord. They suddenly found Him right in their midst (John 20:19) and were drawn to Him. They recognized those tents as containing a Who, not a what. What should their reactions have been? “Nope, that’s for tomorrow”?

Those youth also instinctively felt, unlike the organizers, that sacrality is not a transitory and intentional phenomenon. (The Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana observed a similar phenomenon last year, when an Italian cathedral turned itself into a venue for a Caritas luncheon, as if the city lacked other eateries. As LNBQ put it: “the scent of pasta al carbonara Saturday morning, frankincense Sunday.”)

I don’t deny a major event like WYD requires logistics. But the Eucharist is not a Mass booklet, with extra supply boxes at points A, B, and C. The Eucharist always belongs in a tabernacle which is always a site for adoration because of whom the Eucharist is. Adoration in the Presence of the Eucharistic Lord cannot be turned on or off like a light, depending on how tightly one’s tent zips.

Francis sent a letter from Lisbon to the priests of Rome [here], with his usual set of laments. This one included a warning that priests not be “’traders of the spirit’” (mestieranti dello spirito). Neither should they just be transportation for the Son.

If you don’t think all this is bizarre, consider an op-ed from the August 17 New York Times. Under the title “We Turned an Abandoned Church into a Skatepark. Then, It Burned,” Rachel Chapman laments the burned “place of worship”: “For years the place had been our sanctuary, and now it was ash.” Chapman’s “sanctuary” had been St. Liborius, from 1889-1992 a German national parish of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The Archdiocese apparently gave it up (the article speaks of it as “abandoned”), only for a local community group to make it into an indoor skateboard and roller skating park. You can see from the Times’ picture that skating platforms abut stained glass in the neo-Gothic structure, “a nationally registered historical site and the largest Gothic revival church west of the Mississippi.” The author writes that, in order not to “cover up” religious artwork left on the walls, “100-plus-year-old lunettes floated above graffiti tags like STL Punk.

Chapman seems sincerely to believe that her group’s “goal had been to save the church,” only to lose it to fire. She—like perhaps the local diocese—seems to confuse saving a “church” with saving a “structure.” Sk8 Liborius was not a “church,” though it was housed in what looks like a church.

And that’s a problem.

The very form of “the largest neo-Gothic revival” structure beyond the Mississippi is going to scream church no matter how many canonists and clerics “deconsecrate” it, just as reserving the Blessed Sacrament in plastic inventory bins is no less offensive because they are not on “adoring” view. Many people still recognize boundaries between the sacred and profane, even if a growing number (especially in the Church) seemingly don’t. That those Church-types contribute to those blurred lines should make even more people stop and think.

It pains me to write this essay, which occasionally satirizes the excuses for what happened. That these excuses can even be made with a straight face is a telling commentary on just how radical a “Eucharistic revival” is needed globally.

To the best of my knowledge, the Ark of the Covenant was never swapped for a wicker basket from Sam the Discount Caravan Man for ease of transporting its contents across Sinai. Those contents, says the New Testament (Heb 9:4), included manna. And, as we’re reminded, here we have One greater than Moses (Heb 3:3), even of Abraham (Jn 8:53-58), “bread from heaven” (Jn 6:49-51).


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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