Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am a retired missionary diocesan priest. In our residence we have a room turned into a chapel. There is a small tabernacle fixed on to the wall on a small, 3-by-2-feet slab plate. In the Lenten season, can we decorate the tabernacle with a flower vase? — S.K., Gunadala, Krishna, Andhra Pradesh, India
A: The Roman Missal does not go into great detail regarding flowers during Lent. To wit:
“305. Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar. During Advent, the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent, it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions. Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa.”
The circular letter Paschalis Sollemnitatis of the Congregation for Divine Worship regarding the celebration of Lent and Easter says the following:
“17. ‘In Lent, the altar should not be decorated with flowers, and musical instruments may be played only to give necessary support to the singing.’ This is in order that the penitential character of the season be preserved.
“25. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare, and in solemnities and feasts, musical instruments may be played and the altar decorated with flowers. Rose-colored vestments may be worn on this Sunday.
“26. The practice of covering the crosses and images in the church may be observed if the episcopal conference should so decide. The crosses are to be covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord’s passion on Good Friday. Images are to remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.”
Although it has no legal standing in India, the U.S. bishops’ conference document “Built of Living Stones” has some useful pointers:
“124. Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths, and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.
“129. The use of living flowers and plants, rather than artificial greens, serves as a reminder of the gift of life God has given to the human community. Planning for plants and flowers should include not only the procurement and placement but also the continuing care needed to sustain living things.”
Also useful are the indications of the liturgy office of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales:
“The use of fresh flowers is encouraged as a way of engaging in the beauty and dignity of celebration. Discerning use of flowers can indicate the relative importance of particular occasions, and signify the keeping of particular seasons.
“• During Advent the floral decoration of the church should be in keeping with the season, not anticipating the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.
“• During Lent, the church is not to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions to this rule. Flowers used on these days should be removed after Evening Prayer II.
“Artificial flowers and plants should not be used. Dried flowers, ferns, and sprays may be used, particularly in winter months.
“Care should be taken to use flowers to guide the eye to the various centers of liturgical action – for example, the entrance to the Church, the ambo, the altar, the presider’s chair; on other occasions the font, the place for reserving the sacred oils etc.
“Moderation should be observed when decorating altars. Floral decorations should always be modest and placed around the altar rather than on top of it.”
It is noteworthy that almost none of these documents mention decorating the tabernacle with flowers. This is perhaps because tabernacles by themselves are designed to center the attention of the faithful and so have a prominent place whether they are in a separate chapel or in the sanctuary.
Likewise, tabernacles require ease of access and so it would not be correct to place decorative elements that might impede this. However, even though the decoration of tabernacles is not mentioned, it is quite common during the year to have some flowers in Eucharistic chapels or in the vicinity of the tabernacle.
Since the prohibition of flowers before the altar during Lent is quite clear, I think that liturgical logic would extend this prohibition to all other places in the church building, including before the tabernacle.
A possible exception might be during solemn prolonged exposition of the Blessed Sacrament as this is done to honor Christ in a special and public way.