We start with the sanctuary, where the Altar and the ambo and other liturgical items are. I remember once when I overheard a CCD teacher telling her class that the word “sanctuary” means a safe place, for people used to “seek sanctuary,” a protected place, when they were on the run. I told her aside privately that her explanation was not quite right. The word comes from the Latin Sanctus and means “a holy place.” When fugitives would look for a place where they would be immune from arrest, they would enter the church sanctuary. Their pursuers would wait them out rather than desecrate a holy space. The point for us is that we want to see the sanctuary as a sacred space. When we enter it, we do so with reverence and always keep in mind what goes on there. With the Altar, where the Eucharist becomes a reality, and with the Tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, it truly is a sacred space.
Outside the Sanctuary is the nave, the place for the congregation. Nave comes from the same root as “navy.” A ship is a longstanding image for the Church, and some church buildings are designed so that the interior of the roof looks like the hull of a ship (albeit inverted). The image is that we are on a journey to heaven though the stormy seas of this world. Thus the Church protects us from drowning in our secular world. I hope that also gives us the sense of being part of the “crew.” As the sanctuary is not a “stage,” so the people in the nave are not just an audience. As we all worship together, so we all help one another across the seas of this world. For those who belong to the Church, it is “all hands on deck.”
Finally, we often refer to the space just inside the doors as the “vestibule.” In a church, it is actually called the “narthex.” We see it as a gathering space to mark the transition into our holy place. Originally, the narthex was a place walled off from the nave where those who were not yet fully initiated – the catechumens – could gather apart from the community. Likewise, we hope to see the narthex as a place where we can gather and exchange pleasantries, though always respecting the silence of anyone at prayer in the nave. We see it as a welcoming place so that our parish can always be a welcoming community.