Get me to the nave on time!



By Father James Lentini


My favorite game show of all time was the long-running “Pyramid.” When I was a kid the show started out as the “$10,000 Pyramid” in the early 1970s, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s it had become the “$100,000 Pyramid.” Ah, the ravages of inflation.

As a kid growing up in New York City, I had the benefit of being able to see many episodes of the “Pyramid” filmed live at the ABC Theatre on 58th Street. It was a great experience; you got to see the behind the scenes preparations, watch an exciting big money game and meet celebrities.

Now, all the excitement on the Pyramid came in its end game when a victorious celebrity and contestant would enter “The Winner’s Circle” and face the big pyramid. On that big pyramid “categories” would appear successively, and with a 60-second clock tick-tick-ticking away, one player would have to give a list of things that fit into that category to have the other person guess the category. If you got all six categories in 60-seconds you won the big money.

Categories were items like “Names of state capitals,” “Things that bounce,” “Parts of a car,” “Things you reconsider,” etc. It was much harder than it sounds. Well, in honor of my favorite game show, I will spend this column listing “Parts of a church.” Now, as to whether a contestant would have won the prize with words like “narthex,” “nave,” “sacristy,” “ambry,” and “clerestory,” we will never know. But just in case you wind up in “The Winner’s Circle” and these clues are given … I want you to have a chance at the $100,000 (you can split the money with me. I mean, with my parish).


Sanctuary: Holy, holy, holy

The sanctuary is the area of the church reserved, most commonly, for the priest, deacons and altar servers. It is an area in the front of the church, usually elevated by three-steps, in which the altar of sacrifice resides (and that altar is often also elevated by three additional steps, especially in older churches). The term sanctuary, meaning holy place, finds its origin in ancient Judaism when in the Temple in Jerusalem there was an area called “the Holy of Holies” into which only the high priest could set foot to offer sacrifice. Often the term “altar” and “sanctuary” are used interchangeably, though incorrectly so. I can

The interior of a church. (Thinkstock/photo illustration by Virginia O'Shea)
The interior of a church. (Thinkstock/photo illustration by Virginia O’Shea)

remember a mother telling me that her son, an altar server, was going to be “serving on the altar” on Sunday. Now that would be a sight. The sanctuary is properly home to an altar, a tabernacle, a sedilia (three chairs set up for the priest and his deacons), and an ambo (the stand from where Scripture is read, a.k.a. lectern or pulpit).

Nave: A ship-meant

The nave is the area of the church where the faithful sit. It is the main body of the church. It comes from the Latin word navis, meaning ship. It is the same source from which we get the word navy. In this sense, one might say that the church is the ship that gets us through the wave-riddled waters of life. Likewise, the church carries a term from antiquity that it is the ark of salvation. Thus in the nave of the church are the passengers of that ship. Now in “Love Boat” terms that would make me as the priest at Mass, Captain Stubing, and the folks at church the all-star cast (though I haven’t seen Charo and Jimmy Walker at Mass lately).


Narthex: Prometheus,

fennel and fire

One of the words that has erupted into common churchy usage over the years is the term “gathering space.” This is the bland-like-polenta term used by ecclesial milquetoast types to describe the area outside the doors of the body of the church. The term for that area should not be called the “gathering space” or the lobby. Why? Because it already has a name with some antiquity to it: It’s called the narthex. The word narthex finds it origin tied to a Greek word meaning “fennel stalks,” the stalks of fennel plants. What’s the connection here? Putting on our Greek mythology thinking caps, we learn that fennel stalks are what Prometheus used to carry fire from heaven to earth. So, too, the narthex leads us from this world into the church where the heavenly liturgy is celebrated. Similarly, it then provides us passage to carry that fire of the Spirit and light of Christ back out to the world. Narthex speaks to the connection of heaven and earth, a gathering space speaks to a holding pen. I’ll stick with narthex.


Clerestory: A pane to clean

This is something seen, usually but not exclusively, in older church buildings. The clerestory is the upper part of a church wall, which is replete with small windows in it above the roof over the side-aisles of a church. These way-up-high windows allowed for light and air to come into the church. The word derives from the French cler meaning clear or lighted and the word story, which refers to a level in a building. Thus, clerestory is a level of a building (a church) in which the light enters.


The Sacristy: Vest in peace

The sacristy is the part of the church in which sacred vessels and sacred vestments are kept. It is also, commonly, where the sacred ministers prepare for Mass. The church commends that silence be observed in the sacristy before Mass, so that the priest can properly prepare himself for the liturgical celebration. Some sacristies have a vesting room (sometimes dubbed “a vestry”) attached, in which the clergy get vested and in which vestments are housed.


Ambry: Oil be seeing you

OK, ambry is a fancy name for a simple thing. An ambry is a cabinet or shelving space that holds the sacred oils used in the ministration of sacraments. It is usually in proximity to the baptismal font in a church. There are three oils kept there in metal or glass containers. The containers usually are inscribed with the letters “OS,” “OI,” and “SC.” These letters describe what the oil in the containers are: OC is “oleum sanctum,” which is the oil of catechumens used in the sacrament of infant baptism and anointing adults converts in preparation for their baptism; OI is “oleum infirmorum,” which is the oil of the sick used in the sacrament of anointing of the sick; and SC is “sanctum chrisma,” which is the Sacred Chrism, confected by the bishop, and used in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and holy orders. So, if you are the squeaky wheel, the priest knows to go to the ambry to get just what you need.



Sinners anonymous

The confessional is an iconic part of a church that is seen in two different forms. Traditionally, one might see a confessional in the form of a pair of booths in a church with a larger booth between them for the priest to sit in. A penitent kneels down on one side, behind a screen, the priest slides open a wooden panel so the person can speak to him anonymously through the screen, confess his sins and then receives absolution from the priest. The priest then slides the panel closed and opens the panels on the opposite side for the other penitent who has been waiting. In recent times reconciliation rooms, which are still properly called “confessionals,” have come into vogue. In this form, the church instructs that there is to be a fixed grill separating the penitent from the priest (for anonymity) and place for the penitent to kneel. Also, in these reconciliation-room confessionals, there is, commonly, an option for face-to-face confession to be heard. Regardless of which form is used, the seal of confession binds the priest.


And the rest…

And yes, there are many, many, many other parts of a church, but this is starting point — and if you are ever on a game show and have to name “Things in a church,” this article might just provide the key to a big win for you … but that just may be a “$100,000 Pyramid” scheme.

Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.