Q: Can you explain the liturgical relevance of "gathering space" at our church buildings? -- J.A., George, South Africa
A: I am supposing that by “gathering space” you refer to the narthex, vestibule or porch at the entrance of the church and separated from the body of the church by a wall, railing or screen. This space acts as a buffer zone separating the secular life from contact with God.
In some places in ancient times this space was sometimes called "paradysus" and was frequently decorated with images of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden or painted with evergreens symbolizing eternal happiness.
During history it was used for several purposes. One was for catechumens and penitents who were not allowed into the church proper and who had to leave before the prayers of the faithful. In this case the narthex usually consisted of a screen or low wall that still permitted hearing the Liturgy of the Word and the sermon.
It was also used as a gathering space for those in procession; as a place of judgment and other civil purposes; and later as a place of burial.
Over time, this space was continually reduced. The first to go was the outside portico which formed an ample barrier between the street and the sacred space. Around the year 1000 it was transformed into the great west porch found in early Gothic churches. Little by little the ancient vestibule was often reduced to a simple narrow space between the main doors and the church proper and used primarily as a windbreak and a notice board.
The restoration of a proper gathering space in some modern churches can be of great benefit, especially in cutting out more effectively the noise of urban traffic and promoting an ambience of spiritual recollection that can benefit all.
In modern churches it can also serve other practical purposes as illustrated by the U.S. bishops' document "Built of Living Stones":
"The Gathering Space or Narthex
"§95. The narthex is a place of welcome -- a threshold space between the congregation's space and the outside environment. In the early days of the Church, it was a 'waiting area' for catechumens and penitents. Today it serves as gathering space as well as the entrance and exit to the building. The gathering space helps believers to make the transition from everyday life to the celebration of the liturgy, and after the liturgy, it helps them return to daily life to live out the mystery that has been celebrated. In the gathering space, people come together to move in procession and to prepare for the celebration of the liturgy. It is in the gathering space that many important liturgical moments occur: men and women participate in the Rite of Becoming a Catechumen as they move towards later, full initiation into the Church; parents, godparents, and infants are greeted for the celebration of baptism; and Christians are greeted for the last time as their mortal remains are received into the church building for the celebration of the funeral rites.
"§96. In addition to its religious functions, the gathering space may provide access to the vesting sacristy, rooms for choir rehearsal, storage areas, restrooms, and rooms for ushers and their equipment. Adequate space for other gatherings will be an important consideration in planning the narthex and other adjoining areas."
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