I just visited a city that has two main churches. Both are quite beautiful. One is known as the basilica while the other is referred to as the cathedral. Can you tell me what the difference is between a basilica and a cathedral?
Working in an area that has both a basilica and a cathedral and, more poignantly, working in a church that is both a basilica and a cathedral, I have answered this question numerous times.
Simply put, a cathedral is the bishop’s church while a basilica is the pope’s church.
When you visited the cathedral, you undoubtedly saw an oversized chair in a prominent place in the sanctuary. It may have been elevated and perhaps it was augmented with a canopy. This chair is sometimes referred to as the episcopal throne. Borrowed from Roman imperial custom, the chair is the ancient symbol of the teaching office and the authority of the bishop. No one but the bishop is to use this chair. The Latin word for this chair is cathedra. It is from this Latin word that the name cathedral is derived. A cathedral thus is a church with a cathedra and is the church of the bishop.
The word basilica is a Latin adaptation of the Greek, meaning “hall of the king.” In origin this characteristic building was a large but simple rectangular structure with a half-circle apse on one end. The Romans readily adopted both the shape and the name from the Greeks because it worked well for their public and religious needs. When Christianity gained official status in the Roman Empire and the number of Christians quickly grew, larger buildings were needed. Bishops adopted the known and tried basilica style buildings as the architectural style for their churches. They even retained the name “basilica” because Christ is the King of all kings. A basilica thus became the hall of the King of kings.
The four major or papal basilicas in Rome (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls) were constructed during Roman times. They rank among the most important churches in all of Christendom not only because of their venerable age but also because several of them house very important relics.
Today’s use of the title “basilica” or, more specifically, “minor basilica” is no longer connected to an architectural style but rather is used as an honorific designation bestowed by the pope. The reason for such designation may be the fact that a church was constructed in an exquisite architectural style, is a popular place of pilgrimage, is of historic importance, has liturgical excellence, or some other reason. By bestowing the title of minor basilica on a church, the Holy Father, in a certain sense, attaches this church to his own household. A basilica therefore is the pope’s church in a given area.
In addition to a coat of arms, the insignia of a basilica are the tintinnabulum or silver bell and the ombrellino or half-opened pavilion. Both are said to have been used when the pope traveled through Rome to visit a church. The bell was carried at the beginning of the procession to announce to the people that a papal procession was about to pass by. At the receiving church the youngest cleric was charged with watching for the arriving procession. He is said to have held an umbrella in half-open position so he was at the ready. As soon as he saw the pope he was to run to him while completely opening the umbrella to protect the pope from sun or rain. The ombrellino is now half open as a sign that a basilica is waiting for the visit of the pope.
Today there are seventy-four minor basilicas in the United States. The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis was the first church in the United States to be granted this title when on February 2, 1926, Pope Pius XI made it so.
© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.
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