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Fr Flader: What is a basilica?

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what is a basilica - The catholic weekly
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass to ordain two new bishops in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The pope ordained his former master of liturgical ceremonies, Bishop Guido Marini, and Archbishop Andrés Gabriel Ferrada Moreira, the secretary of the Congregation for Clergy. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

I was in Rome during Holy Week and visited three major basilicas there, including St Peter’s. Can you please tell me what exactly a basilica is, and how it differs, for example, from a cathedral?

To begin with, in case you may be wondering, the difference between a basilica and a cathedral, or a parish church for that matter, has nothing to do with its architecture or its size. It has everything to do with its importance for historical or ecclesial reasons. The designation of a church as a basilica is a special honour bestowed on the church by the pope himself. Normally the basilica has a significance that extends beyond the local community. A cathedral, on the other hand, is the church designated by the diocesan bishop as his principal church, where he has his cathedra, his teaching chair, from which he presides over the liturgy.

The word basilica is a term that stems from ancient Rome, where it referred to a large public building used for administrative, judicial or commercial purposes. Early Christians adopted the term and applied it to their own important churches. Often, they would replicate the design of Roman basilicas, with a rectangular hall, divided into a central nave and flanking aisles. The term basilica actually derives from the Greek word basilikos, meaning royal. This in turn is derived from the word basileus, meaning king. Ancient Greek public buildings often had a Stoa basileios, a royal portico that some historians claim may have been the original prototype of later Roman basilicas.

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In the Catholic Church, there are two categories of basilicas: major and minor. There are only four major basilicas in the world, all located in Rome. Each one has very special historical significance. The most important is, of course, St Peter’s, beneath which lies an early Roman cemetery, where the bones of St Peter were found. St John the Lateran is the cathedral church of the pope as bishop of the diocese of Rome. St Paul Outside the Walls has the remains of St Paul, who was martyred nearby at about the same time as St Peter.

The fourth is St Mary Major, which was built in the fifth century, following the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, which proclaimed Our Lady the Mother of God. This basilica houses the venerated image of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani, depicting the Blessed Virgin as the health and protectress of the Roman people.

what is a basilica - The Catholic weekly
Interior picture of the Papal Archbasilica of St John In Lateran located in Rome, Italy.

These major basilicas are directly connected to the pope and have special ceremonial significance. They all have an exclusive altar where only the pope or another high-ranking ecclesiastic can celebrate Mass, the latter with the permission of the pope. The pope celebrates Mass in them on special occasions, and they all have a holy door which is opened during Jubilee Years. Visiting one of these major basilicas is always prescribed as one of the conditions for gaining the plenary indulgence in a Jubilee year.

The four Roman basilicas are sometimes called Patriarchal Basilicas, because they represent the great historical ecclesiastical provinces which are united in Rome, the heart of Christendom. St Peter’s is assigned to the Patriarch of Constantinople, St John the Lateran is the cathedral of the pope, as Patriarch of the West, St Paul Outside the Walls is assigned to the Patriarch of Alexandria and St Mary Major to the Patriarch of Antioch. The basilica of St Lawrence Outside the Walls is also considered a Patriarchal basilica, because it is specially assigned to the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Minor basilicas are scattered throughout the world, and it must be the pope himself who designates a church as a minor basilica. This is done because of the church’s historical significance, its architectural beauty, its role as a centre of pilgrimage or liturgy, etc. As of 2019 there were more than 1800 minor basilicas worldwide. These churches often serve as local shrines and destinations for prayer and pilgrimage, fostering a special connection between the local faithful and the wider church.

Minor basilicas in Australia are St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Our Lady of Victories Basilica in Camberwell, Victoria, St Mary of the Angels Basilica in Geelong, and St Patrick’s Basilica in Fremantle.

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