Today’s post is based on a discussion with Jun Li, a lecturer at Jiangnan University in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China, about 100 miles from Shanghai. He wanted to know what makes a church a basilica and how it differs from a cathedral.
Anyone who is familiar with Christian architecture in the west knows of the important basilicas, both ancient and modern. We have previously written of what the basilica in its ancient form was and how it became the basis of the Christian church in the west. The Roman basilica was taken as a model for early Christian churches in Rome. At the time it was used for different public purposes (as a market but also as a tribunal, with the judge seated on a raised platform in the rounded apse), but was admirably suited for Christian worship because the structure was compatible for public worship of large numbers of people at a service and because there were many available for use. Over time, the basilica became the fundamental form of western Christian churches.
But what exactly is a basilica in terms of the church? Why is a particular church designated a basilica?
A basilica is a large and important church that has been given special ceremonial rights by the Pope. The major basilicas are found in Rome; the Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano is the most important, followed by the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura, and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. These are the most important churches in the Catholic world, including cathedrals, which are the seats of bishops. Each of these major basilicas is tied closely to the papacy and each contains a throne for the Pope.
While the “major” basilicas in Rome are the most significant to the Church, the “minor” basilicas have been acknowledged for their importance. They have always been designated as basilicas by the Pope. In the last two centuries, the Pope has made these appointments based on recommendations from the Sacræ Cardinalium Congregationes, the Roman Congregation that collaborates with the pontiff in the administration of the affairs of the Church. The description of a worthy church is “The petition must show that the church in question is ancient, at least in a relative sense. Or if it has not the dignity of age, it must at least be truly “basilican,” that is, “regal” in character. It must, of course, be a permanent church, and solemnly consecrated; and it must be large, spacious, and rich in its appointments. From a devotional standpoint, it must be in some way or other a notable religious center. If it is a shrine by reason of its possession of the body of a saint, so much the better. If it is not distinguished for its relics, it should at least be distinguished for its paintings, images, etc. ”
There are many minor basilicas, which in the past were usually important pilgrimage churches like Sainte Madeleine de Vézelay, Sainte Foy de Conques, or Saint Sernin de Toulouse. In current practice, designating a church as a basilica is primarily ceremonious, paying tribute to a building distinguished by its “sacred magnificence.” For us at Via Lucis, these churches are a reminder of the great pilgrimage of Santiago Compostela and the resurgence of Europe in the Middle Ages.