Basilicas, Cathedrals, Shrines: What’s the Difference?

Q: I had relatives visiting over Easter, and we went to see the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They asked if this was a cathedral, and I said, “No.” But then we all wondered: what is the difference between a basilica, a cathedral and a shrine?

Basilica, cathedral and shrine are distinct terms, but not mutually exclusive. For instance, a basilica may be a shrine, and a cathedral may be a basilica. A good description of each one will be helpful.

The basilica structure was developed by the ancient Romans for their monumental public halls located on the fora, or public squares. Strictly speaking, the basilica is a parallelogram with the width of the building being neither greater than one-half nor less than one-third the length. At one end was the entrance with a portico, and at the other end was the apse. There was one main aisle flanked on either side by an aisle (or two, or even three) with columns separating the aisles. Since the ceiling of the main aisle was higher than that of the side aisles, a clerestory was added atop the columns to allow light to enter the basilica. Numerous examples of ancient basilicas exist, particularly in Italy.

When the Church was allowed to have “churches” after the legalization of Christianity, the basilica form was easily adapted. Actually, many of the old public basilicas or pagan temple basilicas were transformed into churches: The bishop’s cathedra, or throne, was located in the apse flanked by seats for the clergy. In front of the cathedra was the altar, with a canopy or baldacchino over it. Nearby the altar was the pulpit.

Because of the size of the basilica, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a side chapel or even in a suspended tabernacle near the altar. The congregation gathered in the main aisle, the nave. Church basilicas usually had a forecourt enclosed with a colonnade; the forecourt had a well where the faithful could wash their hands and lips before entering for Mass. Later modifications to the strict Roman style were made — such as the addition of transepts — during the Romanesque and Gothic periods.

Later the term “basilica” was used to identify churches of historic and spiritual importance. Usually, these churches are built in the basilica style, but the key criterion is that they are places of historic and spiritual importance. The Holy Father officially designates a church as a “basilica.” Therefore, when one speaks of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, the title “basilica” refers to the historic and spiritual importance of the church itself and the honor bestowed upon it by the pope.

Traditionally, a basilica has displayed a conopoeum or pavilion (something looking like a big umbrella) made with alternating silk panels of red and yellow, the colors of the papal government, and topped with a cross; this conopoeum was originally used to shelter the patriarch. Other traditional basilica items are the clochetta (a musical kind of device composed of a handle, a bell, and the insignia of the basilica, which is used in procession) and the cappa magna (a violet cape worn by the canons — basilica officials — during liturgical services).

Lastly, each basilica has a “holy door” which is opened only during a time of special pilgrimage as declared by the Holy Father. For example, the year 2000 was declared a “Holy Year,” and the holy door of St. Peter’s was opened (as well as the holy doors of all other basilicas). A special indulgence was also granted to pilgrims who visited the basilicas and fulfilled the other requirements.

Traditionally, a distinction is also made between a major basilica and a minor one. The four major basilicas are in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Many other basilicas in Rome remain great pilgrimage destinations.

A minor basilica is any other important church in Rome or throughout the world that has been officially designated a “basilica” by the Holy Father. An example of a minor basilica is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

A cathedral is the chief church of a diocese and in itself is also a parish church. The bishop is technically the pastor of the cathedral parish, and appoints a rector to manage its spiritual and temporal affairs. The word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra. The cathedra represents the position and authority of the bishop, and the place where he resides in the territory of his jurisdiction. The cathedra is located within the cathedral near the altar, oftentimes in the apse. The cathedral may be a basilica. For instance, the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is also a basilica.

A shrine is a church or other sacred place where a relic is preserved, like the Shrine of St. Jude in Baltimore; or where an apparition has taken place, like the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in Ireland or the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; or where a historical event of faith has taken place, like the Shrine of the Our Lady of the Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, where the early Jesuit missionaries were martyred. A shrine may also be a place designated to foster a belief or devotion; for example, the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was built to foster devotion to our Blessed Mother in the United States, particularly since she is the patroness of America under the title of the Immaculate Conception. Shrines are regulated by the local bishop, and national shrines are designated as such by the national conference of bishops.

To bring this all together, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland, (which has on display a conopoeum) is not only a basilica and a shrine, but also the co-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the first Catholic cathedral in the United States. So one church may be simultaneously a basilica, a cathedral and a shrine.

Editor’s Note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

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Fr. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

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