The terms of cathedral and basilica are often misunderstood and the building themselves often cannot be told apart. Nevertheless, these majestic church buildings are not your average church, but what is the difference between them?
A cathedral is a church that is the main hub of a diocese, and it is the place that normally the bishop lives and operates from. It actually gets its name from the Lain word for chair, cathedra, as it is the seat of the bishop’s power and which he sits on when celebrating the mass.
To add to the confusion some cathedrals are also called basilicas, this is because there is only one cathedral in each diocese, but you can have as many basilicas as you want. In modern times the church has allowed a second cathedral in large dioceses, but this is generally termed as a co-cathedral.
Having said all this, in the Diocese of Rome, the Pope’s cathedral is not actually Saint Peter’s Basilica. Saint Peter’s is in Vatican City and therefore Saint John Lateran Cathedral is the main church for the Diocese of Rome. And actually, the early popes lived in the Lateran Palace.
In past history the term basilica simply referred to a large rectangular building, which was quite common in ancient Rome. These buildings commonly had a large semicircular apse at its top, which the ruler, judge or emperor would traditionally sit.
Basileos means King in Greek, so a basilica is a place where a sovereign would reside and command from. As time went by, Christians started to adapt these sorts of buildings to celebrate mass. By doing this they were using the traditional function of the building to represent Christ as a leader and a judge.
As time went by, these buildings became the template for many Roman Catholic churches around the world. And if you look at some of the oldest churches that are still standing today you will find they are designed and built in this form.
The Pope’s Intervention
Later popes decided to make certain churches have more privileges and granted them the honor of being known as a basilica. There are two groups of basilicas, major basilicas and minor basilicas. The major group includes great historical churches in Rome such as Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major and of course Saint Peter’s.
The second group are all the other basilicas that are outside Rome and can be found in nearly every country around the world. Churches are put forward by their local bishops to Rome, to be named a minor basilica. For Rome to agree the status the church must have an extraordinary history and also to have a rich beauty to its architectural design and build.
Once a church is named a basilica it then is granted certain privileges by the incumbent pope, and it is elevated to a position of authority within the diocese. Whether your local church is either a basilica or a cathedral it is bound to be a most remarkable building that the whole community can go to for both religious and secular purposes.