Q. What is the difference between a cathedral and a basilica?
A. The word cathedra means “seat,” and refers to the seat of authority of a bishop, or of the pope. For example, when the pope teaches authoritatively, he speaks ex cathedra, meaning “from the seat.” This term signifies that the pope is undertaking an infallible act of his teaching authority, and invoking the authority of his office, which began with Christ’s selection of St. Peter as the Vicar of Christ.
The term ex cathedra, and the idea that an office’s “official” seat is connected to its authority, is rooted in ancient Rome, where officials of the Roman empire would be seated in court in order to render judgments. As the Church made inroads into the Roman Empire, this secular term also began to signify the authority of a bishop, and of the pope. The cathedral is the Church where the bishop’s official “seat” of authority is located. In the Cathedral of the Risen Christ, the cathedra is the large seat beyond the altar, above which hangs the bishop’s crest of office.
A basilica is a Church that has been designated by the Holy Father to have particular historical, artistic, or devotional significance in the life of the Church. The term basilica also comes from the Roman Empire—in Rome, a basilica was a building important to the public life of the community. In the year 313, the Basilica of St. John Lateran was given to the Church by the empire Constantine, and it became the center of the Church’s life in Rome— in fact, it was, and remains, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, where the Bishop of Rome—the pope—exercises his official authority. As time went on, the Holy Father began designating certain Churches— cathedrals, monastery churches, shrines, and even ordinary parishes as basilicas. Basilicas are still designated today, around the world.
Some basilicas are cathedrals, but not all of them. Similarly, some cathedrals are basilicas, but not most of them. In the United States, there are 82 basilicas— less than half of them are cathedrals. Among the basilicas located near the Diocese of Lincoln are the Basilica of St. Fidelis in Victoria, Kansas, the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver.
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