By Michael Fassbender
In the Catholic Church, we have many places where Masses are celebrated, and it’s easy just to think of them all as churches. Then we hear a news report that mentions St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and we wonder what “basilica” means.
The Church defines a number of categories for houses of worship, and each place must meet strict criteria before being opened for official use.
The most familiar category is that of the parish church. A parish church needs to have a distinct body of worshippers to be served by the priest appointed to it, and it needs certain fixtures in addition to a main altar, such as a confessional and a baptismal font. In theory, a parish needs to be financially self-sufficient, but this was traditionally ensured through landholding, and in Protestant-majority countries like the United States, this has been difficult to establish with any uniformity. American parishes are still organized on a mission model instead of a true parish model, as seen in Europe.
A cathedral is simply the principal church of a bishop. While cathedrals tend to be larger than other churches in the diocese, this is not necessary. The term comes from “cathedra,” which means Seat in the same sense that a town is designated as the County Seat. The bishop governs the entire diocese, but the cathedral is the church where he serves for most of the year. A basilica is an historically significant church that has been granted special status.
The original basilicas were large, open buildings built before Christianity and used for a variety of civic purposes, including the hearing of legal cases. They were adapted to serve as churches when Rome became Christian, and the basilicas of Rome retained their prominence, even though it is only the Basilica of St. John Lateran that is also, technically, a cathedral. Minor basilicas have been built at other important sites.
Chapels are generally part of a larger building, containing a small altar for use in limited services. When a larger structure hosts a full-sized altar for regular Masses serving many people, but is not part of a parish, it is called an oratory. Shrines, which can be churches or other holy sites characterized by the pilgrims attracted to them, are not a separate category, but crypts are: they are built underground in connection with burial sites.