“Basilica has two meanings: one, an architectural term, means a large roofed building used for business and legal matters. The second, religious meaning, is a large and important church that has been given special ceremonial rites by the Pope.”
I’m Catholic, but I haven’t been Catholic my whole life. I went through RCIA training while I was in college back in Great Lakes State, and I was baptized and confirmed at Easter in 2007. A lot of people may be curious as to why I’d choose to be confirmed in a religion that has come under fire as of lately, and I can’t really give a good answer. My mom’s family is Catholic; as a matter of fact, one of my grandpa’s brothers is a priest in Florida. I made the decision to become Catholic a long time before I met my SO (whose entire family is Catholic). I remember when Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1999 and I asked my dad why I was never baptized. I started going to youth group with a friend in high school and went to a nondenominational church when I was in college. But for some reason, I felt like I was in the wrong place, that even though I enjoyed what I was learning at church, I just didn’t feel right. I suppose it’s only natural for someone who was raised without religion to try out different churches to find their best fit, but I guess it’s pretty unusual to find that place in the Catholic Church.
My RCIA experience was kind of strange. A sorority friend of mine was my sponsor and went to my meetings with me, and that was really helpful. But I felt like I wasn’t really learning about the ins and outs of the church. The deacon who led the group said that people who go through RCIA tend to have a “more adult” view of the Church which I guess is true, but I still feel awkward that I don’t know the Nicene Creed by heart and I have to rely on the SO sometimes to explain certain rituals. Even if I’m learning the cathecism as an adult, I still need to learn it so I can expand on my faith and not worry if I’m doing it right.
Anyway, back to the subject. This past Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and gave it the status of minor basilica. The Sagrada Familia is a historically interesting basilica. Designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, construction began on it in 1882 and has been under construction ever since. Its completion is slated for 2026 which is the centennial of Gaudi’s death. George Orwell once called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and I’m almost inclined to agree with him. This is what the Sagrada Familia looks like, and it’s not even completely finished.
When you think of a basilica, you might think of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, which looks like this:
I have actually been to a minor basilica. When I went to Europe, I stayed in San Marino, which is a tiny enclave in the eastern part of Italy. It is its own country and has the honor of being the oldest continually operating constitutional republic in the world (its official founding date is in 301). Its founder, Saint Marinus, was a Croatian stonecutter who arrived in the nearby Rimini to help construct its city walls. When he became the object of persecution because of his Christian sermons, he escaped to Mount Titano and built a church there. My SO’s father’s family is from San Marino and his sister was married there this past summer. The wedding took place in the Basilica del Santo, which is a minor basilica that houses the relics of Saint Marinus.
What makes a basilica, a basilica? As mentioned before, it’s partly architectural and partly ecclesiastic. NewAdvent.org states that in architectural terms, a basilica is a “kingly and beautiful” hall in which people were to do business and judicial issues were settled. Basilicas were first built in the Roman Forum around 120 B.C. and in 46 B.C., construction on the Basilica of Julius Caesar and Augustus began. With their columns and plenty of light, they were built with an artistic purpose: to beautify the Forum. Small “half Basilicas” were built in the homes of important Roman statesmen.
Here’s a basic Roman basilica floor plan. When space permitted, small additions were made off to the sides of the nave where judicial business might be settled.
The ecclesiastical meaning of basilica is closely tied with its architecture. Most basilicas have the same basic layout; a rectangular transept is added perpendicularly to the main hall (nave) just before the apse and forms a symbolic cross shape. There is usually- but not always- three aisles, but this of course depends on the size of the basilica.
But what makes a basilica different than, say, a cathedral or your average parish church? There are two divisions of basilicas, major and minor. There are only five major patriarchal basilicas in the world and they are representative of the ecclesiastical provinces of the world:
- St. John Lateran is the seat of the patriarch of the west, the Pope
- St. Peter’s of Constantinople
- St. Paul’s in Alexandria, Egypt
- St. Mary Major in Antioch
- St. Lawrence-Outside-the-Walls in Jerusalem
There are other major basilicas in the world that are given major status such as in Assisi, Italy, and all greater basilicas have a “holy door” and special privileges bestowed upon them by the Pope. There are a great many more minor basilicas- such as the Basilica del Santo in San Marino- who do not have a holy door, but share in these privileges. Basilicas have a certain precedence over other churches in their area- except if there is a cathedral- and also have the right of the conopaeum, the bell, and the cappa magna. The conopaeum is a sort of umbrella or veil that covers the tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament is kept. The bells are used during the elevation of the Host, which is the time when Catholics believe the wafer and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. These two are carried in together at the head of the clergy during state occasions. The cappa magna is a long cloak of any liturgical color that is worn by clergy of any rank. It is the cloak worn by the celebrant of most occasions except for someone who is celebrating Mass.
I’m not going to lie. When I chose this subject last week, I thought it was going to be really interesting and for some of it, it has. The SO (who has been Catholic his whole life) didn’t know that the term basilica can refer to architecture. As the week stretched on, I started to hate the topic and wanted to scrap the whole thing. It turned into a research project which in some way, every topic in this blog is a research project. But I know something has to change when I start to approach blog entries as work. As I said to the SO when I was writing the last paragraph: “This blogging thing was supposed to be fun!”. I suppose I’ll have to choose lighter and more fun topics, and maybe set a time limit as to how much time I’ll spend writing an entry. When it gets to be a week or more, it becomes work.