Major Basilicas

The Basilica of Sacré-Cœur sat high atop Montmartre, as noted recently in Select City Highpoints, becoming a memorable landmark on the Parisian skyline. Setting that aside, I wondered what made a church a basilica. In the course of investigating that I learned that a basilica could be classified into one of several levels of significance within the Roman Catholic Church. I also pondered the plural of basilica. Should it be Basilicae (Latin) or Basilicas (Italian). Basilicas seemed fine. However only four structures fit within the highest category of Major Basilicas so I decided to focus on them exclusively. Four seemed a manageable number. I thought a limited set would make for an easy article. Nope.

It dawned on my that the sheer level of complexity would undoubtedly result in me messing up the details somewhere. I apologize in advance if I misinterpreted or simplified things to the point of annoying any of 12MC’s Roman Catholic readers. That wasn’t my intent.

Only the Pope could decree that something should qualify as a basilica. He can bestow the title for reasons of "antiquity, dignity, historical importance or significance as centres of worship." Many hundreds of sites earned this honor. The vast preponderance qualified as straight-up Minor Basilicas, with a tiny handful recognized either as Papal or Pontifical Minor Basilicas. As noted, only four qualified as Major Basilicas, with all four located inside the diocese of Rome. Penitents that visited each of the Major Basilicas during a declared year of Jubilee gained additional absolution of sins. Special doors — sealed at all other times — were used during those particularly holy periods.

Papal Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran

St. John Lateran - 1
St. John Lateran. Photo by Grant Bishop on Flickr (cc)

Even within Major Basilicas, one stood above the rest. I would have assumed St. Peter’s located in the Vatican would have been the one, and I would have been wrong. The honor actually went to the only one of the bunch with "arch" affixed to its name, the Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran (map). The Bishop of Rome kept his cathedra (Latin for "seat") there. The bishop went by another name too, the universally-recognized title of Pope. Thus, St. John in the Lateran served as the Pope’s cathedral. That made it the mother church for the entire Roman Catholic religion. It was also the oldest of all Roman Catholic churches. St. John in the Lateran dated back to the early 4th Century, albeit renovated and reconstructed several times since them.

The Lateran part of the name referred to a time before the basilica existed. A wealthy and influential Roman family, the Laternos, owned the site for generations during pre-Christian times. Its patriarch angered Emperor Nero in the first century and he seized it from them. Much later, Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and gifted the property to the Bishop of Rome sometime around the year 313.

Interesting relics within the archbasilica included a cedar table claimed to have been used at the Last Supper, and Holy Stairs reputed to have been walked by Jesus during the Passion on his way to be tried by Pontius Pilate.

Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican

Italy-0177 - St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Square. Photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr (cc)

While the Basilica of St. Peter (map) didn’t qualify as an Archbasilica, it certainly ranked as one of the holiest of all Catholic sites. St. Peter, the apostle and first Pope, became a martyr at this location sometime around the year 64. Nero used the pretext of the Great Fire of Rome to blame and persecute Christians. He ordered Peter crucified. Constantine the Great authorized the building of a church on the spot of St. Peter’s martyrdom centuries later, and its consecration occurred in 329. The basilica’s high alter was built directly above the tomb of St. Peter.

The Basilica of St. Peter occupied a central position within Vatican City. The personal residence of the Pope also fell within the Vatican boundaries. However, no bishop maintained a cathedra at St. Peter’s so it didn’t qualify as a cathedral. That didn’t diminish either its religious or historical significance in any way.

Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls

Saint Paul's Basilica
Saint Paul's Basilica. Photo by Lawrence OP on Flickr (cc)

The emperors Nero and Constantine the Great also figured in the history of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (map). Nero ordered the execution of the St. Paul the Apostle. The history was a little sketchy although St. Paul was probably beheaded sometime around the years 65-57. His burial, according to tradition, took place on the second mile of the Via Ostiensis, a major road between Rome and the sea. People began to venerate the spot over time. Constantine, after he relaxed restrictions on Christian worship, authorized construction of a church above the tomb. Its consecration took place in the year 324.

"Outside the Walls" referred to the Aurelian Walls, a new set of perimeter walls built around a growing Rome circa the year 272. The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls fell, as the name implied, outside of the Aurelian Walls.

Basilica of St. Mary Major

Day 2- Rome. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Photo by april on Flickr (cc)

The Basilica of St. Mary Major came a little later than the others (map). The Council of Ephesus of 431 declared the Virgin Mary to be the Mother of God. In commemoration, the Pope ordered the construction of one of the first churches dedicated to Mary, and in honor of the recent declaration. The photograph shows the original Paleo-Christian portion of the structure that was preserved since the 5th Century (the middle section). This was the only one of the Major Basilicas to retain a significant part of its original design.

Two legends existed at the site. The first one involved the location, supposedly designated by Mary herself in a dream that came to the Pope. The second involved a relic. The faithful believed that St. Mary Major contained a piece of Jesus’ crib from the time of his birth, kept in a special crypt below the high altar.

2 Replies to “Major Basilicas”

  1. Good summary of the four Basilicas. One small correction and one expansion:

    The Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta) although once part of the original building are now located outside of St. John Lateran, across the street in a separate building. I spent a good part of a day roaming the basilica until I realized I was staring at it the whole time.

    I always enjoyed the legend behind the location of St. Mary Major. Supposedly Mary told a deacon she would make it snow in August and he was to build a church there. Snow fell on the the Esquilline Hill that evening and they erected a chapel were the patch of snow was found. This is why one of Mary’s appellations is “Our Lady of the Snow”.

  2. Another very minor point, the plural of basilica in Italian is basiliche. The h is added to maintain a hard k sound.

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