What Is A Basilica?

I figure if I’m visiting all the basilicas in the US, I should give a more in-depth explanation of what they are. Perhaps this is my convert status + Protestant upbringing, but most religious groups have churches or shrines or temples – and that’s it. Of course, the Catholic church takes it a step further (and hopefully that doesn’t come off as snarky – I’m pretty neutral about the Church’s hierarchical approach to things). Off the top of my head, I can think of several various categories for Catholic buildings:

  • church
  • cathedral
  • basilica
  • shrine
  • grotto
  • retreat center
  • chapel
  • abbey
  • monastery

So many! Of course, they all have slightly different meanings/uses, and some are proper subsets of one another (my inner nerd is shining through – perhaps this will warrant a diagram someday?), and some buildings can fulfill many of these titles. I can’t say I have a great grasp on all of them yet, but I’m working on it.

Anyway, back to the main point – basilicas. The designation of basilica can actually fall under two different definitions: a church that fulfills certain architectural properties, or a church that has been elevated to the status of basilica via a Papal Brief (this is the more common usage in modern times). I’ll have one post on each of these to explain the differences and go into a little more depth about what each definition means and how it came about.

Did this answer all your questions? What else do you want to know?

Update: more information on the architectural meaning of basilica can be found here, and the ecclesiastical meaning here.

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