What are the Papal Basilicas?

Among the most popular attractions in Rome are the four churches known as “Papal Basilicas”: 1) St. John Lateran, 2) St. Peter’s, 3) St. Mary Major, and 4) St. Paul Outside the Walls.  All of these posses a long and interesting history, beautiful architecture, and important relics.  Because of their significance, over a series of five articles we will explore these churches.  Here, we begin by investigating what is meant by the term Papal Basilica.

In general, the word “basilica” is used either to indicate an architectural style or as a title designating the special status a church possesses.  The basilican architectural form arose in the Roman empire.  A basilica is basically a large rectangular building with an apse at the short side of the structure which is furthest from the entrance.  Often there was a raised platform in the apse.  The latin word basilica is derived from the greek basilike stoa, which literally means “kingly walkway”.  As such, a basilica originally referred to the court chamber of the king.  The place for the king was the raised platform in the apse.  Between 200 BC and 300 AD, numerous basilicas were built in Rome, many of them around the forum area.  The ruins of these buildings are still visible today.  These structures were used as public halls for secular events such as court sessions, public talks and even business transactions.  As the number of Christians in the Roman Empire grew, they eventually needed special buildings to hold their liturgies.  The well known basilica style was used by the Church for this very purpose. Whereas a human king used to be on the raised platform in the apse, in these new basilica churches, the King of Kings, Jesus, was now present on the altar in the celebration of the Mass.  Though few of the Papal Basilicas still retain this architectural style, originally they were built in the basilican form.

The word “basilica” is also a title given by Popes to significant churches around the world.  The four Papal Basilicas are known as Major Basilicas.  The vast majority of other basilicas around the world, including those in Canada (ex. St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal) are called Minor Basilicas.  Each of the Papal Basilicas has a Holy Door.  When a pilgrim visits one of the Papal Basilicas, he or she is able to receive a special Roman Jubilee.  Further, each is assigned to one of the Patriarchs of the Catholic Church, who traditionally were understood as governing over an ecclesiastical territory.  Therefore, taken together the Papal Basilicas symbolize the unity of the Church.  With respect to law, the Papal Basilicas are related to the Pope in a special way.  St. Peter’s is in the State of Vatican City, of which the Pope is the head.  The other three Papal Basilicas, even though found within Italian territory, still have a special relationship to the Vatican City as they enjoy “extraterritorial status” under the Lateran Treaty (1929).  In subsequent articles we will investigate what makes each of the Papal Basilicas unique and interesting.

St. John Lateran
St. Peter's
St. Mary Major
St. Paul Outside the Walls