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Minor Basilicas in the United States

by Robert F. McNamara, M.A., S.T.L.


In this article Fr. McNamara explains the meaning of the word basilica and the privileges or indulgences granted to minor basilicas. He also touches on the process a bishop must go through for "ennobling" a church.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


907 - 912

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., July 1959

"No church can be honored with the title of basilica," says Canon 1180, "unless by apostolic grant or from immemorial custom; and its privileges are to be deduced from the same sources." When the Code took effect in 1918, this canon was of no more than academic interest in the United States, for we then had no basilicas within our borders. Today we have several. Because little has been written in English on the general topic of basilicas, and because the identity and number of our American basilicas has been disputed, an article on both matters would appear to be timely.1

Basilica: Meaning and Kinds

Etymologically, basilica means "royal house." In Christian history the word has two fundamental senses, one architectural, one canonical. In architectural terminology, a basilica is a church constructed according to a certain ancient Christian floor plan. In canonical language, a basilica is a church to which the Holy See has accredited that name as a title of honor. Here we are concerned only with the canonical sense.

Msgr. Enrico Dante of the Sacred Congregation of Rites gives us a convenient definition of the canonical basilica:

The name basilica is commonly used today only of those churches which surpass others either in age or size or magnificence, or upon which the Roman Pontiff has bestowed this title along with certain privileges.

Although Msgr. Dante's definition, like Canon 1180 itself, makes no explicit mention of it, the basilican rank which the popes normally confer upon a church is that of minor basilica.

"Minor" is the antithesis of "major." We are therefore justified in looking about for basilican archetypes which are called "major basilicas." The search leads us directly to Rome. For although popes have designated some churches outside of Rome as major basilicas, it is the four great major and patriarchal basilicas of the Eternal City which establish the criterion. They are: the Lateran Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and St. John the Baptist (St. John Lateran); the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter; the Liberian Basilica of the Divine Maternity (St. Mary Major); and the Ostian Basilica of St. Paul (St. Paul-outside-the-Walls).2 Basilicas called "minor" are accorded some of the privileges of these four venerable churches.

What are the distinctive traits of the major and patriarchal Roman basilicas? Their principal trait is their direct connection with the pope.3 All four have permanent papal thrones and are "papal chapels" (capellae papales); that is, churches in which the popes are wont to preside, in the company of the cardinals and the full prelatial suite, at solemn pontifical rites. Indeed, the main altars are "papal altars," used only by the popes or by prelates specifically delegated to replace them. For this reason, no doubt, the Roman Pontiffs have reserved to themselves the right to consecrating the four basilicas, and the dates of their solemn consecration are observed as feast days throughout the Latin Church.

Each of these churches, moreover, has a Porta Sancta, or "Holy Door," opened only during Holy Years of Jubilee. Each has a college of penitentiaries, subject to the Cardinal Penitentiary. All but St. Paul's have chapters of secular canons, who enjoy the rank of protonotaries apostolic, and over whom a cardinal presides as archpriest. (At St. Paul's, where the Benedictine monks in charge act as a chapter, their abbot fulfills the duties of archpriest.) All four basilicas are likewise endowed with exceedingly rich indulgences.

The four Roman basilicas alone have a native right to prefix their basilican name with the adjective "sacrosancta." They are also entitled to display and to use in liturgical processions two insignia: the basilican bell (tintinnabulum) and the basilican umbrella, or pavilion (conopceum, ombrellone, padiglione). Originally, the basilican bell was probably used to signal the arrival of the pope at the basilica for solemn functions or the start of a papal procession. It consists of a small bell with a ringing-cord attached to its tongue, mounted in an ornamental frame on the top of a carrying-pole. The basilican pavilion — the more important of the two insignia — was most likely a ceremonial umbrella held over the pope, when he came to take part in solemnities. At present it is a huge, half-opened (hence cone-shaped) umbrella. Its covering is made of alternating strips of scarlet velvet and yellow silk, each of which strips ends in a pendant of the reverse color. In all but exequial processions, the bell, borne by a layman, follows the processional cross, and the pavilion, carried by another layman, follows the bell. (For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Lateran Basilica is entitled to two bells and two pavilions.)

Privileges of Minor Basilicas

Now which of these manifold distinctions of the major Roman basilicas do the popes grant to minor basilicas? The standard privileges which they grant are only three: the use of the basilican bell; the use of the basilican pavilion; and the right of the canons of the basilica — if it has a chapter of secular canons — to wear a cappa of purple wool and ermine. Since we have no canonical chapters in the United States, we shall make no further comment on the third privilege. Of the basilican bell, we must note that it is to be a modified version of the tintinnabulum of the major basilicas, in that it may not incorporate into its design any ornament or any lettered phrase that is peculiar to the major basilica. The pavilion of the minor basilica must likewise be distinctively simpler. Its covering is plain scarlet and yellow silk; it may have no gold or silver thread in its fabric or decoration; and, like the bell, it must have in its design or ornamentation nothing else that is peculiar to the pavilion of the major basilica.4

But in addition to these explicit prerogatives, the minor basilica enjoys others by implication or by custom. The commoner opinion allows it precedence over other churches of its own grade as, for instance, in processions. It always yields precedence, however, to the cathedral, whether the cathedral church enjoys basilican rank or not. Next, a minor basilica is entitled to a coat-of-arms and a corporate seal. The shield in this case is timbered with — that is, set in front of — a representation of the pavilion without crossed keys. In heraldic terms, the color of the pavilion's red is rendered in gules, the color of its yellow is rendered in or, and the carrying-pole and its ball-and-cross finial are likewise rendered in or. If the coat-of-arms is not used in the corporate seal, there seems to be no reason why the seal cannot bear the image of a simple pavilion — without cross-keys — at its center.5 The circumference of the seal should carry, in Latin or English, the legend "Seal of the Basilica of St. N., [place];" etc.

Father Nainfa describes an appropriate ceremony for the "investiture" of a church with minor basilican rank. Custom allows the basilica thenceforth to display the arms of the current pope on a durable shield over the main entrance, and to install in the vestibule a permanent tablet recording the concession of the privilege and crowned with the arms of the conceding pope.

Since basilican rank involves no spiritual favors, Msgr. Nabuco suggests that a minor basilica obtain for itself, by "affiliation" with a major basilica, a right to that basilica's indulgences.6 Not only the four major Roman basilicas, but also the basilica at Loreto are allowed to grant this participation. A petition for affiliation is to be made by the ordinary — or with his endorsement — to the chapter and canons of the major basilica. (If the major basilica is St. Paul's-outside-the-Walls, it would presumably be addressed to the abbot.) In acceding to the request, the granting authorities often require the renewal of the petition every fifteen years under pain of lapse. The list of available indulgences which they furnish should be posted where the faithful can easily read it, and, if the major basilica insists, a tablet should be set up in the affiliated church to commemorate the affiliation. Of course, a church need not be a minor basilica in order to ask and receive affiliation; but in no case does this indulgence — affiliation with a major basilica endow the recipient church — as some have thought — with the title or rank of minor basilica.

A Basilica is Born

Only a pope can create a minor basilica. Only the popes of the past two centuries have done so. Pius VI set the definite precedent in 1783. His successors in the nineteenth century exercised their right infrequently. Since 1900, however, the Roman Pontiffs have elevated to basilican rank some five hundred churches! Many of these are in Rome itself, seven of which are of fairly recent construction. Among the more ancient Roman minor basilicas three occupy front rank, and are grouped with the four Roman major basilicas to constitute the seven churches visited by Holy Year pilgrims. They are: the patriarchal minor Basilica of St. Lawrence on the Via Tiburtina; the Sessorian Basilica (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme); and the Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul ad Catacumbas (St. Sebastian, on the Appian Way).

Italy possesses many minor basilicas in addition to those in Rome, and there are a good many elsewhere on the Continent. But Europe does not enjoy a monopoly. Latin America has a fair share of minor basilicas, and Canada also has some. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (1904) and the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupre in the Province of Quebec (1887) are probably the best known basilican shrines in the western hemisphere.

"Ennobling" a Church

How does one proceed in obtaining this dignity for a church?

Although the Holy Father alone can make — or refuse — the concession, he acts upon the recommendation of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. A petition for the honor must, therefore, be directed to the Congregation; and it is to be made by the local bishop, or with his commendation.

The Sacred Congregation observes certain criteria in reaching its conclusions. The petition must show that the church in question is ancient, at least in a relative sense. Or if it has not the dignity of age, it must at least be truly "basilican," that is, "regal" in character. It must, of course, be a permanent church, and solemnly consecrated; and it must be large, spacious, and rich in its appointments. From a devotional standpoint, it must be in some way or other a notable religious center. If it is a shrine by reason of its possession of the body of a saint, so much the better. If it is not distinguished for its relics, it should at least be distinguished for its paintings, images, etc. The staff of the church should be large enough to permit the frequent and splendid performance of solemn rites. All this implies that it should have an ample and stable income; and, as a matter of fact, the Congregation insists that it be informed of the source of the income. In addition to satisfying the Roman authorities on these points, the bishop is requested to send along books or pamphlets containing a description of the exterior and interior of the church, together with photographs.

The pages of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis testify that since 1926 twelve churches in the United States have submitted petitions of this nature to the Congregation of Rites and have been successful in their suits.7 They are the following.

1. The Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, February 1, 1926 (A.A.S., 18 [19261,337-38). "Twin" to the imposing cathedral in St. Paul, this church was begun in 1907 and consecrated only in 1941.

2. The Basilica of Our Lady of Victory, Lackawanna (near Buffalo), N.Y., July 20, 1926 (A.A.S., 19 [1927], 8688). An ornately rich church erected as a Marian shrine by the devout "Padre of the Poor," the late Msgr. Nelson Baker, V.G.

3. St. Josaphat's Basilica, Milwaukee, March 10, 1929 (A.A.S., 21 [1929], 592-93). Justly called a monument to Polish-American piety, St. Josaphat's, staffed by Conventual Franciscans of St. Bonaventure's (Polish) Province, was the first American church directed by a religious order to achieve basilican rank.

4. The Cathedral, Basilica of the Assumption, Baltimore, September 1, 1937 (A.A.S., 30 [1938] 16-17). Surely Benjamin Latrobe's handsome building, the old and historic cathedral of the original diocese of the United States, merited the papal honor.

5. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Conception Abbey, Mo., September 14, 1940 (A.A.S. 32 [1940], 546-47). Our first American monastic basilica was this church, long a devotional center served by the Abbey's Benedictines, who belong to the Swiss-American Congregation.

6. The Basilica of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Gethsemani, Kentucky, May 3, 1949 (A.A.S., 41 [1949], 446-47). The abbey church of this country's first permanent "Trappist Cistercian" foundation, which dates from 1848.

7. Mission Dolores Basilica, San Francisco, February 8, 1952 (A.A.S., 44 [1952], 810-11. California's only basilica is a new church, but it stands beside and supersedes the original Mission Dolores (or, more officially, Mission San Francisco de Asis), founded by the pioneering Spanish Franciscan friars in 1776.

8. The Cathedral, Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, Kentucky, December 8, 1953 (A.A.S., 46 [1954], 13940). The tastefully appointed cathedral at Covington is a copy of another minor basilica, the famous Notre Dame de Paris.

9. The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Roxbury, Mass., September 8, 1954 (A.A.S., 48 [1956], 122-23). Since 1871 the "Mission Church" of the Redemptorist Fathers has been Boston's most popular sanctuary.

10. The Basilica of St. Vincent, St. Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pa., August 22, 1955 (A.A.S., 48 [1956], 60809). This is the abbey church of the first Benedictine foundation in the United States, mother-monastery of the American Cassinese Congregation. It was granted basilican status in the archabbey's centennial year.

11. The Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows, Chicago, May 4, 1956 (A.A.S., 48 [1956], 611=13). From a small suburban parish in the 1870's, Our Lady of Sorrows, founded and staffed by Servite Fathers, has become not only one of Chicago's largest parishes, but the national center for devotions in honor of the Sorrowful Virgin.

12. The Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, Dyersville, Iowa, May 11, 1956 (A.A.S., 49 [1957], 196-97). An imposing church built by the pioneers of this small but still principally Catholic rural community, St. Francis Xavier is, in a sense, a memorial to the piety of all German immigrants to the United States.

These, then, are the minor basilicas created in our country up to the present date. We expect that others will be added to their number in the future. One of them will doubtless be the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, once it is finished and consecrated. The list of American basilicas will not be multiplied indefinitely, however. Minor basilicas constitute a sort of aristocracy; and aristocracies are of their very nature selective.

The general idea of "ennobling" a church is a happy one. It is true that the title of basilica adds nothing to the intrinsic dignity which its dedicated purpose and the Real Presence confer upon a church. But it does pay a ceremonious tribute to a building distinguished for its sacred magnificence. And, at the same time, it pays implicit tribute to all who delight in adorning the dwellings of the King of Kings.


1. Owing mainly, no doubt, to the uncertain evolution of canonical concept of basilica, discussions of the subject have been few and incomplete. Father J. A. Nainfa's article, though somewhat dated, seems to remain the fullest treatment in English ("Minor Basilicas," American Ecclesiastical Review, 72 [1928], 1-19). More recent articles are: A. Molien, "Basilique," Dictionnaire de droit canonique; and Msgr. Enrico Dante, "De Basilica Minore," in Monitor Ecclesiasticas (74 [1949], 174-77). The latest and most illuminating study is to be found in Msgr. Joaquim Nabuco, Jus Pontificalium (Tournai, 1956), pp. 227-44.

2. S.R.C. Decreta Authentica, No. 2744 (August 27, 1836) is the locus classicus on the distinction between major and minor basilicas and the privileges of the latter.

3. For this reason, Msgr. Nabuco argues persuasively (footnote 1, p. 228) that the term "patriarchal basilica" is not an allusion to the incidental connection between the Roman basilicas and the five major patriarchs, but a synonym for "papal basilica."

4. We defer to another time and place a fuller consideration of the design of conopoeum and tintinnabulum.

5. Nainfa says the heraldic pavilion is displayed fully open. In his Coutumes et droit heraldiques de l'Eglise (Paris, 1949, p. 67), Bruno Heim says it is displayed half-open. Each could cite some examples in support of his assertion.

6. Jus Pontificalium, p. 243. Molien's section on affiliation is particularly good (D.D.C., II, 248).

7. At times the title basilica has been applied to other American churches in addition to the twelve we list. If they merit the title, the papal document conferring the rank has at least never been published in the A.S.S. (1865-1908) or in the A.A.S. (1909- ). More likely the claim has been based on their obtaining indulgence-affiliation with one of the major basilicas. This is the case with St. John the Apostle and Evangelist in St. Louis and Old St. John's in Chicago, both affiliated with St. John Lateran; and St. Adalbert, Buffalo, affiliated with St. Peter's. As we have already pointed out, affiliation does not confer the rank or prerogatives of a minor basilica.

Since 1938 professor of Church History and lecturer on the history of Christian art at St. Bernard's Seminary, Rochester, NY, Father McNamara has published articles on these subjects. In 1956 he published the history of his Alma Mater,The American College in Rome.

© 1959 Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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