The “Royal House”, as the Greek origin of the word Basilica signifies, makes the Basilica a church that has been bestowed distinctive rights by the pope. The world’s four major Basilicas are situated in Rome and there are about 1,580 churches worldwide that have been awarded the basilica status, these form the minor basilicas. The four major basilicas in Rome are: St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. The major basilicas have a direct connection with the supreme Pontiff. Papal thrones and altars in these churches are permanent in nature and only those designated by the pope can give mass.
There are certain factors that distinguishes a basilica from other churches. The Basilicas have certain Papal and Canonical privileges. Primarily the architecture, historical value, dignity, creative value and the importance of the church as a place of worship are some of the factors considered. To signify and celebrate the distinctive link of association with the pope, the basilicas are expected to celebrate certain specific festivals on particular days of the year. Some of these being a celebratory banquet in the month of February commemorating the Chair of Peter, the centenary celebration of the pope’s election etc. The other corporeal signs that differentiate a basilica from any other church are the following: a conopaeum — a cover made of silk in traditional papal colors of yellow and red stripes, the cover resembling a canopy. The next is a ceremonial bell more commonly known as tintinnabulum. The third being the use of the papal emblem of intersected keys on certain things used by the basilica like its posters/signs and flags, upholstery and on the stamp.
The architecture of the Basilica is another factor that distinguishes it from cathedrals and other shrines. Built along the lines of the Roman “Halls of Justice”, the oblong or parallelogram shaped structure has three aisles running along it. The main aisle is fringed on either side by an aisle with columns separating the aisles. The ceiling of the main aisle is made higher than that of the side aisles, and to allow light to enter the basilica, a clerestory was added atop the columns.
A cathedral on the other hand, is derived from the Latin word Cathedra meaning a seat or chair, which represents the position and authority of the bishop, and the place where he resides in the territory of his jurisdiction. The cathedra, is located within the cathedral near the altar. In the ancient times, the chair symbolized a teacher or a preacher and thus it signified the bishop’s role as teacher, and that of an official presiding as a magistrate in governing a diocese. This chair can be found in the apse (also called “the sanctuary”) of The Cathedral of St Luke and St Paul.
A cathedral serves as the center for worship, a focal point and a congregation venue for those worshipping in churches though out the diocese. The pastor of the cathedral parish is the bishop who appoints a rector to look into the spiritual and temporal affairs. The cathedral, forms an important part of the social life and festivities of the city and the region. Since a cathedral is often a large building, usually a great work of architecture, it can serve as a meeting place for many people, and as a center of different activities related to community service, concerts, learning, and decorative arts.
The cathedral may be a basilica. For instance, the cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is also a basilica.