Terminology within the Christian faith is pretty straightforward. A thurible burns incense; an altar is a table where a priest blesses bread and wine for communion; a minister performs services at a protestant church, while a priest performs services in non-protestant denominations. Easy! But if you go to church at a chapel connected to a cathedral, then what’s the building you’re in? And what on earth is a basilica? Let’s find out!
A church is a stable organization run by a priest or pastor and does not necessarily need a building. Church is also an umbrella term for Christian houses of worship with a permanent congregation, no matter what the denomination. If you see a cathedral or a basilica, you can say, “Hey, look, a church!” and be correct. A church is not a chapel, though.
A chapel is smaller than a church and has no permanent congregation. It is usually a room attached to a building and used for special prayer services. A chapel does not have to be a dedicated house of worship, either. Probably the most famous example of secular chapels is marriage chapels in Las Vegas. These buildings are fully equipped to conduct smaller religious wedding services.
If a bishop is running your church, then you were just upgraded to a cathedral. The word cathedral comes from the term “cathedra,” meaning “bishop’s chair.” The Catholic church has been using cathedras as a symbol of authority throughout history. Although they usually are showy, cathedrals do not all have to look like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It doesn’t need a massive steeple or stained-glass windows. If the bishop is in charge of services, that’s your diocese’s cathedral.
The granddaddy of Catholic faith structures, the Catholic church classifies basilicas — which comes from the Greek word meaning “royal house” — in two tiers. The ones you may be more familiar with, basilica majors, are the Pope’s four churches in Rome: St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. John Lateran.
Basilica minors, or lesser basilicas, are significant enough that the Pope recognizes them. Any church or cathedral can earn the status of minor basilica. A basilica minor has three separating features from cathedrals or regular churches:
- The Conopaeum: yellow and red striped canopy.
- The Tinntinnabulum: a bell mounted on a pole.
- Crossed Keys: a banner displaying the papal seal.
The Catholic church recognizes over 1,500 churches globally as basilicas, with 325 in the United States.
To remember the difference between a church, chapel, cathedral, and basilica, think of who you would see in these buildings. Like the nursery rhyme, open up the church and see all the people! Expect a congregation. A chapel is like a religious event space: you won’t see anyone in there unless there is a special event. A bishop leads a cathedral, and the Pope fancies a basilica.