Basilica. What is it?

(Written by Veronica Nevard of Ryde)

On 27 December 2015, Feast of the Holy Family, Pope Francis raised the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to the status of a minor basilica. English Catholics were delighted to have their National Shrine recognised by Rome but quite what the honour entailed was not known by many.

In Ancient Rome, the term Basilica denoted an official administrative building having a large rectangular central nave with an aisle on each side and an apse at one end. Many early churches were built in this style. In the Catholic Church, Basilica is a title of honour given to certain churches because of their antiquity, dignity, historical importance or significance as centres of worship.

There are four Major Basilicas, all of them in Rome: St. John Lateran, St Peter’s, St Mary Major and St. Paul outside the Walls. All of these have a papal throne and a papal altar (at which only those with the Pope’s permission may say Mass), and a Holy Door which remains cemented up, except during Jubilee Years when it is opened and becomes part of the ritual of obtaining a Jubilee indulgence. (It was a break with tradition when Pope Francis suggested to the Bishops of the World that they designate one or more local Holy Doors during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, so Catholics could gain the plenary indulgence without having to travel to Rome.)

All the other basilicas are minor. These minor basilicas enjoy certain ceremonial privileges: the papal coat of arms may be displayed on the exterior of the church or above the front door and used on its banner and seal; in processions a tintinabulum (bell on a staff, formerly used to warn of the Pope’s approach) and a conopaeum may be carried. A conopaeum is a canopy, striped in yellow and red to represent the papal and senatorial colours, which used to be carried over the Pope , like an umbrella, when he travelled on horseback to make official visits. Nowadays it would be carried, together with the bell, at the head of the clergy in processions. The Rector of a minor basilica is entitled to wear a distinctive mozzetta (cape).

On the recent IoW CHS pilgrimage to Walsingham, the conopaeum could be seen adorning the statue of Our Lady in the Chapel of Reconciliation.

Although, according to Wikipedia, in 2013 there were 1,673 minor basilicas throughout the world, there have only ever been four in the United Kingdom. In 1904 Corpus Christi, Manchester received the honour. The Church was closed in 2007. The three remaining are: St. Gregory the Great in Downside Abbey (1935), Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Chad in Birmingham (1941) and now the Chapel of Reconciliation and Slipper Chapel, Walsingham.

When St. Mary’s Ryde was built in the mid 19th Century, it was commonly known as ‘the basilica’, probably because it was of a more magnificent style than most of the existing churches. When the Countess of Clare heard her first High Mass as a Catholic in the Basilica of St Mary Major she determined, on her return to Ryde, to have a church built and dedicated to Our Blessed Lady There is still a plaque in the porch of St. Mary’s Church (to the right of the main door) referring to the church as ‘St. Mary’s Basilica’. A few of the churches known as basilicas date from times before the canonical listings but have been allowed to retain their title as ‘of immemorial custom’. St. Mary’s Ryde is much too ‘recent’ for this concession to apply.