The word basilica is derived from a Greek term meaning “royal house.”
It was first used to describe a Roman public building where courts and other official events were held. The structure was usually distinguished by columns, a long center aisle, and an apse within the building.
The name was eventually applied to Christian churches which adopted the same basic design.
Within the Catholic Church, “basilica” is a title of honor bestowed on a church of historical and spiritual importance that has been accorded special privileges by the Pope. According to the 1989 Vatican document Domus ecclesiae, a basilica must “stand out as a center of active and pastoral liturgy.”
There are two kinds of basilicas: major and minor.
First among the major basilicas is the Lateran Basilica of Saint John, which is the Pontifical Cathedral of the Pope as the Bishop of Rome.
Minor, or lesser, basilicas are significant churches in the world that are traditionally named because of their antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural and artistic worth, and significance as centers of worship.
The bestowal of the title initiates a very particular bond between the basilica and the Holy Father and sets it apart in rank from other churches.
The umbrellino is a distinctive symbol used in basilicas throughout the world. Designed with stripes of yellow and red (traditional papal colors), the silk canopy is a symbol of the Pope’s authority.
During the Middle Ages, the umbrellino would be carried above the Holy Father during processions. Once placed, the umbrellino remains partially open in as a symbol of readiness to welcome the Holy Father.
A bell mounted on a pole, the tintinnabulum is placed in the basilica to signify the church’s link with the Pope.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the tintinnabulum was used to alert the people of Rome of the approach of the Holy Father during papal processions.
Minor basilicas have the right to display the papal symbol—crossed keys—on banners, on furnishings, and on the seal of the basilica.
The keys refer to the promise of Christ to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” (Matthew 16:19).
The presence of the keys symbolizes the continuous relationship of the basilica to the Holy Father in Rome.
These papal symbols will be installed and blessed at an Inaugural Mass solemnizing the designation of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist as a basilica later this year.