Major basilica

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A former papal cathedra in the cloister of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Rome.
Shield Ornaments of a major basilica

Major basilica (Latin: Basilica maior, Basilicae maiores in plural) is the title given to the four highest-ranking Roman Catholic churches:[1] Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, St. Peter's Basilica, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. St. Peter's Basilica is located in Vatican City, while the other three are located in Rome, Italy. St. John Lateran, the seat of the papal throne, is the oldest and the first in the established order of the major basilicas.

All other churches that have the title of a basilica are minor basilicas (Latin: Basilica minor).[2]


The title of major basilica was introduced in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII. With the promulgation of the bull "Antiquorum fida relatio", he instituted the Holy Year and set the conditions for indulgences. Pope Boniface VIII renewed certain "great remissions and indulgences for sins" which are to be obtained "by visiting the city of Rome and the venerable basilica of the Prince of the Apostles". He offered "not only full and copious, but the most full, pardon of all their sins", to those who fulfill certain conditions. First, as truly penitent they had to confess their sins, and second, they had to visit (make pilgrimages to) the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, the respective burial sites of the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul.

In the second jubilee in 1350, Pope Clement VI added a third major basilica: St. John Lateran, Cathedral of Rome. He encouraged the faithful to make daily visits to St. John Lateran, besides those to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul outside the Walls. Finally, at the next Jubilee in 1390, the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the oldest church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, was added to the list. The visit to these four churches has remained as one of the conditions for gaining the Roman Jubilee indulgence.

Lateran treaty[edit]

According to the 1927 Lateran Treaty, the three major basilicas located in Italian territory enjoy extraterritorial status similar to that of foreign embassies.[3][4] The major basilicas are patrolled internally by police agents of Vatican City State. These properties, located across Rome, were found essential institutions necessary to the character and mission of the Holy See.[4]

Papal basilicas[edit]

The four major basilicas, together with the minor Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls were formerly known as "patriarchal basilicas". Upon relinquishing in 2006 the title of Patriarch of the West, Pope Benedict XVI renamed these basilicas from "patriarchal basilicas" to "papal basilicas".[5] Those "patriarchal basilicas" were associated with the five ancient patriarchal sees of Christendom (the Pentarchy):[6]

The title of "patriarchal basilica" (now, since 2006, "papal basilica") was also officially given to two churches associated with Saint Francis of Assisi situated in or near his home town of Assisi, Italy:

List of major basilicas[edit]

To this class belong the four great ancient churches of Rome:

  • Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, also called the Lateran Archbasilica, is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is the only one called an "archbasilica". Its full official name is "Papal Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran, Cathedral of Rome".[7]
  • St. Peter's Basilica, also called the Vatican Basilica, is a major pilgrimage site, built over the burial place of Saint Peter. Perhaps the largest church in the world, it is used for most of the chief religious ceremonies in which the Pope participates. Its official name is the "Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican".[8]
  • Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, also known as the Ostian Basilica because it is situated on the road that led to Ostia, is built over the burial place of Paul the Apostle. Its official name is the "Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls".[9]
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, also called the Liberian Basilica because the original building (not the present one) was attributed to Pope Liberius, is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, hence its name of Saint Mary Major, i.e. the Greater. Its official name is the "Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major".[10]

Privileges and attributes[edit]

These four major basilicas are distinguished by their having a holy door and for being prescribed as destinations for visits as one of the conditions for gaining the Roman Jubilee. Only the Pope and his delegatees may celebrate mass at the high altar. Until recently, the four churches were open 24 hours a day; their staff included a college of priests to be continually available to hear confessions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Gietmann, G. and Thurston, Herbert (1913). "Basilica". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  2. ^ For ancient basilicas, it is often refer to them as Immemorial basilicas
  3. ^ Treaty between the Holy See and Italy PDF
  4. ^ a b Excerpt of extraterritorial jurisdiction as per the Lateran Treaty of 1929:
    Article 13
    Italy recognizes the full ownership of the Holy See over the patriarchal Basilicas of St. John Lateran, Sta. Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul, with their annexed buildings.
    The State transfers to the Holy See the free management and administration of the said Basilica of St. Paul and its dependent Monastery, also paying over to the Holy See all monies representing the sums set aside annually for that church in the budget of the Ministry of Education.
    It is also understood that the Holy See shall remain the absolute owner of the edifice of St. Callisto, adjoining Sta. Maria in Trastevere.
  5. ^ Basilicas (
  6. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Adrian Fortescue (1913). "Patriarch and Patriarchate". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  7. ^ Archbasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano – Arcibasilica del Salvatore e dei Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista al Laterano - Cattedrale di Roma (Annuario Pontificio 2012, ISBN 978-88-209-8722-0, p. 1293).
  8. ^ Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano (Annuario Pontificio 2012, ISBN 978-88-209-8722-0, p. 1291).
  9. ^ Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le mura (Annuario Pontificio 2012, ISBN 978-88-209-8722-0, p. 1294).
  10. ^ Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (Annuario Pontificio 2012, ISBN 978-88-209-8722-0, p. 1295).


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