The word Basilica comes from a Greek term meaning “Royal House,” which was a public building in which royal business was transacted. The term was adopted by the Romans, and after Christianity became the principal religion of the Roman Empire, the word was applied to large and important churches. Today it can refer to a particular architectural style, but in the case of the Basilica of Saint Mary it denotes a church that has been given special designation by the Pope.
The reasons for bestowing this designation include architectural beauty, historical significance, liturgical renown, or any combination of these attributes. A Basilica shares a special relationship with the Holy Father in Rome. Due to this unique relationship, a Basilica celebrates certain liturgical days with particular care.
There are two types of Basilicas – Major and Minor. There are only four Major Basilicas in the world (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major), but there are several thousand Minor Basilicas in various countries and nations throughout the world.
Three physical signs to indicate that a church is a Minor Basilica.
The Ombrellino (“little umbrella”) 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 Ombrellino would be carried above the Holy Father during processions. Once placed, the Ombrellino remains partially open in as a symbol of readiness to welcome the Holy Father.
The Tintinnabulum, like the Ombrellino, indicates that The Basilica of Saint Mary has a special relationship with the Holy Father. The Tintinnabulum, a bell mounted on a pole, is placed in a Roman Catholic 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.
The Papal Cross Keys are the symbol of the Papacy, and represent 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.
A cathedral is the home church for the bishop or archbishop of a diocese. It takes its name from the bishop’s chair, called a cathedra in Latin. The cathedra represents the position and authority of the bishop, and the place where he resides in the territory of his jurisdiction. The bishop is technically the pastor of the cathedral parish, and appoints a rector to manage its spiritual and temporal affairs. It is the main church of a diocese and is also a parish church within itself. The Cathedral of the Arlington Diocese is Saint Thomas More.
A basilica is an important church building designated by the Pope because it carries significant historical, spiritual, and architectural qualities and attributes. The designation of Minor Basilica is the highest permanent designation for a church building, and once a church is named a basilica, it cannot lose its basilica status. The three signs that a church has been named a basilica are the Ombrellino (umbrella), Tintinnabulum (Bells), and the Papal Cross Keys.
A shrine is a church or other sacred place where either a relic is preserved, where an apparition has taken place, or where a historical event of faith has taken place. A shrine is typically designated to help foster devotion to a particular saint. For example, the Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (a basilica and a shrine) was built to foster devotion to our Blessed Mother in the United States, particularly since she is the patroness of America under the title of the Immaculate Conception. Shrines are regulated by the local bishop, and national shrines are designated as such by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Yes, a church can be a basilica, a cathedral, and a shrine or any combination of those three. For instance, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland is not only a basilica and a shrine, but also the co-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the first Catholic cathedral in the United States.
The Basilica of St. Mary now has a special connection with the Holy See in Rome. Due to this unique relationship between the Holy Father and the Basilica of St. Mary, the parish will celebrate certain liturgical days with particular care and reverence. The parish will still function as a normal parish with weddings, baptisms, and regular events and social activities.
In addition, Catholics may obtain a Plenary Indulgence (under the usual conditions) by visiting the Basilica of St. Mary on Holy Days of Obligation and specific feast days. Once a church is named a basilica, it becomes a revered place of pilgrimage for Christians throughout the world.
The application process to become a basilica is extremely detailed, lengthy and exact. A committee of staff and volunteers compiled a 157-page document, including answering over 100 detailed questions from the Vatican, in the beginning of 2017. After several months of exhaustive research into the parish’s over 200-year history, the committee submitted an adequate application to Bishop Michael Burbidge in the summer of 2017. After his careful review and feedback, Bishop Burbidge sent to the application to the USCCB in Washington, D.C., and from there it went to the Vatican in Rome. At the turn of the new year in 2018, the parish finally heard word from Rome on its historic designation as the 84th Basilica in the United States. From start to finish, the entire process took a little over a year.
The Basilica of Saint Mary
310 South Royal Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
313 Duke Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Monday-Friday: 9:00am – 5:00pm