While our news feeds and social feeds were filled with updates on the horrible Notre Dame fire last week, few stories answered what I, without a newsletter to motivate me, would have maybe been too embarrassed to ask: What type of building is Notre Dame, exactly? And what, besides its rich history and architectural splendor, makes it different from the places that regular churchgoers visit, say, on Easter Sunday? The answer lies within the differences between a church, chapel, cathedral, and basilica.
A church is any place of worship that has a permanent congregation and is run by a pastor or priest. The term can refer to both the actual space as well as the congregation; you might go to church on Sundays and also really love hosting your church’s book club. You’ll find churches across all denominations of Christianity, and it can mean anything from the grandest architectural wonder to a group of congregants gathering regularly to worship without a permanent physical space.
Unlike a church, a chapel is a place of worship that has no pastor or priest and no permanent congregation; it’s all about the physical space. In the classic sense, it’s usually smaller than a church—sometimes just a room—and can be within a church itself or in a secular place like a hospital or airport. (It’s also the term people use for the places to get hitched in Vegas, if that’s your thing.)
A cathedral is a church that’s run by a bishop; it’s the principal church within a diocese, the area of land over which a bishop has jurisdiction. It’s named for the cathedra, the special chair in which a bishops sits. And contrary to what might seem like the obvious differentiator, the buildings themselves have no physical requirements; all the fancy stained glass and flying buttresses might be along for a ride, but it’s all about the bishop. As long as it’s where the bishop sits, it’s a cathedral.
As for basilicas, there are two types: basilicas major and basilicas minor. The basilicas major are the four personal churches of the pope and are in and around Rome: the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Basilicas minor can be found around the world and are rewarded that status by the pope, usually because of some sort of historical, spiritual, or architectural significance. The term “basilica” is an additional label to whatever the structure already is; any cathedral or church can also be a basilica.
So, to answer the original question: The Notre Dame is a church, a cathedral, and a basilica minor. (It was given basilica status in 1805.) The building around the corner from you is probably just a church. And the place that twenty-two-year-old Britney Spears wed her childhood friend Jason Allen Alexander in 2004 was definitely a “chapel.” (Their marriage, in case you were wondering, ended 55 hours later.)