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What makes a church a Cathedral?

Q. What makes a particular church a cathedral?

Our English word cathedral ultimately derives from the Greek word kathédra, meaning “chair.” Since ancient times, the chair has served as a symbol of spiritual teaching authority. Consider, for example, Our Lord’s reference to those who “have taken their seat on the chair of Moses” (Matthew 23:2)—that is, they have assumed authority as spiritual teachers of the Law of Moses.

A cathedral, then, is not (as some think) just a large Catholic church. It’s the church containing the kathédra, the chair, of the bishop. It serves as the central church of the diocese over which he has jurisdiction. The bishop is pastor of the cathedral, but he has so many additional responsibilities for the diocese that he typically appoints a rector, that is, a priest who assumes pastoral duties in the cathedral parish on his behalf.

Usually the cathedral is the site of the principal liturgical activities of the bishop and his diocese. Here the bishop is consecrated and enthroned upon his kathedra; here diocesan synods are usually held. In his cathedral, the bishop most properly ordains, confirms, blesses holy oils, celebrates the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, and presides at Pontifical Masses. Bishops are often buried in a cathedral crypt.

The cathedral must be located within the diocese it serves, usually in the see city where the bishop exercises his authority. Occasionally, for various historical or geographic reasons, a diocese may have two co-cathedrals, usually in different cities but sometimes in the same city. A pro-cathedral is used by the bishop as his cathedral until a more suitable church can be built. PT

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