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What is a Cathedral?

A cathedral is more than just a grand edifice; it's the principal church of a diocese, housing the bishop's seat, or 'cathedra.' These architectural marvels are steeped in history, often adorned with intricate stained glass and soaring spires that reach towards the heavens. Discover how these sacred spaces have shaped our cultural and spiritual landscape—what might they reveal to you?
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A cathedral is a church building presided over by a bishop, and therefore the central church building of a diocese, an administrative unit of the larger church. It is found in hierarchical Christian denominations such as the Catholic and Anglican Churches. The building is often, though not always, a large, impressive structure, although not all large, imposing church buildings are actually cathedrals.

The word is shortened from the term cathedral church, in which it is used as an adjective. It is a church containing the cathedra — Latin for "chair" — of the bishop. In the ancient world, the chair was a symbol of both a teacher and a magistrate, and therefore ideal for representing the power and duties of the bishop.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

What makes a building a cathedral is the presence of the bishop, not anything inherent in the structure itself. Therefore, a church building may gain or lose this status. Some were built as cathedrals, but others were not. Church buildings that have lost their status are called proto-cathedrals. In addition, a church building may serve temporarily as a cathedral, in which case it is termed a pro-cathedral.

In the Catholic Church, the cathedral system is more complex than a single church governing each diocese. Some dioceses have co-cathedrals that share authority. In addition to the simple cathedral church, there are those with increasing levels of authority and dignity: the metropolitical church, the primatial church, and the patriarchal church, each of which govern all cathedrals and other churches lower in the hierarchy within their jurisdiction.

Though cathedrals do not have to be elaborate buildings, many are, as they are often built to suggest visually the power and glory of the church. These structures are, therefore, among the largest, most beautiful, and most visited church buildings in the world, and typically a major landmark in the cities they occupy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a building as a cathedral?

A cathedral is defined by its role as the principal church within a diocese, district, or region under the pastoral care of a bishop. It is the site where the bishop has their official seat, known as the cathedra, which symbolizes the bishop's authority. Cathedrals are often distinguished by their grand architectural design, including features like large towers, spires, and extensive use of stained glass, reflecting their importance in the religious and social life of the community.

How does a cathedral differ from a regular church?

While both cathedrals and regular churches are places of worship, a cathedral serves as the central church for a bishop's diocese and is the administrative center for that region. It is typically larger and architecturally more elaborate than a regular church. Additionally, cathedrals often host significant religious ceremonies, such as ordinations and confirmations, that are presided over by the bishop, setting them apart from other churches.

Can any church be designated as a cathedral?

Not any church can be designated as a cathedral. The designation of a cathedral is reserved for a church that serves as the seat of a bishop. This means that the church must be located within the bishop's diocese and be chosen to house the bishop's cathedra. The decision to designate a church as a cathedral is typically made by the church hierarchy and is based on the church's size, historical significance, and capacity to serve the diocese's administrative needs.

Are there any famous cathedrals that I can visit?

Yes, there are many famous cathedrals around the world that attract visitors for their historical significance and architectural beauty. Notable examples include Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Each of these cathedrals offers a unique glimpse into the religious, cultural, and architectural heritage of their respective regions.

What role do cathedrals play in today's society?

Today, cathedrals continue to play a vital role as places of worship, community gathering, and cultural significance. They often host important religious services and events, serve as landmarks and tourist attractions, and act as repositories for art and history. Cathedrals may also engage in social outreach, providing services to the needy and acting as centers for dialogue and education within the community.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a CulturalWorld editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a CulturalWorld editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Logicfest

Interestingly, there is a bit of dispute over the term "cathedral" due to some Protestant denominations building large churches and calling them cathedrals. A cathedral, as this article points out, is only a cahedral if a bishop is present.

For example, take the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. It wasn't a cathedral in the proper sense in that there was no bishop -- a position found only in Catholic (Roman or Orthodox), Anglican and some Lutheran and Methodist churches. However, it will be a cathedral in the proper sense when it reopens in 2016 as Christ Cathedral as the ownership of the building has changed hands from a Reformed Church of America facility to the Roman Catholic Church.

In other words, the building may be impressive but no bishop means its not a cathederal.

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