Understanding the sacraments: What is a cathedral?

The building is ‘a symbol of the spiritual temple that is built up in souls’

How is a cathedral different from all of the other church buildings in a diocese? The most authoritative answer to this question is provided by the Ceremonial of Bishops (chapter 3), a text promulgated by the Vatican that describes how the Mass and other liturgical rites are celebrated when the bishop is the presider. In this article I would like to present what the Ceremonial says about the cathedral.

The name “cathedral” comes from the Latin word cathedra, which is the bishop’s chair. The bishop’s cathedra is “the sign of his teaching office and pastoral power” in his diocese “and a sign also of the unity of believers in the faith that the bishop proclaims as shepherd of the Lord’s flock.” Only the diocesan bishop (or a bishop he permits to use it) occupies this chair. When a priest celebrates Mass or other liturgies at the cathedral, he uses a chair in a place separate from the bishop’s chair. The cathedral, then, is a church building that manifests the bishop’s role as shepherd of his diocese.

The cathedral, according to the Ceremonial, is “a symbol of the spiritual temple that is built up in souls and is resplendent with the glory of divine grace.” As St. Paul says, “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16). Furthermore, it “should be regarded as the express image of Christ’s visible Church, praying, singing, and worshiping on earth. . . . the image of Christ’s Mystical Body, whose members are joined together in an organism of charity that is sustained by the outpouring of God’s gifts.” For these reasons, concludes the Ceremonial, “the cathedral church should be regarded as the center of the liturgical life of that diocese.”

This means that “the cathedral church should be a model for the other churches of the diocese in its conformity to the directives laid down in liturgical documents and books with regard to the arrangement and adornment of churches.” The Second Vatican Council taught that “all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 122). The church building as a sign and symbol of supernatural realities should be supremely evident in the cathedral church.

The cathedral church is the preferred place for the celebration of the most important diocesan liturgical celebrations. “In this church, on the more solemn liturgical days, the bishop presides at the liturgy. There also . . . he consecrates the sacred chrism and confers the sacrament of holy orders.” For this reason, the sanctuary, where the bishop, priests, and ministers carry out their ministries, “should be sufficiently spacious for the rites to be carried out without obstruction to movement or to the view of the assembly.”

To give just one example, at the Chrism Mass, the priests of the diocese renew their commitment to priestly service. (A cathedral should be able to have space in the sanctuary for the priests of the diocese to gather to renew their priestly promises), which our present cathedral cannot do.

The Ceremonial recommends a number of specific features to facilitate beautiful and prayerful liturgies. It should have a spacious “gathering place . . . where the blessings of candles, of palms, and of fire, as well as other preparatory celebrations, may take place and from which processions to the cathedral church may begin.” It also recommends a vesting room near the church “from which the entrance procession can begin.” Finally, it should have a separate room where vestments and other liturgical materials are kept. Our current cathedral church lacks all of these elements.

The bishop is the teacher, sanctifier, and pastor of his diocese, and liturgical celebrations led by him “manifest the mystery of the Church as that mystery involves Christ’s presence.” For this reason, “all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church.” Christ’s Church is manifested “especially in the same Eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar at which the bishop presides, surrounded by his college of presbyters [priests] and by his ministers.” This is our goal: a cathedral church that is a sign and symbol of heavenly realities and that manifests the beauty and majesty of Christ’s Church in East Tennessee.

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.