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Many kinds of sacred places Print
Guest column
Thursday, Nov. 07, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

This is the second in a two-part series on how Catholics join together as a community of faith as expressed in the Church’s law on parishes (part one) and sacred places (part two).

This is the second article of two dedicated to the topic of parishes and churches as expressed in ecclesiastical law.

In the first article, I discussed some of the elements of a parish, including the priests entrusted with its care, the role of deacons and lay staff, and the nature of the parish finance council and pastoral council.

In this week’s article, I will examine the many different types of sacred places found in the Catholic Church.

Sacred places

A sacred place is one which is designated for divine worship or burial and is dedicated or blessed by a liturgical rite (Code of Canon Law, 1205). Only things which serve “the exercise or promotion of worship, piety, or religion” are permitted in sacred places, and any activity or event not compatible with the holiness of the place is forbidden (c. 1210).

In fact, if a “gravely injurious action” occurs in the sacred place causing scandal to the faithful (e.g. desecration of the Eucharist, murder, etc.), a penitential rite must be undertaken by the bishop before worship is resumed there (c. 1211).

The Code of Canon Law explicitly mentions six sacred places: churches, oratories, private chapels, shrines, altars, and cemeteries.

Cemeteries and altars

The fact that altars and cemeteries are included in the list above may seem odd. We do not often think of cemeteries as sacred, and we do not often think of altars as places. However, both are considered sacred places for good reason.

A cemetery is sacred since it is the place where the Church offers to the Father the child of His grace and commits to the earth, in hope, the body which will rise in glory.

An altar is not merely an object of decoration or simply another article of church furnishing. On the contrary, it is the very table of the Lord where the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs. It is the center of the church toward which the People of God are called and joined in the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist. It is a place of sacrifice.

Churches, oratories, private chapels

Included in the list of six sacred places are three which are awfully similar and often confused: churches, oratories, and private chapels. The key difference is not necessarily found in the building itself but in the persons it is meant to serve. If you can remember that in the Code, the adjective “private” always precedes “chapel,” you are off to a good start in understanding the distinction.

A private chapel is a sacred place designated for divine worship for the benefit of one or more persons (c. 1226). Typically, private chapels are only found in the residences of bishops and cardinals or on the very old estates of wealthy families.

For example, there might be a private chapel at the bishop’s residence or a private chapel still in use in a castle from the Middle Ages. In order for Mass or other sacred celebrations to take place in a private chapel, the permission of the local Ordinary, such as the bishop or vicar general, is required (c. 1228).

An oratory is a sacred place designated for divine worship for the benefit of some community or group of persons. Others may also come to an oratory for worship with the consent of the competent superior (c. 1223).

Unlike private chapels, all but a few sacred celebrations can be lawfully held in oratories (c. 1225). Celebrations such as the Easter Triduum, baptisms, marriages, and funerals, however, are to be celebrated in parish churches, since these are meant to be celebrations of the whole community and not just a small group of the faithful.

Examples of oratories in our diocese include the St. Francis of Assisi oratory at Camp Gray (for staff and those on retreat) and the oratory at the Bishop O’Connor Center (for diocesan staff and visitors).

A church is a sacred building designated for divine worship for the benefit of the entire Christian faithful and to which the faithful have the right of entry for the public exercise of all acts of divine worship (c. 1214). In fact, entry to a church is to be free and gratuitous during the time of sacred celebrations in order that the faithful may publicly worship there (c. 1222).

Every church is to be dedicated with a solemn rite by the bishop, is to be dignified and noble in beauty, and is to have a titular, that is, a patron for whom the church is named. The titular of a church can be the Trinity, a title of Jesus or Mary, a saint, or even a number of saints if their names appear together in the liturgy (e.g., SS. Perpetua and Felicity).

Churches come in many different types, and we will examine three of the most common below: parish church, cathedral church, and basilica.

Parish church

Quite simply, this is a church owned and operated by a parish, as opposed for example, to a church owned and operated by a religious institute. The parish church is the center of liturgical and pastoral life in the parish territory, where the faithful gather for the celebration of the sacraments.

Typically, the offices of parish staff will be connected to the parish church proper, and it is the location where the sacramental registers (e.g., baptismal register, marriage register) are to be kept (c. 535). In the Diocese of Madison, there are 134 parish churches.

Cathedral church

Among all the churches in a diocese, the cathedral church is preeminent in dignity. The cathedral church is the church that is the site of the bishop’s cathedra, or chair, the sign of his teaching office and power of governance in the diocese, and a sign also of the unity of believers in the faith that the bishop proclaims as shepherd of the Lord’s flock.

Pope Paul VI taught that the cathedral is to be regarded as the image of Christ’s visible Church, praying, singing, and worshipping on earth, where the members of Christ’s Mystical Body are joined together in an organism of charity sustained by the outpouring of God’s gifts.

Whereas the parish church is the center of liturgical and pastoral life in a parish, the cathedral church is the center of liturgical and pastoral life in a diocese. It is where a bishop solemnly takes possession of the diocese once he has been appointed by the pope (c. 382) and where the bishop ordinarily presides at the celebration of the Eucharist (c. 389). The cathedral is also where ordinations generally occur (c. 1011) and where the consecration of virgins typically takes place.

Unfortunately, the cathedral church of the Diocese of Madison was destroyed by arson fire in 2005 and has not yet been rebuilt.

Major and minor basilicas

A basilica is a church that is given this honorific title by the Holy See, a title which recognizes the special role that this church plays in the life of a community and indicates a special bond between the church and the Roman pontiff.

There are two categories of basilica: major and minor. A major basilica is one that has a unique connection to the See of Peter, where only the pope (or his delegate) may say Mass at the high altar. There are only four in the whole world, all of them being located in Rome. They are the Basilica of St. Peter, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

By contrast, there are over 1,500 minor basilicas in the world, with the possibility for more to be created every day. A minor basilica is a church that has been recognized as a center for liturgy, providing the faithful with beautifully celebrated Masses, ample time for confession, and solid preaching.

Liturgical celebrations must be carried out in a praiseworthy manner with its own schola cantorum to encourage sacred music and a proper instruction of the faithful in Gregorian chant, which is proper to the Roman liturgy.

A minor basilica must be of a certain renown on account of some particular historical or religious event or perhaps because the body of some saint is there. When a church is granted the title of minor basilica, there are a number of privileges that are concurrently granted, namely the possibility for the faithful to obtain plenary indulgences in some circumstances of visitation and with the usual conditions (i.e., Confession, reception of the Eucharist, prayers for the intention of the pope, exclusion of all attachment to sin, etc. . . . ). Another privilege is permission to exhibit the papal symbol of the crossed keys on banners and furnishings.

In Wisconsin, there are only two minor basilicas: the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee and the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill in Hubertus.


A shrine is a sacred place — usually a church or oratory — which has been approved by the diocesan bishop as a place for pilgrimage (c. 1230). Beyond these diocesan shrines, there are also national shrines approved by the conference of bishops and international shrines approved by the Holy See (c. 1231).

The feature characteristic of a shrine is that the faithful go there in pilgrimage attracted by a specific pious reason or object of piety, e.g., an apparition occurred there, a miracle occurred there, or possibly because a saint lived there.

Similar to a basilica, a shrine is to be a place where the means of salvation are more abundantly supplied by a diligent proclamation of the Word, by a suitable promotion of the liturgy, and by a cultivation of popular piety (c. 1234).

In keeping with this purpose, the life of a shrine is to be structured around prayer, Mass, penance, preaching, and pious practices, such as praying the Rosary or praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

Since pilgrimages have a penitential character, shrines must provide an abundance of confessors at suitable times so that the faithful may avail themselves of individual confession.

Finally, votive offerings of art and piety are to be kept on display at shrines (c. 1234). Votive offerings typically include art given in gratitude for a grace received through the intercession of the shrine’s titular saint. Sometimes, though, the votive offering is a plaque or medal indicating which grace had been received (e.g. the gift of fertility to a couple who were having difficulty conceiving) or an object indicating the same (e.g. crutches that are no longer needed).

In Wisconsin, there are several shrines, including the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, and the National Shrine of Philomena in Briggsville.

Preserving the sacred

We must consider ourselves very blessed to have sacred places in our diocese which offer to the faithful an opportunity to retreat from the world and enter into prayer and communion with God. For there have been times in our history and even in parts of the world today where Christians are not allowed to worship publicly or dedicate sacred places for this purpose.

As the Catechism states, sacred places “are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ” (CCC 1180). As such, these sacred places must not be considered mere community centers or assembly halls, but must be preserved as places of prayer and divine worship.

Churches, oratories, private chapels, shrines, altars, and even cemeteries are places where the faithful do not simply escape the hardships of life, but where they can offer these burdens as spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, and in doing so, consecrate the world itself to Him.

Paul Matenaer is defender of the bond and promoter of justice in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Madison.