San Diego’s St. Paul’s in the setting sun, November 2010
What is a Cathedral?
It’s not uncommon for people to refer to any large or impressive church as a cathedral. Yet there is a very specific meaning for this term. A cathedral may be large and impressive, but it may just as often be a small, intimate space.
A cathedral is a church with a chair. That chair is the seat of the bishop, who governs a diocese (a geographical area). In fact, the word cathedral comes from the word cathedra, which is the bishop’s chair. It is where the bishop preaches and teaches, handing down the truths he and the community have received from the Twelve Apostles. Each bishop has received authority by the laying on of hands by someone who has had hands laid upon them, and so on back through the mists of history to apostolic times, and it is the cathedra that represents this authority, or apostolic succession.
The cathedral is the Mother Church of a diocese. There the faithful of a diocese gather to celebrate the liturgies proper to cathedral churches: the welcoming of a new bishop, ordinations, Chrism Mass, and other diocesan celebrations. There the parishes of the diocese learn the proper way to celebrate liturgy. There the bishop addresses the whole city and speaks of the saving power of the Gospel to everyone, baptized and unbaptized alike. There the people of the city gather together spontaneously in response to joyful and sorrowful events in the life of the city.