Inaugurating a New Basilica

Author: Duane Galles

SACRED MUSIC Volume 118, Number 3, Fall 1991


The church in which Mother Seton is buried in Emmitsburg, Maryland, recently was raised to the rank of a minor basilica, and during the past three years churches in Jamestown (North Dakota), Danville (Pennsylvania), Des Moines (Iowa), Chatham (New Brunswick), Montreal, Quebec and Washington, D.C., have received the title of minor basilica. One may wonder if this is merely a "paper transaction," or if there is some ceremony which accompanies the concession of the title. After all, one becomes a peer in Britain when the sovereign signs the letters patent confering the title, but at the same time it is traditional for each new peer to be ceremonially introduced into the House of Lords clothed in the scarlett and ermine parliamentary robes of his rank escorted by two peers of the same rank similarly clad. What ceremonies, if any, are appropriate for the inauguration of a basilica? A recent Vatican decree provides some answers.

The May 3, 1990, issue of "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" published a new decree regarding basilicas. The decree was dated November 9, 1989, the feast of the Dedication of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint John Lateran.(1) The decree, beginning with the words "Domus ecclesiae," was a consequence of the 1988 apostolic constitution, "Pastor bonus," which went into effect March 1, 1989, and re-organized the Roman curia, assigning in its article 69 competence in the concession of the title of "minor basilica" to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This effort at "perestroika" by the present pope set in train a general revision of the regulations governing all manner of matters, including those governing basilicas. Twenty years before in 1967, when Paul VI re-organized the Roman curia by the apostolic constitution, "Regimini ecclesiae universae," a similar decree on basilicas followed a year later bearing the incipit, "Domus Dei."(2)

The 1989 decree on basilicas makes few major changes in the law, unlike the 1968 decree. The 1968 decree was concerned with updating basilicas in the light of the liturgical reforms of the II Vatican Council. The 1989 decree, by contrast, is concerned with fine-tuning. It gives extensive treatment to the manner of petitioning for the concession of the title of minor basilica, setting forth the requisite supporting documents and adding a procedural hurdle to the process. Henceforth, the "nihil obstat" of the episcopal conference is required as well as the usual votum of the diocesan bishop before the Holy See will consider the petition for the concession of the title. Perhaps this requirement will serve to stem the flow of newly- minted basilicas, for hardly a month goes by without the creation of at least one more, the announcement being made in the pages of the "Acta Apostolicae Sedis." Also, the decree adds a requirement that a questionnaire be completed giving considerable detail on the candidate church. Another provision gives legal effect to a 1975 policy statement requiring the submission with the petition of a dossier complete with drawings, photographs, and architectural details.(3)

But the provisions of the 1968 decree are little altered. Basilicas remain special pastoral centers with peculiar bonds linking them with the Roman see and the supreme pontiff. They have the duty of marking certain papal "red letter days" (February 22, June 29, the anniversary of the election of the pope) with special liturgical celebrations, with making generous provision for the sacrament of penance, and with disseminating the teachings of the supreme pontiff and of the Holy See whether in the pulpit or through special lectures. Their duties to the solemn liturgy give rise to special duties also toward sacred music and especially toward Gregorian chant, the Roman Church's very own music, and toward sacred polyphony. And so, an "adequate choir" is required in any basilica.(4)

The new decree does make explicit some points only implicit in the 1968 decree. Thus, it is now expressly stated that a basilica should celebrate not only the liturgy of the Eucharist but also the liturgy of the hours, especially lauds and vespers. This will put new demands on many basilicas which have in effect equated "liturgy" and "Eucharist." In the future at least Sunday vespers should be revived in basilicas and the nature of this office strongly suggests choral vespers.

Many basilicas such as Montserrat, Ettal, Ottobeuron, Saint Benoit de Fleury, Vallombroso, Gaudalupe, Sainte Anne de Beaupre, are famous pilgrimage shrines and thus have long promoted popular devotions and piety. What was once taken for granted in respect to popular devotions is now made express in the new decree. It is now required that basilicas worthily promote approved forms of popular piety. Perhaps this is an early practical application of canon 214, which, among the rights and duties of Christ's faithful, guarantees each of Christ's faithful the right to his own approved form of spirituality. Thus, hopefully, popular religous exercises like the rosary, stations of the cross, novenas, will return to those basilicas where they have fallen into disuse.

This revival of popular devotions may have happy musical consequences. These popular exercises are the proper places for "religious music," i.e., music not written for the liturgy but using sacred or liturgical texts but making reference to God, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, or the Church. Sacred or liturgical music properly is music written for the liturgy using sacred or liturgical texts. If popular religious exercises could be revived in basilicas they would then be the proper place for religious music. Liturgical celebrations could then be reserved as fora for sacred music. In short, a more appropriate division of musical material will occur with more suitable music at each type of function.

The real new departure of the 1989 decree is to make express provision for the inauguration of a new basilica. Here there should be much scope for church musicians. Earlier decrees on basilicas made no express mention of any special ceremonies to inaugurate a new basilica. Now the 1989 decree calls for the elevation to basilican rank to be greeted festively by sermons, prayers, vigils and other celebrations either before the new basilica is proclaimed or after. How might these events be structured and what might be the role of church music therein is the subject of this article.

To answer that question we need to have clearly in mind the purpose or final cause of a minor basilica. Like the 1968 decree, the 1989 decree sees basilicas as maintaining special links with the supreme pontiff and as being centers of special pastoral zeal. As special centers of pastoral zeal basilicas must make special provision for the solemn liturgy, the sacrament of penance, and special preaching and theological instruction.

These peculiar basilican purposes should inform the inaugural ceremonies so that the basilica's special purposes may be clear in fact from the outset. Thus, there might be a series of lectures on papal encyclicals. The present pope's oeuvre obviously presents a very rich quarry to mine and an extensive lecture series could be mounted on his theology of the body or on Catholic social teaching, especially as set forth in the recent "Centesimus annus."

The lecture series might usefully be complemented by a series of religious or sacred concerts, since some things cannot be said and must be sung. The sacred concert would also point out the special links of basilicas with sacred music. These could include organ recitals. There might in some places be a hymn fest. Gregorian chant, as the Roman Church's proper music, has firm claims to a special place, for it would be clearly expressive of the new Roman link. Sacred polyphony, which the II Vatican Council said was "by no means excluded from the liturgy," "a fortiori" might claim a part in the series of sacred concerts.

A concert, or a series of concerts, of sacred music would in fact be a wonderful opportunity to purvey a generous portion of the treasure of sacred music which Vatican II ordered to be cultivated and preserved with superlative care. When the cathedral of Puebla, Mexico, was consecrated in 1649, that ceremony was preceded by a fortnight of sacred music. Few basilicas today could vie with that sublime achievement, yet most with some planning could mount at least an inspiring concert of sacred music. Hopefully, the concert repertory would perdure at the new basilica to enrich and upgrade the church music there afterwards. Too often the only music in Amerian Catholic churches today is the "reform folk" ballads of the "Glory and Praise" type. (5) Given the celebrations of human labor and creativity in "Centesimus annus," hopefully American Catholics will be weaned from their dislike for true art in their churches and recover their glorious musical and artistic heritage.

Where the heritage of Gregorian chant has not been lost (or can be revived), choral vespers or compline might be chanted as part of the series of events. This could help integrate the music more closely with the other inaugural events while at the same time indicating the basilica's new duty with respect to the liturgy of the hours. Compline, indeed, could provide a fitting close to a lecture or a prayerful close to a sacred concert.(6) Whether in Latin or English a portion of the liturgy of the hours would provide an apt time for congregational participation, either through "active listening" or actual singing. If the inaugural Mass takes place on a Sunday, the day might appropriately close with Sunday vespers, perhaps with solemn pontifical vespers if the bishop can be present.

Since basilicas have the duty of making the sacrament of penance generously available, the inaugural ceremonies might include a penance service on the vigil of the inaugural Mass. This might use penitential rite two, the "rite for reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution." Rite three (or general absolution) is reserved for emergencies and so cannot be "planned." Rite two includes individual, private, integral confession after a communal penance service with common prayers (the "Pater noster" and the "Confiteor"), hymns, psalms, litanies, scripture readings and a homily. (6) Here music could have an important role, depending on available resources. Extensive selections from oratorios or passions might be fine examples of religious music eminently suited for this type of exercise. Better yet, the preceding sacred concerts could be carefully planned so as to culminate in the penitential service. A rosary procession, the way of the cross, benediction, litanies are popular devotions which might properly be incorporated into the inaugural events, including the vigil service, depending on local taste and climate.

The "piece de resistence" of the inaugural ceremonies, without question, is the pontifical Mass at which is read the apostolic brief elevating the church to the rank of minor basilica. This should be as solemn as possible with the bishop celebrating in full pontificals or assisting in mitre and cope. It goes without saying that it ought to be a "missa in cantu" or sung Mass, and one celebrated according to the missal of Paul VI in Latin, Rome's own tongue, using Gregorian chant, the Roman Church's own music. This would be a most apt way to inaugurate the new special link with the Roman see and Roman pontiff. The 1989 decree states that the Mass may be the Mass of the day, or the Mass of the titular of the church, or of a saint whose relics or sacred image is specially venerated in the church, or the Mass for the "local church" or the Mass "for the pope" may be celebrated. Vespers would follow the same selection. With certain exceptions and for pastoral reasons, this Mass can be celebrated on a Sunday to permit the widest possible popular participation.

The inaugural Mass is an excellent opportunity for participation by all the special groups of the diocese as well as those of the basilica itself. Basilicas are supposed to enjoy a certain celebrity throughout the diocese and thus many diocesan groups will wish to participate in the inaugural Mass. The various Catholic societies--the Catholic Women, the Legion of Mary, the Holy Name Society, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Saint Peter Claver, the secular third orders, to mention only a few--might all wish to attend corporately and march in a body in procession under their respective banners. Those with a special link with the Holy See--the knights of the Vatican and ecclesiastical orders, the honorary prelates and chaplains of His Holiness--will have a special claim to be in attendance in their uniform or special choir dress to augment the splendor of the occasion. Rectors of other basilicas might be invited to attend, wearing their special basilican choir dress, which in the United States will be a black silk mozetta with buttons, buttonholes and piping of red over a cassock and surplice. The civil authorities and the consular corps might be invited as well and be given a place of honor and appropriate salutes.(8)

The Mass itself proceeds as usual until the Gloria, although the sermon would, of course, explain the special significance of the occasion. Before the Gloria is sung, a deacon reads the apostolic brief elevating the church to the rank of minor basilica. This appropriately is done in the orginal Latin as well as in the vernacular with all (including the bishop) standing uncovered to listen. While the brief is being read, the church's bells might be sounded to announce to the entire neighborhood the joyous news.

Then the basilican insignia are displayed. Traditionally the special insignia of a minor basilica have been the "conopeum" and the "tintinnabulum." The former is a large umbrella composed of alternate red and yellow silk stripes. The latter is a bell mounted on a pole. Both were used in ancient times in papal cavalcades to the stational churches. The umbrella was used as protection against inclement weather; the bell was used to marshal the procession and to signal its approach. Customarily these insignia are displayed in the sanctuary of the church. They are also carried in processions after the processional cross, the basilica bell preceding the umbrella or "ombrellone."

The 1968 decree (as well as the 1989 decree) assigns as special insignia to minor basilicas the crossed keys of Peter. It would seem the new insignia are to indicate the special office of reformed basilicas to disseminate the magisterial documents of the Holy See. These crossed keys might be emblazoned on a banner or be placed behind the coat of arms of the basilica and so be displayed on a banner. Presumably the post-1968 basilican insignia would occupy the same place in procession as the "ombrellone" and "tintinnabulum" and so would follow the cross.

After the basilica insignia are displayed, a commemoratory tablet might be unveiled (perhaps by a member of the parish council) bearing a suitable inscription to memorialize the event. Finally, the rector of the new basilica, vested in cope and escorted by a master of ceremonies, approaches the bishop, receives the apostolic brief from him on a silver salver, and retires tih it to the sacristy. Alternatively, he might approach vested in choir dress and be clothed by the bishop in the black silk mozetta with red piping, buttons and buttonholes, which is the special vestment of a basilica rector since 1968.(9) The brief is to be preserved with the greatest care in the archives of the basilica. It might be well for a conformed copy to be deposited in the diocesan archives as well.

The "Gloria" is then sung. For purposes of comparision it might be noted that the "Roman Pontifical" specifies a similar order of service for the reception of a new diocesan bishop or for the imposition of the pallium on a metropolitan. When a new bishop is already consecrated, he proceeds ceremonially to his cathedral, the apostolic brief is read, he is enthroned on his "cathedra," and the "Gloria" follows. Likewise, when the pallium is to be conferred, the apostolic brief is read, the pallium is imposed, and the "Gloria" is sung. The context certainly argues for a magnificent, polyphonic "Gloria," perhaps one by Vivaldi or Gounod.

The "Gloria" completed, the Mass continues as usual. At its close there might be a solemn procession, either inside the basilica or outside as climate suggests. Lead by the processional cross and two acolytes in cassock and surplice, the various special groups of the basilica would process with their banners followed by the insignia of the basilica and then the clergy by twos, juniors preceeding. Behind the clergy (deacons and priests) follow the rector of the basilica and two deacons in dalmatics and then the bishop in choir dress with two chaplains in surplice and cassock. Behind the bishop go the civil authorities and consular corps, the representatives of the visiting lay groups, the papal and ecclesiastical knights and gentlemen, and the rest of the laity. The procession ends when the rector returns to the altar. There he intones the "Te Deum." When the chant is concluded, the bishop announces "vadunt in pace omnes," all go in peace, and the ceremony ends. A fine organ postlude would then provide a splendid musical finale to the entire series of lectures, concerts and services for the inauguration of the new basilica.

As a living reminder of the day, Christ's faithful might from time to time be encouraged to visit the basilica on the anniversary of the concession of the basilican title to obtain the plenary indulgence available to those who, under the usual conditions, visit a basilica on that day.



1. Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, decree, "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" 80 (May 3, 1990) 436. Canons 31 and 8 provide that general decrees, such as this one, are subject to the norms of the "Code of Canon Law" on promulgation of legislation. Those norms provide that, unless it is expressly provided otherwise, legislaton goes into effect three months after it is published in Acta. Curiously, one apostolic brief creating a minor basilica and dated June 19, 1990, and published in "Acta" on October 2, 1990, treats the 1989 decrees in effect while another, dated March 9, 1990, and published on September 4, 1990, does not. See 82 "A.A.S." pp. 851, 942. It would seem the decree is regarded as effective from the date of publication in "Acta," May 3, 1990.

2. "A.A.S." 60, (1968) 536. The Roman curia in its present form consists of a number of boards or dicasteries. It was so constituted in 1587 by Sixtus V, whose labors have thrice been revised, in 1908, in 1968, and in 1988. The 1968 decree on basilicas differs formally from the 1989 decree in that Paul VI approved the former specifically ("in forma specifica") and thus it enjoys the status of pontifical law. The 1989 decree, by contrast, bears no evidence that the pope approved it at all--even in common form ("in forma communi"). The latter decree thus derives any force solely from the congregation promulgating it.

3. The 1975 document appeared (unsigned) in "Notitiae" 11 (1975) 260. It was never published in Acta and never had the force of law. Its article V purported to require of candidates for the title of minor basilica a questionnaire, a dossier with photographs, and the "nihil obstat" of the episcopal conference of the region as conditions precedent to the concession of the title.

4. For an exposition of the 1968 decree, see my "The Basilica after Vatican II," "Homiletic and Pastoral Review" 90 (October 1989) 54.

5. Cf. Thomas Day, "Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste" (New York, 1991).

6. The 1958 instruction on sacred music, approved specifically by Pius XII, recommended that concerts of religious music held in churches close with some pious exercise, especially benediction. "A.A.S." 50 (1958) 630.

7. "The Rites of the Catholic Church" (1976) pp. 365-375.

8. This section relies in large part on J. Nainfa, "Minor Basilicas," "American Ecclesiastical Review" 77 (1928) 16-19.

9. Previous to 1968, if a minor basilica were a secular collegiate church, its canons were privileged to wear a rochet and violet "cappa magna" as choir dress over their soutane. The Cathedral of Saint Louis in New Orleans appears to have been the only American church with a chapter of canons. If that chapter were called out of abeyance, its canons--as it became a minor basilica in 1964--could wear the "cappa magna." In all minor basilicas it appears the sacristan, cantors, and vergers by custom wore violet cassocks and cinctures. X. Barbier de Montault, "Le Costume et les Usages Ecclesiastiques selon la Tradition Romaine," 2 vols. (Paris, 1897) I, pp. 279, 286, 292, 461.