The Latin word, basilica (derived from Greek basiliké stoà, royal portal), was originally used to describe a Roman public building (as in Greece, mainly a tribunal), usually located at the centre of a Roman town (Forum).
After the Roman Empire became predominantly Christian, the term came, by extension, to refer to a large, historic, and important church that has been given special ceremonial rights by the Pope, and it is in this sense that it is normally used today.
Basilicas in this sense are divided into two classes, the greater or patriarchial basilicas, and the lesser basilicas.
Major BasilicaTo the former class belong primarily those five great churches of Rome, which among other distinctions have a special "holy door" and to which a visit is always prescribed as one of the conditions for gaining the Roman Jubilee. They are also called patriarchial basilicas, seemingly as representative of the great ecclesiastical provinces of the world thus symbolically united in the heart of Christendom.
- St. John Lateran is the cathedral of the Pope, the Patriarch of Rome,
- St. Peter's Basilica is assigned to the Patriarch of Constantinople,
- St. Paul outside the Walls to the Patriarch of Alexandria,
- St. Mary Major to the Patriarch of Antioch,
- St. Lawrence outside the Walls to the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Minor BasilicaThe lesser basilicas are much more numerous, including nine or ten different churches in Rome, and a number of others. There has been a pronounced tendency of late years to add to their number.
See list of basilicas.