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.
A Little History
The first Christians met for Sunday worship in house churches. These were private homes where the host welcomed the faithful. As you can imagine, these had to be rather large houses to accommodate such gatherings, and certainly many of them were owned by wealthy people, including women. As time went on, these house churches were often renovated specifically to help fulfill their purpose as places of worship, and indeed many were almost entirely given over to that purpose. Still, the fact that they were private residences was something of a shield against persecution for those who attended.
In such churches, it was always the bishop who presided at the Eucharist. It was not until some time later that the bishops began to share their ministry with those who came to be known as priests, giving them authority to preside at the Eucharist. So from the very beginning, the role of the bishop has been a vital part of the Sunday worship of the Christian.
Shortly after Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire in the year 313, the emperor made a gift of a basilica (a Roman administrative building) on the Lateran Hill to the Christian community of Rome. This became the first public Christian church and the first cathedral, named for St. John the Apostle in popular parlance, but officially dedicated to Jesus Christ under the title of Most Holy Savior. Today it is known by all as the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and is the cathedral church of Rome. Many people assume that St. Peter's Basilica is the church of the pope, but as bishop of Rome, his primary church is his cathedral, St. John Lateran. (St. Peter's is not a cathedral, but a pilgrimage shrine built over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle to honor his memory.) So St. John Lateran is considered the Mother Church of the catholic tradition, and it is the only church with its own feast on the Roman universal liturgical calendar (November 9).
For nearly 1,000 years, the greatest cathedral of the world was Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the seat of the archbishop of Constantinople, built by the emperor Justinian in the year 532. After the split between Eastern and Western Christianity, it became the center of Orthodox Christianity and the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch. In 1453, it was made into a mosque and is now a museum in Istanbul.
During the Middle Ages, a number of great cathedrals were constructed throughout Europe. Each of these massive structures was built to accommodate the entire population of the city, who would gather there in times of plague and plenty, of war and well-being, to offer praise or petition to God.
Cathedrals in California and the United States
In the United States, the first cathedral was begun in 1806 by Archbishop John Carroll, S.J., first bishop of Baltimore and America's first Roman Catholic bishop (ordained a bishop in 1789). (The first Anglican bishop in the U.S. was Samuel Seabury, ordained a bishop in 1784.) It was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe — who was also hired by Thomas Jefferson to design the United States Capitol building — and dedicated in 1821. Today it is known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it serves as the co-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, America's first diocese.
In California, the oldest cathedral predates the Baltimore Basilica. Remember that California existed as a Spanish colony and later as part of Mexico long before the establishment of the United States, so when we talk of firsts in America, firsts in California often came before them!
The Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo was founded in 1770 by Blessed Junípero Serra as a mission chapel. In 1777 the church became the Royal Chapel of the governor of Both Californias (Alta California and Baja California). It became the pro-cathedral of the Diocese of Both Californias in 1840. The cathedra for the Diocese of Monterey was moved by Bishop Thaddeus Amat to Mission Santa Barbara after the establishment of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1853, and later to the Plaza Church of Our Lady of the Angels (La Placita) in 1859 when the name of the diocese was changed to the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles. The Royal Chapel became a cathedral once more in its own right when Monterey again became a diocese in 1967. To this day, the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo serves as the Mother Church of the Diocese of Monterey, California's oldest cathedral — and the smallest in the continental United States.
The first church built as a cathedral in California was St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco (1854). So while the Monterey Cathedral is the oldest, St. Mary's is the first!
Photo of St. John Lateran by Howard Hudson.