The Church with the Chair

cathedral_194px_2010When we hear the word "cathedral" we may already have formed a picture in our mind; perhaps, we think immediately of the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption in Saginaw.

Other images of great cathedral churches may come to mind, perhaps cathedral churches we have visited in the United States and abroad. But what makes a cathedral a cathedral is not its size, or its age, or its prominence as a pilgrimage site.

What makes the cathedral unique among church buildings is that it is the church housing the cathedra, which is the seat of the bishop of the diocese.

You might be surprised to know that some churches familiar to us are not cathedrals. The Basilica of St. Peter in Rome is a church of great importance for Rome and the world, but it is not a cathedral. Rather, it is the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran District that is the Cathedral of Rome. It is there that the Pope, as Bishop of Rome, has his cathedra.

Closer to home, the enormous and magnificent Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is a shrine church of great national importance, but the Cathedral of St. Matthew, a much smaller church in the city, is actually the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Washington.

It is the cathedra that is the symbol of the bishop’s authority, especially his pastoral and teaching authority. We’re familiar with this term already, especially in the academic world, where an honored professor may hold a “chair” in some particular field of expertise. The “chair” says something about the importance of the subject matter, not only to students, but also to the wider community.

The cathedra of the bishop is important for the catholic community as well, because the chair of its bishop is the place from which he leads and guides the community, and speaks not only to the catholic community but to the larger community as well.

All it really takes for a church to be a cathedral church is for it to be established or erected as such. The Diocese of Saginaw would know this well.

When the diocese was established in 1938, the East-side Saginaw parish church of St. Mary was designated as the Cathedral. In fact, here in the Diocese of Saginaw, as in many dioceses, the cathedral church serves both the diocesan community as cathedral, and as a parish church. It is the Bishop who is “Pastor” of the cathedral church, and of the diocese; he may entrust others with the day-to-day care of the cathedral parish.

It would not be unusual for a diocesan community to have a conversation about designating a different church to serve as its cathedral, or perhaps even erecting a new one. As the Diocese of Saginaw embarks on a project to renovate and renew the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption, Bishop Carlson and the people of the diocese are making a commitment to this cathedral, and this parish community, in its own neighborhood, at this time in history.

It is also not unusual for the cathedral church to become a center for many activities including outreach and the arts, and such is certainly the case for the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption. There are activities that serve the diocesan community, and there are activities that happen because of the presence of the cathedral in the City of Saginaw, such as mental health services, outreach to the needy, food service programs and more. Saginaw’s Cathedral, with its wonderful acoustics, is home to concerts for the wider community.

Bishop Carlson is using his cathedra to teach some important things about the role of a diocesan church: the role of the church in serving the poor, being a beacon of hope in an urban setting, being a welcoming place for the entire community, and being the place where the Church of the Diocese of Saginaw gathers around its bishop to encounter the living Christ in Word and Sacrament.

- Father Robert J. Kropac is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. He has assisted several communities, including the Diocese of Saginaw as a liturgical consultant, and also is the past president of the Association of Consultants for Liturgical Space. He received his theological degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and completed the Institute for Liturgical Consultants in Chicago.

-Published by FAITH Saginaw magazine, Fall 2008.


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