At the conclusion of the cathedral’s Sept. 29 rededication ceremony, Cardinal Thomas Collins conveyed to full pews that the Pope had granted a new title to Toronto’s mother church. It will now be known as St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in recognition of its historic value and significance as a place of worship.
The announcement capped off a 2 1/2-hour rededication ceremony that had its roots in ceremonies going all the way back to the Edict of Milan in 313. By declaring Christianity a tolerated religion, the emperor Constantine finally let the Christians celebrate the Eucharist in public. Christians soon began dedicating buildings for the exclusive purpose of celebrating Mass.
In those early days, there was no special liturgy for consecrating a church. Instead, bishops prepared new buildings by celebrating the Eucharist, said Fr. Michael McGourty.
“Still today, the act by which a Church is dedicated is the celebration of the Eucharist within the new building,” said McGourty, who defended his PhD thesis on the liturgy of consecrating a church at the Pontifical institute for Sacred Liturgy in 2004.
For the first three centuries after Jesus’ Resurrection, Christians would have been amazed at the very notion of consecrating a church.
“Christians basically boasted of the fact that the temple was no longer in Jerusalem,” McGourty said.
“But that the temple was now the body of Christ itself — the members (of the Church).”
That insight about the Church as the body of Christ remains central to the rite which has evolved over the past 1,700 years. Early on in the rededication of St. Michael’s Cathedral after a five-year, $128-million renovation, Collins sprinkled holy water on the walls of the building and on the people inside it.
“The people are sprinkled because they are the real dwelling place of God. The building is sprinkled because it’s going to be a sign that announces the presence of this people to the community outside,” said McGourty.
As Rome collapsed and Charlemagne emerged as the real power in Europe, the ritual for consecrating a church took a more elaborate, Gallican turn in what is now France. In the 900s and through the turn of the first millennium, bishops began to prepare a sacred place for celebration of the Eucharist by driving out demons.
“The ritual, up until about 1960, was intended to be both a rite of exorcism in which the sacred space was made holy by driving out the demons and then through the rituals which are very similar to the rites of initiation — the sprinkling with holy water and the anointing like Confirmation — the building was set aside,” McGourty said.
As these rites got more elaborate over the years, the Eucharist began to take a back seat. With the Second Vatican Council, the centrality of the Eucharist was restored.
Parts of the rite of consecration of a church begin to resemble a celebration of Easter — especially the lighting of every candle in the church.
“I like to think of it as the ritualization of Lumen Gentium (the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution of the Church). The church is to be this sign of Christ’s light in the world,” McGourty said.
As a basilica, St. Michael’s becomes an official destination for pilgrims, one of more than 300 in the Western hemisphere and nearly 1,600 worldwide. The tintinnabulum (a small bell) and conopaeum (a yellow and red silk umbrella) indicate the cathedral’s status as a basilica.
Basilicas are another of those traditions that stretch back to the Roman empire. Before Christianity, basilicas were originally big public buildings where the courts meted out Roman justice.
They only gradually became cathedrals and other significant churches.