What is the

Cathedral Church in a Diocese

Our Lady of Grace - Main Alter

The northern parts of the Archdiocese of Bombay (beyond Vasai Creek) were carved out and created into a new Diocese of Vasai by St. Pope John Paul II; the diocese is also called the “Local Church in Vasai”, distinguishing it from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic (universal) Church. Bishop Thomas Dabre was appointed the first bishop of the newly created diocese of Vasai by the same St. Pope John Paul II. The installation of Bishop Dabre, as the bishop of Vasai, took place on 15th August 1998 in Our Lady of Grace Church, Papdy, which was declared as the “Cathedral Church” of the newly created diocese of Vasai.

What is the “Cathedral Church” and why is it called “Cathedral Church”? Let me explain briefly in the following paragraphs the deeper meaning of “what is the Cathedral Church in a Diocese”. What makes a church a cathedral is the presence of the “cathedra” (a Greek word for a throne or a special seat), of the bishop which is placed in a church. Strictly speaking, the size or historical significance of the church building is of no consequence; it is only the presence of “the cathedra” that determines the status and function of the church, which is known as the Cathedral. Traditionally, the local Ordinary (bishop) of a diocese taught “officially” from that throne or seat.
Therefore, an expression, “ex cathedra teaching” came into usage. “Ex cathedra” simply means that what is taught is an official teaching and that teaching is binding on all the members of the Church; in other words, all the members of the Church are obliged to follow that “ex cathedra” teaching. This much is generally if dimly understood, but that is where, unfortunately, any reflection on the significance or meaning of the cathedra tends to end. Some may go on to mention its role as the teaching seat of the bishop, but since bishops now rarely if ever preach or teach from the cathedra, it is a symbol that has little resonance in our church culture today. The cathedra is significant chiefly when the bishop is in it or is ministering in the cathedral, but that the rest of the time the cathedra seems to be virtually a superfluous piece of furniture.

Unfortunately, this is a significant undervaluing of the significance and meaning of the cathedra. The truth is that “the cathedra” can speak even more powerfully when empty than when occupied. When the bishop sits on the throne (cathedra), some people typically see “cathedra” only as an image of authority and power. What we must understand is that a Cathedra in a Church building should be so placed that it becomes the visual climax of the church building, the destination of a spiritual journey through it. The Church with a cathedra is cathedral and its position emerged from the placement of the ‘seat of Moses’ in the synagogue and of the judge’s throne in the apse of the Roman law court, an architectural setting that was plainly the inspiration for a scriptural vision of heaven. ‘The description of heavenly worship in the Book of Revelation, chapter 4, might seem to suggest a meditation in such a church building, with the throne in the apse, the altar before it, the elders around it, and the ”sea of glass”. The cathedral sanctuary is not simply the setting for the liturgy in its fullness celebrated by the bishop; it stands as the heavenly court focused on the judgment seat of our only Redeemer, heavenly King and merciful Judge, Jesus Christ, who will sit in judgment over all things at the end of the world, the end of time (Matthew 13.40-50). His judgment in favour of the meek, weak and vulnerable is indeed a subversion, an overturning of the sinful and selfish values of our world.

The idea of an earthly throne for God in the Judaeo- Christian tradition goes back to the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant which became, first in the Tent of Meeting and then in the Temple in Jerusalem. But the idea of God making himself known to humans in particular places (Geography of Salvation, as there is History of Salvation) goes back even further in the biblical tradition. When God is present to his people, he is present in judgment, whether in the Garden of Eden, or at the murder of Abel by Cain, or the building of the Tower of Babel, or the call to Noah to build the Ark. The idea of the Lord as the merciful judge of Israel is reinforced when Jacob (Israel) wrestles all night with God (Genesis, 32). With the gift of the Law on Sinai, God establishes both the standard and the place of judgment. The Ark of the Covenant holds the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the Mercy Seat is placed on it as the throne for the invisible God. The cherubim face towards the Mercy Seat (i.e. towards God’s presence) and their wings overshadow it (Exodus 25.10–22). Law, presence and judgment all belong together. When Solomon was anointed as king in Jerusalem, he sat on the throne of the Lord as had David before him (1 Chronicles 29.20, 23) and the people ‘worshipped him’. In this case, the human king was understood to be the Lord with his people. Bibilical references to the Mercy Seat – and, by extension, to the Temple as the place of the presence of God as universal judge – are prominent not only in books associated with Temple worship, particularly the Book of Psalms, but also in those connected with exile and separation from the Temple. In the psalms, the standard of God’s judgment is that of the law and the prophets: the defence of the weak, the fatherless and the stranger. Thus, in Psalm 9, the psalmist gives thanks to the Lord, “thou art set in the throne that judgest right” (verse 4); ‘the Lord shall endure for ever: he hath also prepared his seat for judgment’ in the defence of the oppressed (verses 7-10). Psalm 89 explicitly associates God’s righteousness with his seat: ‘Righteousness and equity are the habitation of thy seat: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.’ In the New Testament God was present in the Incarnate Son of Mary, Jesus, in a special way in the Temple. As he says: He who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and he who swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it; and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and
by him who sits upon it (Matthew 23.20–22). At the same time, Jesus identifies himself with God’s presence and therefore with the Temple, in some sense becoming the Temple himself (John 2.19,21). Elsewhere in Matthew he says to the Pharisees, ‘Something greater than the temple is here’ (Matthew 12.6). The only thing greater than the Temple is the presence of God there, with which Jesus is identifying himself, the Lord of the Sabbath and the Son of Man (Matthew 12.8). Because Jesus becomes the Temple, he also takes on himself the function of the Temple as the place of sacrifice. Implicitly, the Temple was the place of judgment because it was through the offering of the sacrifices that atonement was made for the sins of the people. Jesus becomes priest and sacrificial victim and merciful judge. Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice and atonement present in the Eucharist are the fulfilment of the whole purpose of the Temple.

According to St Paul, Jesus is the one whom ‘God put forward as an expiation [literally, to be the Mercy Seat] by his blood, to be received by faith’ (Romans 3.25). Jesus is the Mercy Seat as well as the Temple. In the Letter to the Hebrews, the words of Psalm 45 are interpreted typologically to speak of Jesus: ‘Of the Son he says, ”Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever, the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness and hated lawlessness” (Hebrews 1.8-9). The writer further says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4.16).

When we come to the Book of Revelation, in a sense we are back where we started, with our ancient throne and the setting for an Episcopal (bishop’s) liturgy based on the vision set out in Chapter 4 of Revelation. Scholars see the Throne as a central motif to this book. This reality was expressed liturgically through the position of the throne even in the early second century. St Ignatius of Antioch (died c.117) reflects a Revelation 4arrangement in his Epistle to the Magnesians, writing, ‘Let the bishop preside in the place of God, and his clergy in place of the Apostolic conclave, and let my special friends the deacons be entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ’ (Chapter 6).

In the Western Church (Roman Catholic), the identification of the cathedral and other great churches with the Temple reached its fullest expression in the dedication liturgies. The ministry of the Church is to witness to the life of God’s eschatological kingdom among us here and now, to manifest God’s loving care for all people and for all creation, to make that love visible and active in word and sacrament. The throne, from its origins in the Mercy Seat, has been the enduring symbol of God’s loving presence, his merciful judgment, the teaching of his wisdom and of the values of his kingdom. As the bishop’s seat, it articulates the bishop’s ministry as the focus of unity in the local church, as steward of the mysteries of God, as teacher and guardian of the deposit of faith, as pastor and governor of the flock. The whole cathedral becomes a means to embody and enable the advancement of the kingdom of God. It is the good news of the kingdom of God that Christians are bound to proclaim and that the world desperately needs to hear. The Church’s preaching and witness must testify to the inherent dignity of every human being as created in God’s image and likeness and to testify against every movement or tendency that would regard humans as of instrumental importance only, or as merely units of economic utility. It must work for and witness to the integrity of creation and of our human responsibility to be good stewards of the gifts of creation that God gives for the good of all and not just the few. It must also express the conviction with St John in Revelation that human reason and power are not and cannot be the ultimate standard of judgment in our world, but that human beings have an eternal judge, both God and man, who does not see things in the selfishly limited and partial way of humanity, but whole and with loving compassion for all. The cathedra mocks complacent certainties about the present and the future and recalls humanity to the will of the One who is all truth, all love, all compassion, and all justice. In the end, his throne is a sign of the destiny Christ has won not for bishops alone but for all people, always and everywhere. In the words of an ancient homily for Holy Saturday: “The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity”.

(I am grateful to Dr Peter Doll, who is Canon Librarian and Vice-Dean of Norwich Cathedral, for his article published in Theology, 2019, Vol. 122 (4) 252-259).

+ Archbishop Felix Machado