|Facade of St. John Lateran Basilica, Rome|
On Wednesday of this week (Nov. 9) we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. Its official title is: “Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sanctorum Iohannes Baptista et Evangelista in Laterano.” That is quite a mouthful, even in Latin, which translates into English as: “Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran.” After having been to Rome previously at least three times, I finally got to visit St. John Lateran on my most recent trip in September. It is, like all the churches in Rome, very ornate and very beautiful. But why is it so special and why do we, in the center of Austin, TX, care about it and celebrate its dedication?
Because this is the Pope’s official church. It is the seat (literally) of Pope as Bishop of Rome. It is his Cathedral, and as such is the central church of all Catholicism. Therefore it has the title of the “Mother Church” of all Catholic churches throughout the world.
Now perhaps you were under the impression that St. Peter’s in the Vatican is the Pope’s official church. It is not. The Pope’s Cathedral (where his cathedra, or chair, the official symbol of teaching authority, is kept) is St. John Lateran.
Who is St. John Lateran? Well, like a lot of things in church, it is a bit confusing and complicated. “Lateran” is not a last name, but a location. It really is St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, at the field or place called “Lateran.” It seems there was a prominent Roman family, the Laterani, who had a palace there at one time. They eventually fell into disfavor, and the Emperor acquired their palace. However, the family name stuck to the place. It was just outside the walls of Rome, so it was a good location.
After the Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) legalized Christianity, he gave the Lateran palace to the Pope, at that time Pope Miltiades. It became the Pope’s residence and eventually his Cathedral in 324 AD, and it still is today. On Wednesday we will celebrate the 1,687th anniversary of the dedication of the church by Pope St. Sylvester I. While the Pope may celebrate his big Masses at St. Peter’s in the Vatican, the Pope’s official church is St. John Lateran.
|Detail of apse mosaic, St. John Lateran Basilica, Rome|
One of the most beautiful parts of the church is the 4th Century mosaic in the apse. Not only is it gorgeous, it is full of Biblical symbolism. My favorite is the two deer who stand on either side of the central tree of life. They are visual references to Psalm 42:2; “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
I was quite disappointed, as I contemplated this gorgeous apse completed in the 4th Century, to learn that this is not the original but an exact replica. It seems that in 1880’s the then reigning Pope, Leo XIII, felt that the apse was too small and wanted a larger one for “the ordinations and other pontifical functions which take place in this cathedral church of Rome” (Catholic Encyclopedia), so he destroyed it and then rebuilt it after extending the nave. Talk about widening your phylacteries and lengthening your tassles! (cf Mt 23:5). I might point out that Pope Leo XIII is the same Pope who wrote, “Testamentum Benovelentiae” to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, condemning the phantom heresy of “Americanism” and by implication Paulist founder Isaac Hecker. The desecration of the ancient apse is only another black mark in my book against Leo XIII. He does somewhat redeem himself in my eyes by his famous Encyclical on social justice, “Rerum Novarum.” But I digress.
You don’t need to go to Rome to explore and enjoy this wonderful Basilica. It has all been digitalized by Villanova University and is available for viewing at http://tinyurl.com/yeg9e4z (the actual website address is quite long; my technical ghost writer has shortened it thusly for print).
Anyway, on Wednesday we celebrate the dedication of this ancient church, and in so doing we re-affirm our unity in the Catholic Church. We may not always agree, but our unity under the Pope and the College of Bishops is a great blessing and a gift of the Holy Spirit.