08 November 2009

Dedication of St. John Lateran

9 NOVEMBER 2009. Today the Church celebrates the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. You may ask, why is a feast day dedicated to a church building? Well, the answer is that today is not so much about the building alone, as it is about the consistent and liturgical presence at the site of the basilica, and its symbolism for the universal Church.

While many Catholics probably think that Saint Peter's Basilica is the central locale of the universal Church, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is actually that spot (officially named, the Archbasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sancti Iohannes Baptista et Evangelista in Laterano (Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran)). Every diocese has a cathedral, and the Diocese of Rome, headed by the Holy Father, the bishop of Rome, is no different. St. John Lateran is the cathedral church for the Diocese of Rome, the Pope's own church and so, in a sense, the diocesan church of the entire Church--the spiritual home of all the faithful.

The first basilica on the site was built in the Fourth Century, after the Emperor Constantine donated the land that he had received from the wealthy Lateran family. St. John Lateran was the official residence for the Pope until the 15th century. The current Basilica structure was commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1646. One of Rome's most imposing churches, the facade is crowned with 15 massive statutes of Christ, Saint John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and 12 doctors of the Church. The only part of the original Lateran Palace remaining is the Pope's private chapel--the Sancta Sanctorum, which includes the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs (said to be the chairs that Jesus ascended at the praetorium of Pilate in Jerusalem, brought to Rome in the Fourth Century by Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great).

Below the main altar of the Basilica is a small wooden table that tradition says was used by Saint Peter and the first subsequent popes (through Saint Sylvester I (314-355)) to say mass. The remains of several popes are entombed at the Basilica, including Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). Many important historical events have occurred at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, including the signing of the Lateran Pacts (establishing the Vatican City State) and five Ecumenical Councils.

Initially, the observance of the dedication of Saint John Lateran was limited to Rome. But, in 1565 it was extended to the universal church. As each of us are living stones that compose the Church on earth (1 Peter 2:4-8), this feast is a celebration of all of our participation in the living Church, most famously symbolized by the Basilica of Saint John Lateran: the physical church that all of us can call our worldly home.


God, out of living and chosen stones
You prepare an eternal dwelling
for Yourself.
Multiply in your Church
the spirit of grace that you have given her,
so that Your people
may ever grow into that building
which is the heavenly Jerusalem.


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