WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Today is the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran which was originally the Church of Christ Our Savior. It was more recently dedicated to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. While most of us associate the Pope with St. Peter's, this is actually his cathedral - his chair - as the Bishop of Rome.
The history of this amazing basilica goes back to the fourth century, to the the time of Constantine when the emperor gave the palace, which had belonged to the Laterani family, to Pope Miltiades. The palace later became the Papal cathedral and residence during the time of Pope Sylvester.
In the early centuries of the Church, if you were to refer to "The Lateran," it would be the same as saying, "The Vatican" today. It is still ranks above all the other Catholic churches in the world.
Over the centuries, despite destruction from fire, earthquakes and the devastation of war, the basilica remained the home of the Holy Father. In the 14th century the palace fell into complete ruin when the papacy was moved to Avignon for 70 years.
Upon returning, the basilica was re-built in various stages by succeeding popes. While it no longer served as his home and administrative center, it continued as his Cathedral for Rome under a Cardinal Vicar.
The current building was commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1646 and is one of Rome's most elegant structures. Called the ecumenical mother Church of Roman Catholics, there is a Latin inscription inside, "Omnium ecclesiarum Urbis et Orbis, mater et caput'' ("The mother and head of all churches of Rome and the world").
While today we may think we are celebrating a feast for this place, we really are celebrating a person and our unity with him. As beautiful as this cathedral may be, we fix our hearts on the union we have as the universal church in communion with our Holy Father.
The Gospel reading for this feast day shows a stark contrast between the place and the person. This is St. John's account of the cleansing of the temple, where our Lord drove out the money-changers, who had turned the turned their center of worship into a marketplace rather than a place of prayer.
Jesus used the occurrence to talk about the fact that, as God the Son and head of the Church, he would be their center of worship rather than the temple in Jerusalem, a building that would soon be destroyed. While the Basilica of St. John Lateran would be destroyed and re-built over centuries, Christ's temple - meaning his body, which would be destroyed but raised up in three days, must still be the center of our worship.
Where the Jewish system needed a temple made with human hands as a place where the priests would offer their sacrifices, as priest and sacrifice, Christ would become the one perfect offering for sin.
The temple for his pure offering is the heavenly temple, from which the rivers (as Ezekiel saw) flow out for the healing of nations.
The Lordship of ChristIn this Gospel Passage we are reminded that our hope comes from the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives. With him, the spotlight of our faith falls not on a structure but a savior. We are to put our trust in him. This is the first and foremost person with whom we build our relationship. This feast day, offered for the church first named "Church of Christ our Savior." reminds us to build our lives on him.
St. Paul writes, "In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace." (Eph. 1:7)
The writer of Hebrews gives us a glimpse of this redemptive work. "But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption." (Heb. 9:11,12)
This unity with our Lord can be seen in the basilica through the incorporation of the Scala Sancta (or Holy Stairs). These wooden steps, which have been encased in white marble, according to tradition, are said to be the staircase Jesus walked up to the praetorium of Pilate at Jerusalem at the time of his passion. Walking up these stairs, we are truly on holy ground as each one has been sanctified by the footsteps of Jesus.
Communion with our Holy FatherWe are also reminded today that our life as Catholics is built universally around our communion with the Pope. This basilica is where his cathedra - his throne - has been placed. The cathedral takes its meaning and purpose from this essential fact. It isn't about the building but the bishop.
The Catechism explains this clearly, in stating:
When Christ instituted the Twelve, "he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them." Just as "by the Lord's institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another."
"For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." (CCC 880, 882)
We cannot be in communion as the Church on earth apart from our unity around Supreme Pontiff as the head. The understanding of communion links us at all levels of the Church, as bishops, priests, deacons and laity, as an established unity with those in delegated authority over us.
Ignatius, one of the early Apostolic Fathers, admonished the Church to maintain this kind of unity. "See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it." (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans)
You can see a beautiful Papal Cathedra (the seat of the Pope) located in the apse of the basilica as our reminder of this important relationship.
Solidarity with each other as CatholicsToday's feast also gives a great sense of our unity. our solidarity with other faithful Catholics who have maintained their loyalty to the magisterium in communion with the whole Church.
For a long time the Lateran bapistry was the only one in Rome. Generations of Roman believers were baptized in these waters. Our connection to each other begins with this sacrament, which is the gateway to all the others as well as our unity.
The Catechism tells us that the faithful who have been baptized "are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God, are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ, and have their own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the World."
"By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. . . (CCC 897, 898)
The laity has a special connection, then to the Lord Jesus Christ. Collectively and individually they express the life of the Church in the world and become His presence and His purposes in their vocation and other aspects of daily living.
As a convert, one of the greatest experiences I had in coming into the Church was gaining a greater sense of the solidarity we can have one with another. We can visit other parishes and find the faithful who are living their lives as we are, in union with each other, their bishop and the Holy Father.
This solidarity also makes it even more painful when we encounter those who profess to be Catholics and yet have dismissed certain tenets of faith or teachings of the Church. We feel that loss of unity and the disconnect.
In 1726, Pope Benedict XIII, assigned the following commemoration for the Lateran Basilica to the present day.
"What was done here, as these walls were rising, is reproduced when we bring together those who believe in Christ. For, by believing they are hewn out, as it were, from mountains and forests, like stones and timber; but by catechizing, baptism and instruction they are, as it were, shaped, squared and planed by the hands of the workers and artisans. Nevertheless, they do not make a house for the Lord until they are fitted together through love."
For most of us, our local parish becomes our principle participation in unity. Yet, the Church is so much bigger and greater than just what we see around us.
Holy Mother Church reaches around the globe and embraces both those royalty and those in rags. She includes the free and those enslaved.
Above all, the Church is the people of God from all four corners of the earth, with manifold cultural expressions and multiple liturgies, who together profess that "There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4,5)
----- Father Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and a priest with the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (http://usordinariate.org) established by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, through the Apostolic Constitution "Anglicanorum Coetibus."
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