The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran this Sunday, November 9th. Seems strange to celebrate the dedication of a church, doesn’t it? Yet, the readings remind us that churches, like the Jewish temple before them, figure in God’s plan. They’re signs that God is with us.
But why should we celebrate the dedication of a church in Rome that most of us have never seen, or perhaps even heard of?
Because this church is special, it’s called “the mother of all churches.” Let me tell you why.
Saint John Lateran, originally called the Basilica of the Savior, was the first prominent Christian church built in the Roman empire after centuries of intermittent persecution. The Emperor Constantine built it in Rome in the early 4th century after he conquered the city and gave the Christian Church its freedom.
The reason he built this church, which held 10,000 people, was to make clear that Christians had the right to worship publicly, to meet publicly, and to express their faith publicly in the society around them. They weren’t second-class citizens or enemies of the state or people to be looked down on.
That was a major step in our Church’s history. We have a right to worship and to be recognized for what we believe and to express what we believe. Before this, Christians met in private homes or small meeting halls to keep out of the public eye.
Constantine gave this church to the bishop of Rome, and so it was the church of the popes from the 4th to the 14th century, when they moved to the Vatican across the city. It was the center of western Christianity for most of our history. Papal elections, ecumenical councils, imperial coronations took place here. Emissaries from the nations and ordinary Christian pilgrims came here to visit the pope, the bishop of Rome. So the Lateran is like an archive of our church’s past.
Next week, on Friday, a number of us from Saint Mary’s will be going to visit this historic church. I’ll put some entries from our visit on my blog from there.
For me this church is special because it seems to represent so well the human side of the church to which I belong. Like the temple in Jerusalem it has had its ups and downs. The Lateran church suffered from earthquakes, fires, natural disasters of every kind. It’s been battered by invading armies and robbers. In some sketches of it that I could show you, especially from the early middle ages, it looks like an abandoned barn. Indeed, one reason the popes abandoned it in the 14th century was because the area around it had become too dangerous to live in.
It’s true, too, that not all the leaders of the church who lived there were saints either. It’s had its share of thieves and robbers.
That’s always going to be true for our church. This parish of ours is like it. Who knows what’s going to happen to this building through the years, whether from natural disasters or social catastrophes, or just the passage of time.
Like the Lateran church, we are a church of saints and sinners. Sometime, each of us goes from one or to the other. We have saints and sinners here.
Yet, as we will see next week when we visit–that old church is still there. Like it, our church too is gladdened by God’s waters of grace ever nourishing it. We are God’s temple, and the Sprit of God is given to us, ever nourishing us.
That ancient church is a sign that the Lord is with us and will remain with us till the end of time. The mysteries celebrated there, we celebrate here. So today we celebrate its beginning–our mother– and hope to be its faithful child.