Why celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in our liturgy today, November 9th? Because the Lateran Basilica, the “mother of churches”, the first large Christian church building, changed with way Christians came together. The Emperor Constantine built the church after coming to power early in the 4th century. He not only gave Christians freedom to practice their religion, but he built them large churches to worship together. St.John Lateran was the first. Dedicated around 320 AD, you can visit it today.
Roman Christians, at its dedication, must have rejoiced. Less than 20 years before they had experienced fierce persecution as a previous Emperor, Diocletian. tried to wipe them out. Now, a new emperor welcomed them, building them a basilica holding 10,000 people. He built it on property belonging to vanquished enemies, the Laterani family.
Constantine built the church on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum because, while favoring Christianity, he feared antagonizing followers of the traditional religions strongly entrenched in the city. Still, this church was a sign Christianity had arrived.
The basilica honored Christ, the Savior, whom Constantine believed gave him victory over his enemies. Later, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist were honored here. Their imposing monumental statues, along with the evangelists and doctors of the church, look down from the basilica’s high façade.
A large baptistery, named appropriately for St. John the Baptist, over 1700 years old, faces the Roman forum. For centuries Roman Christians have been baptized here. Conveniently, the baptistery was built over an ancient Roman bath providing good water.
A beautiful Latin inscription above the columns surrounding the baptismal basin and fount says:
Those bound for heaven are born here,
born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.
Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.
No differences among those born here,
they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.
The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.
So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.
Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.
Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.
As the central worship place for the Roman church, the Lateran Basilica became the pope’s church. Until the 15th century, the popes resided next to it. Important church councils were held here charting the course to the future. Important Christian relics were venerated here. Christian pilgrims, for example, came to this site to kneel on the steps that Jesus walked, the Scala Sancta. The church is a Christian history book.
The site suffered because it was located on Rome’s southeastern limits. As the city’s population shrunk and the empire’s fortunes faded in the dark ages, the area became isolated and depopulated, an easy prey for invading armies. Fires and earthquakes left it in ruins many times over the years.
Finally, in the 15th century the popes decided to move their principal residence and offices to the Vatican, on the other side of the city, better defended and growing in popularity. Even today, though, the Lateran Basilica remains Rome’s principal church.
Tides of change keep washing over the church, as we see so well here at the Lateran. Constantine’s promised political status passed away. In today’s world the church has no armies, no territories or extensive financial resources.
The Lateran Basilica offers an image of change. The large basilica still brings many people together: that’s what churches are for. Paul described the church as a body in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)
Celebrating the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, we thank God for freedom of worship we have and ask that it be granted to those without it. We’re called to welcome all into our house. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for many nations” (Isaiah)
But I also wonder. Why are so many of our young people turning away from a church as a place to get married, bring their children for baptism, pray? This feast makes us ask those questions too.