Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran

John Lateran copy

We celebrate the dedication of a church today, November 9th, the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Why celebrate the dedication of a church? Because the Lateran Basilica in Rome, dedicated around 320 AD, is the first of the large Christian churches. Its builder was the Emperor Constantine who considered his triumph over an opponent due to Jesus Christ. In gratitude he not only gave Christians freedom to practice their religion but built them large churches to worship together. An inscription on this church calls it “the mother of churches.” It changed the way Christians came together.

Previously, Christians gathered in houses or small buildings for worship. Now they could pray in a basilica holding 10,000 people and adorned with art proclaiming the mysteries of their faith. The basilica honored Christ, the Savior. Later, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist were honored here. Their monumental statues, along with the evangelists and doctors of the church, look down from the present basilica’s high façade.

The Roman Christians who attended the dedication of this church in 320 must have rejoiced, because less than 20 years before they were fiercely persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian, who tried to wipe them out. Now, a new emperor welcomed them and gave them great churches in which to worship.

Constantine built this church on the southeastern edge of the city, on land confiscated from his enemies, the Laterani family. While favoring Christianity, the emperor built the church away from the Roman Forum, not wanting to antagonize the followers of the traditional religions still strongly entrenched in the city. Yet, St. John Lateran was clearly a sign Christianity had arrived.

Its large baptistery, named appropriately for St. John the Baptist – relatively intact today after 1700 years old – faces the Roman forum. For centuries Roman Christians have been baptized here. Conveniently, the baptistery stands over an ancient Roman bath providing good water.

A 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.

Baptistry Lateran Basilica

The Lateran Basilica was the central worship place for the Roman church and home of the popes until the 15th century. The Eucharist and other sacraments were celebrated here. Important church councils were held here. Christian pilgrims came to venerate Christian relics honored here. The site has an important place in Christian history.

By the 15th century, Rome’s fortunes had faded and its southeastern lands became isolated and depopulated, an easy prey for invading armies. Fires and earthquakes left the Lateran church and its surroundings in ruins many times. The popes decided to move their residence and church offices to the safer area across the city, to the Vatican and St. Peter’s. Even today, though, the Lateran Basilica remains Rome’s principal church.

John Latern deer

Tides of change keep washing over the church, as we see so well here at the Lateran. The Lateran Basilica offers an image of change. We’re losing our churches now in some parts of the world, as people turn away from them. What shall we make of it?

In Luke’s gospel read today, Jesus calls Zachaeus, the publican, the outsider, to come down from the tree where he watches from a distance. “I want to stay in your house today,” Jesus tells him, and he brings salvation to his house. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for many nations,” we read from the Prophet Isaiah.

We need to cherish our churches, signs of the God’s presence. They’re places we meet God.

A video on the Church of St. John Lateran is here.

6 thoughts on “Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran

  1. cenaclemary12

    The history of St. John Lateran Basilica reminded me of the raging fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris during 2019.
    Much loved by the people of France and other countries, a flood of donations poured in for the restoration. Hopefully, the work will be completed by 2024 when the city hosts the Olympics.
    Nothing material lasts forever but through the efforts of dedicated donors, historical landmarks are preserved.
    When we visted Europe we favored the small parish churches for Sunday Mass. Once we were offered hospitality in a French convent high up on a prescipice in the Alsace area. Across from the convent was the church. Mass was tri-lingual, celebrated
    in Latin, French and German. Sturdy structures of faithful people remind me that Christ is the rock on which the church is built. We are the Body of Christ!


  2. cenaclemary12

    The raging fires that ruined St. John Lateran
    Remind me of the fire at Notre Dame Church.
    News reports showed the awful devastation
    As people looked on shedding tears.
    The church is more than concrete construction.
    Faithful worshippers are the buttresses,
    Christian hope builds the high ceilings,
    Service to others shines like stained glass,
    Liturgy gives out grace like tiled floors,
    An altar to gather for celebrating Mass.


  3. fdan

    Dear Father Victor, Your reflection reminds me that we are the living stones and Christ is the cornerstone. Thank you, Father Victor, for helping lead us on.


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