Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Nov. 9, 2014
Iona College, N.R.
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon
“O God, from living and chosen stones you prepare an eternal dwelling for your majesty” (Collect).
Today we celebrate one of those feasts that supersedes our usual Sunday celebrations. In the liturgical books it’s titled “Dedication of the Lateran Basilica.”
So, what’s the Lateran Basilica? What’s a basilica? Why is this one called the Lateran? And why celebrate it, or the dedication of any church? If you can answer those questions, you’re ready for Jeopardy.
Basilica originally indicated certain Roman official buildings; the name itself is Greek and means “king’s hall.” In Christian usage it refers to Christ, the king of kings. The term also refers to the architectural style of those old Roman buildings, which I’ll spare you. Now the word refers not to a style but to a church’s honorary designation as a papal church—a title that might be bestowed because of the church’s particular historical, devotional, or artistic merit. Local examples include Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the Lower East Side and Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark. The main campus church at the University of Notre Dame is Sacred Heart Basilica. A church need not be a cathedral to be named a basilica, nor are all cathedrals basilicas.
In Rome there are 4 major basilicas and many minor ones. The major ones are the destinations of frequent pilgrimages, especially the most famous: St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The others are St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls (at Paul’s tomb, outside the ancient city walls), and the one we celebrate today, formally known as St. John Lateran.
You’d be surprised to learn that the Lateran is the most important of the basilicas. Why? Because it’s the cathedral church of Rome, the proper church of the bishop of Rome, the Pope’s own cathedral. The Lateran Palace, next to the church, was the papal residence from the 4th century until 1309, when a French Pope decided to move to Avignon. While the Popes stayed at Avignon, until 1377, fire destroyed the Lateran buildings; so when Pope Gregory XI decided to return the papacy to Rome, there was no Lateran to return to, and he settled instead in the Vatican palace, and there the Popes have remained. Besides, the Vatican was more defensible against Roman mobs and enemy armies; if you know anything about the history of the papacy, you know the significance of that.
The property on which the Lateran church and palace are built, given to the Church by the Emperor Constantine, had once belonged to a noble Roman family named the Laterani; hence part of the name. The church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist; hence the rest of the name.
Why celebrate the anniversary of a church’s dedication, which every diocese does for its cathedral—in New York we celebrate St. Patrick’s dedication on Oct. 5—and every parish church is supposed to do? Because the building is a major symbol: a symbol of the Church proper, i.e., the people of God, and of Jesus Christ himself.
As for the latter, we heard Jesus refer to his own body as a temple (John 2:19). And for the former, we followers of Jesus are part of his body and thus part of the temple. St. Paul calls us the body of Christ. In the reading that we heard this evening/morning, he calls us “the temple of God” and the dwelling place of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 3:16). It’s not the building itself that we honor, but what goes on in that building: the forming and the building up of the Body of Christ thru the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments and thru the worship that we offer to the Father thru Christ in the Holy Spirit.
The Collect alludes to the words of 1 Peter 2:5: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God thru Jesus Christ.” The Collect calls us “living and chosen stones,” and it says that from these stones God the Father “prepares an eternal dwelling for [his] majesty.” God plans to dwell eternally in us as his temple—an indwelling that began with our Baptism and that continues thru our life as Christ’s disciples. The Preface will refer to “this house of prayer”—either the basilica that we celebrate today or this particular church building—and note that God “is pleased to dwell in” it “in order to perfect us as the temple of the Holy Spirit.”
All of that is true of any church building—this chapel, a parish church, a cathedral. Why are we celebrating the cathedral church of Rome? Every cathedral represents the bishop’s teaching authority; it’s the site of his cathedra, his chair for teaching and ruling, for shepherding, the People of God. As bishop of Rome the Pope is Peter’s successor and bears Peter’s responsibilities: to safeguard the teaching of Jesus handed down to us by the apostles, to guarantee the unity of the faithful around that teaching. At the beginning of the 2d century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote that the Church of Rome “presides in charity” over all the other local churches. Thus the basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome, has often been called “the mother church of Christendom.” It’s the seat of Peter’s authority living today. From this chair Peter speaks, guarding the truth of the Gospel. From this chair Peter guides the flock of Christ toward “the holy dwelling of the Most High” (Ps 46:5), “the heavenly Jerusalem” where we shall be the “eternal dwelling” of the Divine Majesty (Collect).