Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Who is "Saint John Lateran"?

The focus of today's feast day might be a bit confusing, at least for English speakers. 

The shorthand phrase "Feast of Saint John Lateran" might give us the idea that there was a holy person in history (who we know nothing about) named "John Lateran," one of the multitude of "Saint Johns" out there among the saints. And there are lots of "Saint Johns" (believe me, I've checked😉). Perhaps we might even ask "Saint John Lateran" to pray for us.

In fact, today we celebrate the dedication of the first great church built publicly within the walls of ancient Rome, the original cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, which the Italians call San Giovanni in Laterano. To this day it remains the Pope's official episcopal "seat," even though the more famous Saint Peter's in the Vatican has long since become the church closest to the Pope's residence and the sight of the majority of papal events.

The Basilica of Our Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist was dedicated in Rome by Pope Sylvester I on this day in the year 324. It was less than a decade after Constantine won his victory over Maxentius, became Emperor, and gave Christianity legal status and full freedom within the Empire. Constantine had acquired private land holdings through his wife's connections with the prestigious Laterani (an old Roman noble family). He donated the property to the Pope for the building of a church. 

The initial church was erected not after the pattern of pagan temples, but according to the model of Roman public gathering places where formal events were celebrated with all the people. In place of the imperial triumphal arch, the new church used an arch dedicated to Jesus, the true Emperor of the whole universe, and His triumph over sin and death. This arch set off the sanctuary from the congregational space, and the "Christian Basilica" was born.

But why celebrate a building? After all, isn't it true that the "Church" is the People of God who worship Him in the liturgy? Why should the building matter? 

Certainly, Christians don't view their buildings as magical edifices that circumscribe divine power and subject it to human conjuring. They do not confine God within their walls. Rather a church building, like many other material things that are set aside for the worship of God Incarnate, is cherished because of the great liturgical gestures it makes possible. The community established by Jesus is human in the fullest sense, composed of bodily human beings who are called, as much as possible, to gather together in a particular place to worship God together publicly and visibly. For three centuries, such gatherings - whether large or small, tolerated or persecuted - took place in provisional places, sometimes even secret places, but in any case places that were less than fully inserted within the society and culture in which people lived their daily lives. It is proper to the wisdom of God's plan and the reality of the Incarnation - God dwelling among us - that there be acknowledged, visible, tangible human places where His people gather to affirm and encounter His presence.

This is one reason we celebrate the dedication of the "Lateran Basilica" nearly 1700 years ago. It has been rebuilt and augmented many times, but it remains the same place, the "Mother of churches" (as it is called). Our joy on this feast day is above all in Christ and in our belonging to Him together, but today we are especially grateful for the place where the Pope has his seat, where the Christians of Rome have gathered with him for 17 centuries, and also for the churches that make "homes" for us and for Christians all over the world, the places where we come together to be with Christ in the offering of His love for us.