Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran

Today we are celebrating the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. The Lateran Basilica is Rome's cathedral church, so we celebrate it every year as a sign of our unity with the pope. This is one of those feasts that just make me love being Catholic, because it's seems so random and so far removed from our daily lives, yet here we are honoring a building built a long time ago on the other side of the world. So the full name of the Lateran Basilica is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. Don't worry, there's not going to be a quiz later. That name is a mouthful, so we just say the Lateran Basilica. A basilica was the name for Roman meeting halls, and as we converted them into churches we now give the title basilica to particular large and important churches. The Lateran Basilica is the Cathedral of Rome, it is the Pope's church. St. Peter's Basilica gets a lot of attention because it's where the Pope actually lives and it's built over the site of St. Peter's tomb, but the Lateran Basilica is actually the head church of Rome, and therefore the world. Why? I want to give you the basic history so you can understand why we have this feast on our calendar, then we need to think about what this feast means for us.

So first the history. Roman Empire, early 300s. Christianity is has been illegal, but growing. The emperor Diocletian is convinced that Christians are the source of all his troubles, so he makes it his stated goal to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth. Things are not good for the Church. But Diocletian gets sick, retires, and eventually passes away.  Constantine, one of his closest aids, becomes emperor. Constantine makes Christianity legal, and gives the Lateran Palace to the Bishop of Rome. Constantine's got lots of palaces, so he's not hurting because of this gift. The bishop converts the main meeting hall of this palace into a huge church, and this church came to be known as the Lateran Basilica. This basilica and palace were then the home of the pope, the bishop of Rome, for a thousand years.

The nave of the Basilica
We honor this basilica today because it is the head church of the head diocese of the whole world, and so it represents our unity as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The unity of the Church is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit who dwells among us, but it also takes work on our part to make sure we stay within this unified Church established by Jesus. The divisions we see among the various Christian denominations are a scandal to the world, and they are the result of tragic failures on our part throughout history. But as Christian denominations divide and multiply, which one holds steady? Which denomination, despite conflict within and persecutions without, despite being populated by the greatest saints and the most terrible sinners, has survived through the ages? Where has the center held while the rest of the world spins out of control? The center has held with Jesus' best friend, Peter, the first pope, and the 265 men who have sat in his place and caused the Church to spread, all the way from a backwater Galilean fishing village here to our own town. That's why we honor this basilica, because it represents our unity.

St. Paul in our second reading was talking about the importance of unity. His words are just as relevant two thousand years ago as they are today. He wrote to the Corinthians "You are God's building," and then he goes on to say "According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid the foundation and another is building upon it." Paul's basic work in his various journeys was to establish a church, these communities of Christians, but then he only hung around long enough to make sure it was firmly established, then he entrusted it to other leaders. That's why he said "I laid the foundation but someone else is building upon it." Paul wants us to recognize that we did not establish this Church. Lots of people made huge sacrifices to build this church building, but even they did not build the Church. Jesus Christ himself established this Church.

The apse of the Basilica
But Paul isn't done with us yet, his bigger lesson is yet to come. Next he says "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" He is still addressing the community, not individuals, so you the community of believers are the temple of God. The Spirit dwells in your midst. That's the teaching, now comes the warning. "If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person." That is a word of warning to each one of us. Unity is an essential characteristic of Christ's Church, Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that we may all be one as he and his Father are one. If we destroy God's temple by causing disunity, then we have been warned by Paul that God would destroy us. This should cause each of us to reflect: do I enjoy gossiping about other people, especially other members of my church? Do I harbor hatred or resentment for other members of my parish because of things that have happened in the past? How often do I justify my anger, claiming that it's my right to hold onto these feelings because of what has been done to me? Do I wait for the other person to make the first move before I dare forgive them?

Paul gives a stern warning to those who would destroy God's holy people by causing disunity, and it's phrased in the negative. But if we only focus on the mean old Paul who says God will destroy so-and-so, or if we we only focus on the mean old Jesus who was so intolerant of the money changers, then we've missed the point. The positive side of the coin is that God values the integrity of his Church, he values our unity. God knows that we need this community to walk with him. We need to be surrounded by our fellow Christians in union with our bishop and our pope if we want the Holy Spirit to dwell with us. God loves unity, and so Paul gives a warning to those who would threaten it. Today as we honor the head church of all Christendom, we pray for the gift of unity both in our own parish and in the Universal Church.


  1. Father, I came across this older post when I was researching the Lateran Basilica. You see, when I was in my twenties, I visited Rome with the Catholic hospital I worked for at the time. It was a group that was traveling for pleasure and history. We visited many churches during our 14 day tour, but something extraordinary happened to me when I disembarked our bus in front of the Lateran Basilica. I started to cry my spirit had been moved so much. At the time I knew nothing about the history of this special Church, but a nun who was traveling with us put her arm around me and asked me why I was crying outside the church. I told her I didn't know why. She then explained that it was a very special church. So I thank you so much for writing about the history of this church that moved me so over 20 years ago.

    1. Thank you for sharing that! What a beautiful experience that sounds like. May God bless you as you continue to pursue him!