Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome
History is nothing more than life – life already lived. It is the witness of how those before us navigated the challenges thrown at them and how they were able to pass on to us what we have. History is as much who we are as what we do now. We can learn much about today from history and today’s feast is a great example. Today we celebrate a seemingly unusual feast – we seem to be celebrating a building and it is the only world-wide celebration of its type. Of course each diocese celebrates their Cathedral but it is only the Basilica of St. John Lateran that is celebrated throughout all the church.
Mother Church – Pope’s Cathedra
St. John Lateran is given the title of the Mother of Churches for two reasons.
First, it is actually the Cathedral of Rome – it is where the Bishop of Rome as his Cathedra, latin for seat or throne, as St. Raymond Cathedral is the center of our Diocese St. John Lateran is the same for Rome. St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is not a cathedral.
Two, and at least for me, most importantly, it is first publically recognized church in Rome. Throughout the 327 year history of Christians in Rome Christians at best were tolerated and usually persecuted sometimes openly and violently. Christians didn’t have great buildings to worship in. It is not that didn’t want them – contrary to some beliefs Christians always looked to celebrate in the best possible structures they could – it elevated their celebrations – it was an act of love towards their God. But they were forced to go underground. At first they were driven out from the synagogues. Then throughout the lands and at various times they set up public worship places only to be destroyed or confiscated. So when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and put a stop to persecutions and then donated the estate of the Laterini family for a church it was the pinnacle of Christian success in Rome and the empire.
But, if we look at the title of today’s feast we find that we aren’t celebrating the Basilica but the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. We celebrate the act of consecration, of recommitment of this sacred space to what it is intended for.
Rome came to accept Christians
And though the Dedication of the Basilica of St John Lateran can be considered the crowning moment in the Church at the time – when finally Christians were publically accepted; acceptance of Christianity wasn’t from some great building – it wasn’t because the Emperor saw a great sign before a battle that he won. It wasn’t even due to acts of heroism displayed by 300 years of Christians as they were put to death at the Circus Maximus or used as human torches. Their acceptance came from small things; the way they lived their lives and the way they had Christ in the center of their lives.
The Roman civilization was the greatest of the day – it was the pinnacle of mankind’s achievements. Roman citizens had the highest standard of living in their known world. And yet, for 300 plus years since the death of Christ Romans came to know and were amazed and envious of how Christians lived with each other; how they treated family members both immediate and extended and how they treated their pagan neighbors. There was a joy that radiated from them and a peace that shined from their souls. They were happy and fulfilled even with all the persecutions and terrors that were thrown at them. And the Romans grew to desire this life. They wanted to know and embrace a life of hope, peace, joy. They wanted to experience more than what their so-called advanced civilization gave them.
Church is built of living stones.
So, in 372 Pope St. Sylvester I dedicated the Basilica of St. John the Baptist on the Laterini estate that Emperor Constantine gave them. Holy Mother Church had their very first publically celebrated Cathedral but our celebration today is about the foundation that gave rise to this Cathedral – the living stones that it rests on – the people.
St. Paul today tells us that we are God’s building. The whole of the Bible relates to us this symbolism – by our actions, how we live our lives we become one more piece of the Church. The Pagan Romans saw this in their Christian neighbors and their opinion of Christianity was built stronger. It wasn’t immediate, as history shows, but each Christian witness, each act of each Christian, was another seed sown in the pagan ground of Rome; each act of love brought curiosity and eventually desire. They saw, with their tired and fear worn eyes what Ezekiel spoke about: the flowing water of Christ’s love – the constant streams of grace flowing from the temple – Christ.
Brothers and sisters, what this celebration points to, what our lives should be dedicated to is the true temple of Christianity – the fount of all graces from God – Jesus. All of our actions, from the great acts of building glorious cathedrals to the small actions of living our lives should we washed in Jesus Christ. But even more, we should allow this river to flow through us, not remain; allow others to be refreshed. We do this by living our life in Christ and allowing our witness to the Christian way to be seen by others around us.
The only difference between us and our society and Rome of 372 is just years. Our neighbors are no different than the pagan Romans who hungered for a better way of life. Our obligation to them and to God is no different than Christians of 372 – bring those around us with us by living the life of Christ – love in everything we do. I pray that each of us will constantly take a look at how we are living our life and through prayer grow closer to the example of our ancestors who took the greatest society of their time and made it greater.