Today is the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, the mother church for the whole of the world. It is St. John Lateran’s and not St. Peter’s basilica, that is the cathedral of Rome and thus the site of the cathedra, the sign of the bishop’s authority. Above the entrance to the Lateran is written OMNIUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT which means “The Mother and Head of all churches of the City and of the World.”
There are many interesting facts about St. John Lateran. The “Lateran” name is a remnant of the Roman family who used to own the palace from which the basilica was originally made. In answer to the question, “After which St. John is St. John Lateran named?” the answer is St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The basilica was dedicated to our Most Holy Savior but later changed to St. John by virtue of a Benedictine monastery attached to it and charged with its care. The monastery was dedicated to both St. Johns. The heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are said to reside in the baldacchino above the high altar. As odd as this sounds, it is true that the skulls of St. Peter and St. Paul were not discovered underneath their respective basilicas amongst their bones.
Pope St. Leo the Great, who’s feast is tomorrow, renovated the Lateran in 460. And its current condition was thanks to Pope Innocent X and Borromini. This is how the old Catholic Encyclopedia describes the “renovation”:
The palace, however, was never again used by them as a residence, the Vatican, which stands in a much drier and healthier position, being chosen in its place. It was not until the latter part of the seventeenth century that the church took its present appearance, in the tasteless restoration carried out by Innocent X, with Borromini for his architect. The ancient columns were now enclosed in huge pilasters, with gigantic statues in front. In consequence of this the church has entirely lost the appearance of an ancient basilica, and is completely altered in character.
I have to admit that the first time I walked into the Lateran I was underwhelmed. I think I understand the objection above. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say “tasteless,” but it certainly is not my favorite basilica.
Fr. Alban Butler makes a point about today and the commemoration of a basilica that I think is important. He quotes St. Augustine who encourages us to take care of ourselves who are temples of God. “Let us work,” Augustine wrote,
As hard as we are able with His help, that our Lord find not in His temple, that is, in us, anything whereby the eyes of His majesty may be offended…. If no one in dirty garments would dare to approach the table of an earthly ruler, how much the more ought one who is infected with the poison of envy or hate, or full of unrighteous anger, reverently and humbly to draw back from the table of the eternal King, that is, from the altar of God? For it is written, ‘Go first and be reconciled with thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift’; and again, ‘Friend, how camest thou in hither not having on a wedding-garment?’
This passage at once ennobles and challenges us. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and have within us a dignity which is magnified by the grace of baptism. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are beloved and gifted. Still we must prepare our temples well by eliminating sins of “envy or hate.”
For those of us who are more laid back, this might not be that difficult of a task. Calmness bordering on apathy helps one avoid envy and hate most of the time. But the standard is not just the avoidance of these sins, we also must decorate the temple as a bride or groom would. This involves effort, thus thwarting the apathetic.
What I love about feasts like this dedication of St. John Lateran’s is that it shows us just how incarnational our faith is. What a wonderful image it is to try to dress up our soul as groom. How does one do that? Well by decorating it with the flowers and gems of merciful charity of course. This is the ultimate test of the Christian soul. It is the love of neighbor that brightens the chambers of the interior temple. It is the joyful spirit of genuine charity that erects the bright adornment of the spiritual house.
This feast helps us to remember that the great basilicas of the world are physical reminders of the glory that awaits us in heaven, and of the glory which exists within us if only we would clear out the stain of sin and allow Christ’s healing hand to work its craft. Basilicas like St. John Lateran’s, are images of our own vocation, our calling to be more like Christ Himself.