Tuesday, November 9, 2010
On the Mother of all Churches in Christendom
Today, the Church marks the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Originally called the "Basilica Salvatoris", it was the first church in all Christendom, built on property owned by the Laterani family, hence the name Lateran. The dedication to the two Sts. John, John the Baptist and John the Apostle/Evangelist, came later.
So, just why is the anniversary of the dedication of this particular basilica so important to the Universal Church? Recall that since its inception, the Church has faced persecutions, particularly severe ones. When the Roman emperor Constantine gave Christianity its legitimacy, after nearly four centuries of violent persecution, there weren't any buildings dedicated for worship. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass had been celebrated in people's homes or in catacombs. The Lateran basilica, then, marked the first time that an actual church had been officially dedicated and consecrated for public worship. That is why St. John Lateran also bears the additional title of "Mother" Church of all Christendom.
Another reason exists for the universality of this particular feast. While Christians recognize the familiar dome of St. Peter's Basilica and generally most of the liturgies celebrated by the Holy Father take place there (or in its piazza), it is not the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome. Even though the Chair of St. Peter is displayed high above the sanctuary at St. Peter's Basilica, the cathedra (the Bishop's chair, symbol of his teaching office) resides at the Lateran Basilica, the Cathedral Church of Rome. When the Holy Father makes a dogmatic, infallible declaration, he does so from this cathedra. The last time such an infallible, dogmatic declaration was proclaimed was back sixty years ago. In 1950, Pope Pius XII solemnly declared the infallible teaching of the Church on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
While it might be a little hard to detect, the cathedra stands front and center of the Cathedral Basilica's sanctuary. Long-time EWTN viewers will also note that the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper takes place at the Lateran Basilica, as well as the Mass to mark the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (although, this particular liturgy generally takes place in the esplanade of the church).
Today, the Church presents us with readings that are taken from the Ritual Mass for the Dedication of a Church. The Gospel account from St. John recounts Jesus' visit to the Temple. It is not necessarily a pleasant visit that God makes to His own house. Jesus witnesses the disrespect shown within the confines of the sacred space of the Court of the Gentiles, the area of prayer reserved in the Temple for non-Jews who have come to believe in and worship the God of Israel. Moneychangers and livestock vendors pretty much profaned this area, turning it into a money exchange and animal store. Jesus took whips and cords and drove the moneychangers and vendors out (NB: next time someone asks "what would Jesus do?", this story should come to mind).
Because both our pastor and parochial vicar were out of town, we had a visiting priest celebrate Mass for us. I admire him greatly and am rather fond of him. Unfortunately, I think that he had an off-day. He started his homily by giving us a brief, though, somewhat misunderstood, history of the Lateran basilica. While he correctly stated that the Lateran basilica was the Cathedral Church of Rome, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the concept of the Chair of Peter and the Cathedra. Sadly, the homily turned into a tourism promotional piece. He opined that of the four basilicas of Rome, his favorite was Santa Maria Maggiore. He also did a Q & A session wherein he asked us the name of the current successor of St. Peter. He also asked if any of us knew why the popes no longer lived at the Lateran Palace. No one knew that answer. He then concluded his homily by announcing to the faithful that he would be leading a pilgrimage to Italy in 2012 and one of the stops would be Rome.
I sat there perplexed. While I am involved in a committee that provides guidance to our local convention and visitors bureau, this kind of tourism plug is not quite what I was looking for in a homily. Today's readings offered so much rich and beautiful material on which a homilist could expound to his heart's content. The symbolism of the waters from the Book of Ezekiel could be taken to mean both the waters of Baptism and the water that flowed from the side of Jesus and how all of this comes to play in the Church. Jesus' actions in the Temple remind us that sacred space must be respected and maintained. I just wasn't expecting an ecclesiastical Travel Channel episode.
While our visiting celebrant was preaching, I recalled the first time our bishop sat down with us to set his Cathedral Mass schedule. He was very adamant about wanting to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica at the Cathedral. He was also just as determined to also celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. He seemed to understand the close link that both of these feasts form between Rome and our litle diocese in the South Texas hinterland.
If I should ever join our visiting priest on his pilgrimage and we manage to make it to the Lateran basilica without killing each other, I should think that once I enter this great Church, I will be very much at home because, as a Catholic, I claim the Lateran as my church, too.