Saturday, November 8, 2014

St. John Lateran, Mater et Caput

Dedication of Lateran Basilica, 2014:
Today we celebrate an interesting feast day.  This is the feast of the dedication of the Lateran basilica.  The Lateran basilica is a fascinating building with a storied history.
Very often this church is called “The basilica of St. John Lateran.”  I remember one time looking up “St. John Lateran.”  I had never heard of that saint before.  What I found out is that this is no such person as St. John Lateran.  Actual, Lateran is the name of the place where the basilica is located.  According to tradition, in ancient times it was owned by the Laterani family.  The basilica and palace eventually belonged to Emperor Constantine.  He gave the palace to the Church in 313 so that a council could be held.  Eventually the whole complex was given to the Church and in the year 324 the basilica was dedicated.  This makes the Lateran Basilica the oldest Christian Church in the West.  The popes lived at the Lateran and his chair of office was placed inside the Lateran basilica.  To this day, the basilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome.
So, maybe we can start to see why this feast day is celebrated throughout the whole world.  This is the oldest Church in the Christian West, it is also the chief Church, outranking even St. Peter’s basilica, because it is the cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome.  The Basilica of St. John Lateran is known as the “mater et caput,” which is Latin for Mother and Head.  It is not an understatement to say that this basilica is the most important Church in the Catholic Church.
I have always been fascinated with Churches.  I love to visit Churches, spend time in Churches, read about Churches.  I think Churches are great.  To me, Churches are more than just buildings.  They are places where we can meet God.  One thing I have noticed is that in the days following the Second Vatican Council there was a shift that took place.  Emphasis was no longer placed on the importance of the Church building.  Rather, the attention was given to the congregation.  I heard many talks and homilies saying, “we are Church, or we are the temple; we are called to be Church, we are the living stones.”  I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this line of thinking.  St. Paul speaks this way.  But, one sad thing that happened as a consequence was that the importance of the church building was often downplayed. 
This is not the time for an architecture lesson, but let’s just say that the Church building is not unimportant.  The church building is not just a worship space, a place where the congregation can gather.  Rather, the Church building is living theology.  It is the place where heaven touches earth.  Just being here in this church is a miniature lesson in Christianity.
When you walk through the main doors of the Church, you are greeted by the baptismal font.  This is a reminder that it was through the waters of baptism that we all gained entrance into God’s holy Church. 
As you look around it is easy to see that the altar is the high point and focus of the Church from everywhere.  As I said a few weeks ago, this altar is the mountain where God and humanity are brought into contact.  Right here is where heaven and earth meet.  It is certainly possible to connect with God anywhere in his creation, but we know for sure that we connect with God here in a concrete and tangible way in the Eucharist.
In a sense, you could say that while we are here in the Church it’s like being in heaven.  Up on the walls we have statues of Mary and Joseph, in the back there is the statue of St. Jude.  Here in this Church we are surrounded by the saints.  Behind me there is the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies where the presence of God can be found.  Behind the altar we see the crucifixion of Christ, the saving sacrifice that makes all this possible.  Right here in this Church we meet God.

The Lateran Basilica is an amazing building, with beautiful artwork and a glorious transcendence.  But, if you go to that basilica you will find many of the same features: there is a baptismal font, an altar, statues of saints, the tabernacle.  St. John Lateran might be a lot more impressive and it’s art more amazing.  Believe me, I hope that all of you get the chance to visit Rome and to see the beautiful basilicas there.  But, it is ok if you cannot make it, because those Churches have the same goal in mind as our Church: this is a place where we meet God.    

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