Façade of the Lateran Basilica.
Today is the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. What, one could fairly ask, is a Lateran Basilica and why do we celebrate it?
A basilica is a specific type of church building; the word itself comes from a Greek term that means “royal house.” There are 1580 minor basilicas in the world and 325 in the Americas. There are 69 basilicas in the United States. My academic preparation before ordination to the Permanent Diaconate was done at Conception Seminary College and Conception Abbey in the northern part of our diocese. Conception Abbey is home to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which is an incredibly beautiful building and is the heart of both the monastery and the college.
When a church is designated a basilica, it is because of its antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural and artistic worth, or significance as a center of worship; it is also accorded special ecclesiastical privileges and enjoys a special bond of communion with the Holy Father.
A basilica will have within its space a silk canopy of red and yellow stripes — the traditional papal colors. It will also have a tintinnabulum, which is a bell mounted on a pole. Both of these are carried in procession on special occasions. Minor basilica also enjoy the right to display the crossed keys — the papal symbol — on its banners, furnishing, and seal.
There are four major basilicas in the world, all in Rome. The major basilicas are: St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. These are papal basilicas.
St. John Lateran Basilica, the dedication of which we celebrate today, is the cathedral of Rome. It is the Pope’s cathedral and as such is the mother church of all Christendom and is the first among churches throughout the world. It was dedicated by Pope Sylvester on this day in the year 324. That means for one-thousand, six-hundred, and ninety years the Lateran Basilica has served Holy Mother Church.
“Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput” (“Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.”) Inscription on the façade of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Rome).
That’s what a basilica is in general and what the Lateran Basilica is specifically. That is the easy part of the question to answer. The second half of the question — why do we celebrate it? — is slightly harder to answer. To answer that, we have to consider not only what the nature of a church is, but what our own nature is.
In today’s Gospel reading, we encounter Christ making a whip to drive people from the Temple and flipping the tables of merchants who were making the Temple a house of commerce. “He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, ‘Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’”
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, by El Greco
This was enough to cause the disciples to remember the words of Scripture: Zeal for your house will consume me. Christ was passionate about the Temple.
In the first reading, we hear a beautiful description from Ezekiel about water flowing from the Temple. An angel tells the prophet, ““This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah, and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh. Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
The Temple is where the Israelite encountered God. It was the house of God. In this respect, it is very much like our church today. This church is the House of God. Christ is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Tabernacle. We receive Him in the Holy Eucharist. This is where we come to encounter God.
Our diocesan cathedral is the mother of all churches in our diocese, and St. John Lateran — the cathedral of the Holy Father — is the mother of all churches in the world. That, in itself, is enough to celebrate it. But let’s take it one step farther.
The Papal cathedra is located in the apse of the Lateran Basilica . The decorations are in cosmatesque style.
In today’s second reading, Paul writes “Brothers and Sisters: You are God’s building.” You are God’s building. Full stop. Does this mean that God should be inside of me and that others should encounter God Almighty the Eternal Ruler of the Universe when they encounter me? Yes. If I am living the life I am called to live, then yes. Absolutely. This does not mean that I am God, but rather that God dwells within me and within you and within all of the faithful not because of our own merit, but because we have encountered Him in the Church and in the waters of baptism. Just as the prophet saw water flowing from the Temple and renewing the world, so, too, do the waters of baptism flow forth from the Church and renew us, making us the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit and preparing us to renew the world.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,” Paul writes, “and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”
The world may call us consumers, or workers, or voters, but the world is not the final authority. God tells us that we are His Temple, and therefore are holy. The Lateran Basilica is a mirror and a reminder to us; this is true of all churches.
A church should be beautiful and richly decorated because it is the House of the Lord and God deserves the best; it should also be beautiful and richly decorated because it serves as the constant reminder that the life to which we are called is one of great beauty. The beauty of the physical church building reminds us of our Christian dignity and that we are called to the things of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some would argue that the Church has no business possessing beautiful buildings with priceless murals, fine art, expensive statuary, and rich stained glass. They would argue that those things should be sold and the money used to buy provisions for the poor. Judas once made a very similar argument. The world would be far worse for it.
And so today we celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica and in a certain way we celebrate all churches throughout the world. These are the houses in which God dwells and in which we encounter our Lord and our God. These are the houses that transform us and are a reflection of us.
Brothers and Sisters: we are God’s building. Because of this, we are called to live a life worthy of our Christian dignity. We are called to live a life of beauty and holiness such that we see our lives mirrored daily by the wonderful art and grand architecture of the finest churches.
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Conception Abbey, Northwest Missouri.