The Basilica of St. John Lateran, Mother of all Churches

Homily for November 9th - Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran

by Fr. Tommy Lane

We celebrate today the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome because it is the head and mother church of all churches in the world. On the façade of the basilica there is an inscription in Latin which reads, “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world.” One might think St. Peter’s Basilica is the head of all the churches but in fact it is the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Every bishop has a cathedral and the Pope’s cathedral is the Basilica of St. John Lateran not the Basilica of St. Peter.

You may ask “Why is the Basilica of St. John Lateran the Pope’s cathedral and not the Basilica of St. Peter since he lives next to St. Peter's Basilica?” History gives us the answer. In the early centuries Christianity was outlawed in Rome and many Christians in Rome suffered martyrdom. The Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and the famous Edict of Milan in 313 AD allowed Christians to practice their religion in public. Constantine had been given the palace in Rome that belonged to the Laterani and after his conversion to Christianity he gave it to the Pope. The Lateran Palace was then adapted to become a church and was dedicated on November 9th 324 and the Pope then lived in the Lateran Palace, as it was called, for the next 1000 years and the basilica was his cathedral. It was first called the Basilica of the Savior but later was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist and so it acquired the name Basilica of St. John Lateran. When the Papacy transferred to Avignon for about a century, the condition of the Lateran deteriorated so much that when the Papacy returned to Rome the Pope lived in two other locations before finally settling adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica where he now lives.

Perhaps we could say that the many times the Basilica suffered destruction of some kind is a symbol of the attacks on the Church and the hatred of some for the Church. The Basilica was attacked by the Vandals twice in 408 and 455. It was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 896 and it was destroyed by fire in 1308 and 1360. The Basilica is visited by huge numbers of pilgrims every year also symbolizing the love of so many people for the Church.

Those who visit the Basilica on pilgrimage visit it not just because it is the head of all churches and the Pope’s cathedral. The wooden altar on which St. Peter celebrated Mass while in Rome is inside the main altar. The heads of Sts. Peter and Paul were once believed to be inside busts above the main altar. Part of the table on which the Last Supper was celebrated is said to be behind a bronze depiction of the Last Supper. At one time the Holy Stairs which is nearby was also in the Lateran, the stairs in Pilate’s house on which Jesus is said to have walked during his trial. It is a marble stairs and is now covered with wood to protect it. Pilgrims ascend the stairs on their knees contemplating Jesus’ Passion and on the way up drops of blood may be seen on the marble stairs beneath protective glass. The stairs was brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother St. Helena.

Celebrating the dedication of the Pope’s cathedral today shows our unity with the Pope and our love and respect for him. Not only that, but it shows that we are united with each other in the Church. St. Paul described this unity in the Church in his first letter to the Corinthians as the Body of Christ.

For as with the human body which is a unity although it has many parts – all the parts of the body, though many, still making up one single body – so it is with Christ. We were baptized into one body in a single Spirit, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as free men, and we were all given the same Spirit to drink. (1 Cor 12:12-13)…Now Christ’s body is yourselves, each of you with a part to play in the whole. (1 Cor 12:27)

In our first reading today we heard Ezekiel’s vision of a river flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem and bringing life everywhere it went (Ezek 47). We could see it as a vision of the Church receiving life-giving grace from Jesus. In the Letter to the Ephesians we read,

You are built upon the foundations of the apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone. Every structure knit together in him grows into a holy temple in the Lord; and you too in him are being built up into a dwelling-place of God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-21)

In our second reading today we have a similar idea, “You are God’s building…the foundation…is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 3:9,11) These passages from Scripture remind us to make Jesus the foundation stone and corner stone of our lives because there is a life-giving river flowing from him to fill us with his grace.

As we celebrate today the dedication of the “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world” let us pray also for those who have got lost going through life that they may find the Church as a true mother and that Jesus may become the foundation stone and corner stone of their lives.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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