St. John Lateran by Sister Mary Jane

BasilicaDEDICATION OF THE BASILICA OF ST. JOHN LATERAN IN ROME The name of the church can be confusing. The basilica stands on the site of the palace of the ancient Laterani family.  The emperor Constantine gave the palace and its lands to the church in the year 311.  The basilica was built next to the palace.  Like all patriarchal cathedrals it is dedicated to Christ our Savior and celebrates both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.  The official title is “The Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran.”  The pope lived in the palace adjoining the church until the 14th century.  The church with its immense stark white façade and large statues above dominates the landscape. I was in Rome two different times and each time I visited this church I fell in love not only with its beauty but the spiritual and historical significance of everything about it.  First of all it is the Cathedral church of the bishop of Rome; the pope’s cathedral.    Most people think of St. Peter’s as the pope’s church, but the Lateran basilica is really the pope’s cathedral and since the pope is the shepherd of the universal church, the doorbasilica is the cathedral church of the world.   Over the doorway of the façade is a Latin inscription that reads:  “Mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world.”   To one side of the entrance of the façade is the Holy door of the church.  This beautiful door depicts a huge crucifix with the torso of Christ on the cross surrounded by huge stars.  Flowing from Christ is a woman kissing the infant she is holding.  She is probably Mary with the child Jesus.  Beneath her beautiful flowing robe is a pope’s tiara.  The inscription on the side says, “Christ Yesterday, Today and Forever.”  Inside the nave of the church are giant statues of the Apostles with each holding the instrument of their martyrdom except for St. John who is depicted with an eagle.   Farther down the aisle is the altar over which is an ancient and graceful baldacchino with statues of Saints Peter and Paul looking out from behind a grill.  Behind the altar is the area where the Cathedra or chair from which the Pope presides when he is there for special feasts. Above this area is a magnificent mosaic of Christ as the Savior of the World and surrounded by nine angels. Off to one side is the Blessed Sacrament chapel and across from this is a doorway leading to the front of the Lateran Palace. Here one can go into a separate baptistery building which was the only one in all Rome for quite some time.  In the center and slightly lower is a beautiful basin which forms the actual baptismal font.  It is the shape of a sarcophagus or casket symbolizing dying and rising with Christ.  In the 4th century all Christians were baptized by immersion in this font. obeliskIn front of the Lateran palace stands an ancient Egyptian obelisk weighing 455 tons and dates from 15 centuries B.C. It is said to have been brought from Egypt to Rome by Constantine.  It was found buried under the Circus Maxima and transferred to the Lateran Palace square Across the street from the basilica is a statue of St. Francis and his followers. Francis went to Rome to obtain approval of his Rule. All these reminded me that it was the great faith of those early believers through whose praise and thanksgiving to God,  the places where they came together  were sanctified.  In the words of Jesus—“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.”  And so on this Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica we celebrate this most beautiful and venerated church.   As St. Paul reminds us in the second reading for this feast, “You are God’s building.”  We are part of something much bigger than the local church, we are a universal church and it is all the baptized believers, the church, the people whose presence makes beautiful and holy the spaces where we come together. Mary Jane Vigil, OSB

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