This Thursday, November 9th, the Church will celebrate the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in the city of Rome. While, at first, it may seem odd that we are celebrating the dedication of a Church thousands of miles away in a foreign country, it makes perfect sense when we know about this great Church and the important place it has in the life of our Catholic faith.
The word “Basilica” comes from the Greek word for “Royal Chamber” or “Royal House”. The term ‘basilica’ was originally used to designate an open public court building in ancient Rome. Today, the term ‘basilica’ is used almost exclusively as an honorary title for important Catholic Churches around the world. Significant Churches are given the distinction of a ‘basilica’ only by Papal decree. The pope may designate a Church as a basilica for a multitude of reasons: historical significance, a national shrine, or a Church where the remains of a saint are housed, are among the common reasons for the distinction. (Our own Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in center city Philadelphia is a minor basilica to honor its importance and prominence in the history of our Catholic faith in America, as well as in recognition that it was the sight of the 41st Eucharistic Congress, which was held in Philadelphia in 1976.)
Saint John Lateran Basilica is one of only four ‘major’ basilicas in the world: three are in the city of Rome, and the fourth is in Vatican City. The designation of a major basilica is meant to lend even greater honor to these four Churches that have extraordinary signi cance to our Catholic faith.
In the city of Rome, you will find the major basilica of Saint Mary Major – it is the largest Church in the city of Rome dedicated to the Blessed Mother. A Church has stood on this spot in the center of Rome since the middle of the fifth century. The pope commissioned a Church be built to honor the Mother of God, shortly after the Council of Ephesus was held in 431AD. (This Council was held to settle a heresy that was plaguing the Church that erroneously claimed that Mary was the mother of the human nature of Jesus, but was not the Mother of His divine nature. The Council decreed that Mary, was, in fact, the Mother of God.) Mary’s motherhood is honored by this great basilica. One of the distinguished relics housed in Saint Mary Major Basilica is a piece of wood from the manger of Bethlehem.
In the present city of Rome (Which is a much large metropolis than it was two thousand years ago), you will also find the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls. This major basilica is built over the place where Saint Paul was beheaded. It is called ‘Outside the Walls’ since the original Church was built outside of the walls of the ancient city of Rome. (Since Saint Paul was a Roman citizen, he could not –by law- by executed inside the city walls of Rome, so he was take outside of the ancient city walls and was beheaded – a form of execution reserved to Roman citizens, since it was deemed, at the time, to be the more humane form of execution.) This great basilica is built over the place where Saint Paul was buried; hence, it is a most important Church.
In the center of Vatican City (which is surrounded by the city of Rome, but Vatican City State is an independent sovereign state), you find, perhaps the most well-known and most visited Church in the entire world: Saint Peter’s Basilica. This magnificent Church is built directly over the cemetery where Saint Peter was buried after his crucifixion. Pilgrims to Saint Peter’s Basilica can gain access to the spot where Saint Peter’s bones rest directly beneath the main altar of the Church.
But the most important of the four major basilicas is Saint John Lateran, whose feast we celebrate this Thursday. Since it ranks first in importance, it is also designated as an archbasilica. Saint John Lateran is the Cathedral of Rome, which makes it the ‘Church’ of the Bishop of Rome – the pope. Because it is the Cathedral of the city of Rome and the Pope’s personal Church, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the most important Church of all the Catholic Churches around the world.
On the façade of the Lateran basilica is a plaque, written in Latin, that reminds the visitor why this Church is the most important Church in all the world: “The Most Holy Lateran Church, is the Mother of All Churches of the City of Rome and the World.” So, this week, we celebrate the feast of the dedication of this great Church of Christendom because we are united in faith with our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who is the Vicar of Christ on earth, the Successor of Saint Peter and the Bishop of Rome. Our celebration of this feast reminds us of the beautiful spiritual bond we have with our Holy Father.
Through the intercession of Saint John the Evangelist, may we be living examples of the gospel that he has handed onto us!
November 5, 2017