Sermon: Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Inscription_Ecclesiarum_Mater_San_Giovanni_in_Laterano_2006-09-07St John Lateran
9 November 2014
1 Corinthians 3.9-11,16-17
Fr. Patrick Allen

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In February of the year 313, the Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, and Licinius, who had control of the Balkans, met and, among other things, issued a decree known as the Edict of Milan, which extended official toleration to the Christian religion. Property and money confiscated from Christians either by government officials or private citizens were to be restored or repaid, and, for the first time, Christians would be free to worship openly and without fear of reprisal.

That same year Constantine gave the estate of the ancient Roman Laterani family, which had come to him by marriage, to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Miltiades. He had a basilica, baptistry, and patriarchate built for him. The Basilica was completed in the year 324 and dedicated to the Most Holy Savior. Later dedications to both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist would be added, so that today it is commonly referred to as “St. John Lateran.”

The Lateran patriarchate was the residence of the Popes from Miltiades until they abandoned Rome for Avignon for the better part of the 14th century. When Pope Gregory XI returned, the Lateran was in such poor condition that the Pope made his residence next door the Vatican basilica, St. Peter’s – which Constantine had also built, and where the Popes would continue to reside until Pope Francis decided to move in to the hostel down the hill.

The Popes have moved their residence, but the Lateran Basilica remains the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome – not St. Peter’s, as is often thought. Though it has been repeatedly destroyed by and rebuilt after the invasions of Goths and Visigoths, devastating earthquakes and fires, and our old friend deferred maintenance, it is the oldest Church of the Latin rite, the mother church of Christendom. As is engraved in the wall over the main doors, “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.” And today throughout the Universal Church is the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, which takes precedence over the Sunday.

It perhaps seems odd, particulary to us who have only recently come into full communion with the Church, to venerate a building, particularly on the Lord’s Day. But we honor the Lateran Basilica as an expression of love and veneration of the Church of Rome, and her bishops the Popes – because, as St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote more than 200 years before the edict of Milan and Constantine’s gift to Pope Miltiades, the Church of Rome “presides in love” over all the churches.

And by venerating this building, the Church calls us to remember that the building itself, beautiful as it is (and it is!), is made of dead stone, and is but a token of the living Church – which is a community, the “people of God,” as the Second Vatican Council taught so insistently.

Insistently – and Biblically, we might add. Pope St. Clement, writing about the year 100, called Saints Peter and Paul the “greatest and most righteous pillars” of the Roman Church, and already in their writings we see the Universal Church understood as a “spiritual building.”

So, in our epistle lesson we have heard St. Paul say to the Corinthians, You are God’s building… with no other foundation [than] Jesus Christ. And, you are God’s temple… and God’s Spirit dwells in you… God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.

And in his first epistle, St. Peter invites us to “Come to [Jesus], to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2.4,5).

God’s building… “Living stones built into a spiritual house.” It has been 24 years since I saw the Lateran Basilica in person, and to be honest, I was too young and stupid to appreciate all that I was seeing.  But just last week I was in St. Louis, Missouri, which used to be called “the Rome of the West,” believe it or not, because of its strong Catholic identity, and because it is mother to ao many of the midwestern dioceses.  And the Archdiocese is home to the beautiful neo-Byzantine Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. The interior of that basilica is covered, floor to dome, with stunning mosaics – 41.5 million pieces of glass tesserae, in 7,000 colors, covering 83,000 square feet.

Any one of those small pieces of glass would, I suppose, have its own beauty and worth; if you saw one lying on the sidewalk, you might tempted to pick it up – but maybe not. But when they are fitted together by a skilled craftsman, they become, if you’ll forgive the worn out cliche, so much more, infinitely more, than the sum of their parts. Each tessera is elevated; it’s individuality is maintained, yet wonderfully transcended and transfigured. And so it is with the Church, as baptized individuals – each a precious stone in his or her own right – yield themselves in faith and obedience to the loving Craftsman, an ordered community of persons is revealed as God’s building, God’s holy temple, where God’s Spirit dwells.

Pope Benedict XVI put it this way: “The beauty and harmony of churches, destined to render praise to God, invites us human beings too, though limited and sinful, to convert ourselves to form a ‘cosmos,’ a well-ordered construction, in close communion with Jesus, who is the true Holy of Holies” (Angelus, 9 November 2008).

That “conversion” into a “well-ordered construction” of which the Pope Emeritus speaks is not, though, some kind of sterile rule-following or “do-goodery,” to use a phrase of Pope Francis’, that yields self-righteousness and – paradoxically but inevitably – hate. Nor is it a “hostile inflexibility [so that one] closes oneself within the written word,” as the Holy Father said at the Synod on the Family.

Rather, that conversion is instead an act of love, many acts of love in concert, but always responding to, conforming to, and called forth by, God’s original and perfect act of love for us – which is why St. Paul warns us to let each man take care how he builds upon it; for no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

And so the community of the baptized, God’s building, this “spiritual house” whose “living stones” we are, becomes most fully and truly itself in the Eucharist – in which that primal act of love, our “sure foundation,” Jesus Christ himself, gives himself to us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood – so that we are transformed into what we receive, we become what we eat. As we will pray after our Communion, “that, by partaking of this Sacrament, we may be made the temple of your grace.”

And that is what God is making us into, as we yield ourselves to him in faith and love: carefully, patiently, skillfully fitting us together into the temple of his grace, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

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