The dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran

November 9, 2018

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Basilica of St. John Lateran

This feast commemorates the first dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran which took place in Rome on November 9, 324. Pope Sylvester I (314-335) presided.

St. John Lateran’s original name was the Church of the Savior, and its official complete name is the Patriarchal Basilica of the Most Holy Savior and St. John the Baptist at the Lateran. The church is under the dual patronage of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.

It is the oldest of the four principal pilgrimage churches in Rome. The other three are St. Peter’s Vatican Basilica, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The Emperor Constantine (280-337) legalized Christianity through his historic Edict of Milan in 313, and shortly thereafter, he gave Pope Melchiades (311-314) a beautiful ancient palace that stood on the Celian Hill that had belonged to the Laterani family, and it was converted into an enormous basilica.

This feast is not so much about the building itself, even though it is magnificent architecturally and artistically, but about what the building represents spiritually. St. John Lateran is the first major church in Rome, and because it served as the headquarters of the Church from 313 to 1309, it is known as “the Mother Church.” Pope Clement XII (1730-1740) stated this explicitly when he had this Latin verse etched into the front façade, “omnium ecclesiarum Urbis et Orbis mater et caput,” “the mother and head of all churches of the city [Rome] and the world.” It is the one from which all other churches find their origins.

For nearly one thousand years it served as the official residence of the Pope, as well as the place where new popes were elected and installed in office. Ecumenical councils were held at the Lateran Basilica in 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215, and 1512. St. John Lateran remains the cathedral church of Rome, the place where the Pope acts as chief shepherd of the local archdiocese.

The church building has suffered many setbacks as the object of two barbarian attacks (408 and 455), an earthquake (896), two fires (1308 and 1361), and a bomb blast (1993). The building has been repaired, rebuilt, and restored numerous times over the centuries. Reconstructions took place under Popes Leo the Great (440-461), Hadrian I (772-795), Sergius III (904-911), and Clement VIII (1592-1605). The most comprehensive renovation took place in the Seventeenth Century under Pope Innocent X (1644-1655). A new floor was installed in 1938.

The basilica is adorned with beautiful art. The roof above the entrance has 13 statues with the Risen Christ in the center flanked by its patrons, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. There is a massive statue to Constantine in the vestibule. The nave has marble statues of the twelve apostles, while the walls have reliefs with scenes from the Old and New Testaments and paintings of the prophets. The dome of the apse has a mosaic of Christ with his angels above a glorious Cross. The left side has full size images of Sts. Paul, Peter, and the Blessed Mother Mary, and a smaller image of St. Francis of Assisi, while the right has full size images of Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Andrew, and a smaller image of St. Anthony of Padua.

The Lateran Basilica represents the unity of the universal Church. The basis of our unity is Jesus and our common Baptism. It was Jesus’ fervent prayer that his disciples be one (Jn 17:21). There are many churches throughout the world, but all are one body in Christ, individually parts of one another (Rom 12:5), all united under the symbolic headship of St. John Lateran.

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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