Tag Archives: St. John Lateran

Mother Church

Today is the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of Christ the Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist – more commonly known as St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral.

It’s an impressive church and probably the major basilica I most appreciated when I visited Rome in February 2013. St. Peter’s felt more like a mall than a church; St. Paul’s outside the walls was almost deserted when I visited; St. Mary Major does house what is called the manger, but except for some mosaics it didn’t move me.

But there was something about St. John Lateran that struck me.

Maybe it was because I went to Mass there and it felt like a place of prayer.

San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma

San Giovanni in Laterano, Rom

Maybe it was the apse mosaic with the small image of St. Francis of Assisi beside the image of Mary.

St. John Lateran apse

St. John Lateran apse

Or maybe it was the sculpture of St. Francis and his companions across the park, facing the church. In the Lateran palace Francis sought the approval of his new order of mendicant friars. The pope was probably a little reluctant to accept this strange group, but he had a dream that the Lateran church was falling down and a strange guy, whom he later recognized as Francis, sustained the church.

St. Francis facing the Lateran

St. Francis facing the Lateran

St, Francis (facing the Lateran Palace)

St, Francis (facing the Lateran Palace)

Pope Leo XIII

Maybe it was the tomb of Pope Leo XIII with its triumphant statue of the pope who initiated the modern era of Catholic social thought with his encyclical on labor in 1891, Rerum Novarum.

Maybe it was the nearby baptistery with an image of the deer seeking living waters.


But then it might just have been because God and the people of God were present at worship.

This is what I thought of this morning as I read from a sermon of St. Caesarius of Arles in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

We celebrate the birthday of this church, dear brothers and sisters, with a joy that pleases Christ. Yet, remember that we ourselves must first be God’s true and living temple. Nonetheless, Christians rightly keep the anniversary of Mother Church, who has given them spiritual rebirth….
If then … we want to celebrate the birthday of a church with real joy, we must avoid destroying by sin the temples of God which we ourselves are.

Kristallnacht, the Wall, and a Basilica

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis fomented a massive campaign of destruction against the German Jewish communities. One hundred and ninety one synagogues were burned and seventy five hundred shops owned by Jews were destroyed.

Today is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Berlin Wall, 2012

The Berlin Wall, 2012 

Today is also the feast of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s cathedral, which has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. It is an impressive building with a separate Baptistry.

St. John Lateran - facade

St. John Lateran – facade

St. John Lateran - apse

St. John Lateran – apse

But what I most recall from my February 2013 visit is the sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi and his companions facing the church, across the plaza.

St. Francis and companions facing the Lateran

St. Francis and companions facing the Lateran

According to the legend, Francis had come to the Lateran to ask the pope to approve his group of brothers. The pope had a dream that the basilica of St. John Lateran was falling down and that a poor man saved it. He later recognized that man as Francis.

Francis came in homage to the Church, both the building and the institution, but his presence was a challenge to the power and the glory of the medieval church.

Francis sought a poor church, a church of the poor, a church that followed the Poor Man of Nazareth.

Such a church will identify with the poor – not merely serve them,

Such a church will break down walls.

Such a church will protest all the Kristallnachts that oppress others.

Such a church will love and follow the Lord who accompanied His people.


Kristallnacht, the Berlin Wall, and St. John Lateran

Seventy-five years ago, on the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers attacked Jewish communities throughout Germany, destroying 191 synagogues, thousands of Jewish businesses, arresting 22,000 Jewish men, and deporting about half of them to Buchenwald.

Few people, in either Germany or the world protested this “Kristallnacht” – the Night of Broken Glass. The Nazis took great comfort in the silence of the world.

A cross at the Berlin Wall

A cross at the Berlin Wall

Fifty one years later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. That year the movements for independence from Soviet control were growing throughout Eastern Europe. Finally on this day, following an announcement that East Germans would be able to pass through the wall into West Berlin with permission, thousands mobbed the border crossings and were finally let through. In following days the wall fell.

Today is also the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, the mother church of the whole world. The first building was dedicated in 324 and there have been many rebuilding and renovations of the structure.

St.  John Lateran, Rome

St. John Lateran, Rome

Saint John Lateran is a beautiful church which I found much more prayerful than Saint Peter’s. Its apse has a beautiful mosaic – with a small image of Francis between Our Lady and Saint Peter. A legend says that when St. Francis came to Rome to seek permission for his new band of followers of Christ, the Pope had a dream that the Lateran was falling down and a simple friar held it up. The pope identified Francis with this friar who was preventing the church from falling into ruin.

St. John Lateran - apse with the Pope cathedra

St. John Lateran – apse with the Pope’s cathedra

In the second reading for today’s feast in the Catholic lectionary (1 Corinthians 3: 9-11, 16-17), Paul tells the people of Corinth:

You are God’s field and building….
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Though Paul was writing to Christians, we ought to remember that each person is made in God’s image and should be loved and respected.

The failure of the world – especially the Christian Church – to respond to the violence of Kristallnacht is a failure to respect the presence of God in all people, a failure of the Church to love.

But this failure should be a challenge to us today, especially as we consider the feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran.

Will we build up the community of God in such a way that we break down walls that keep people apart and work to prevent crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust? Or will we just admire the beauty of the churches, while we keep others out and permit the killing of others and the deaths of thousands daily from hunger?

It is easy to criticize the Church and other institutions, but, as St. Caesarius of Arles said (in a sermon found in Benedictine Daily Prayer),

Every time we come to church, we ought to make our souls be what we want the church to be…. Do you want a light-filled Church? God grant your soul not to be a dark place but alight with good works.

Let our lives be transparent like unbroken glass, letting the light of God shine through, breaking down walls and reaching out in love and justice to all the broken peoples of this world.