Why the Lateran Basilica?

9 November 2008 Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome
Ezekiel 14, 1-12; Psalm 46; 1 Cor 3, 9-17; John 3, 13-22

The Temple Purification in the Gospel is a transformation story. To many Jews, the Temple was the center of worship. It was the site of God’s presence and a visible sign of God’s faithfulness. But this physical structure was destroyed and rebuilt many times in history. Finally, the Roman army of Emperor Titus ruined the Temple in AD 70. Its destruction crushed the spirit of the Jews. However, to many Christians, the impact of the loss of the Temple was softened. The center of God’s presence was not any more a physical structure, but the risen Body of Christ. St. Paul explained in the second reading that our “body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6,19). Thus, each person was now the temple of the Holy Spirit, indeed a visible sign of God’s presence in the world. You can imagine that each person you see is a ‘walking temple’. It means that whenever people gather together in prayer, with or without a physical structure, the presence of God is there. Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18, 20). It is from this new understanding of the temple, that Christians begin to build churches around the world. It is no longer an obligation to visit the central temple, as the Temple of Jerusalem, as a requisite in faith life.

The Basilica of St. John Lateran whose dedication we celebrate today holds the title of ecumenical mother church (mother church of the whole inhabited world) among Catholics. It is the oldest church and ranks first as the Cathedral of Rome. Therefore the Lateran Basilica is above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church, even above St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The Basilica is the cathedral of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, therefore his ecclesiastical seat.

Why do we particularly celebrate the dedication of this physical church? An inscription on the facade dedicates the Lateran Basilica as the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior, for all other cathedrals, churches, chapels, and all places of worship are dedicated to Christ Himself (Mary and the names of the saints on whom many churches are named, are patron saints). Therefore, we celebrate its dedication because it reminds us that as Roman Catholics, we are always in communion with each other because of the Pope and because we profess only one faith in Christ. And so wherever we are, wherever we build a church, it is always in communion and in one spirit with the Church of Rome. We recognize the Pope as the successor of Peter.

How do we apply this in our faith life today? In November, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. We already know that saints here does not only mean those who have been publicly proclaimed as people who led holy lives. The saints also include our loved ones who too, though not proclaimed, have been holy in their lives. Physical churches such as our parish churches and chapels help people live holy lives by fostering communion, both of the living and those who have passed away.

Let me summarize. First, communio sancti: we are in communion with each other in the Spirit. We are, as St. Paul said, the temples of the Holy Spirit. Second, communio sacramentum: communion with God is mediated in the life of the Spirit, in holy things such as our physical churches and the holy things we use in our worship. For example, we have the Word of God in a book called the bible; we have the sacraments that foster closeness; and we have our organizational structure that fosters participation. Finally, communio sanctorum fidelium: the communion of the holy people of God. We are in communion with each other because we have a shared life, an active ordered participation. When we attend Sunday mass, we remember that all other Catholics are worshipping together with us. Our local churches do not function independently. There is mutual concern and sharing and there is communication and dialogue among ourselves. In all these, we share a common mission.

When we celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, we celebrate communion. We pray that we will always think as the Church thinks, and love as Christ loves His Church.

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