FEAST OF THE DEDICATION OF THE LATERAN BASILICA.
Ez 43:1-2, 4-7 | Ps 112:1-2, 3-4, 8-9 | 1Cor 3:9-13, 16-17 | Jn 2:13-22
Mater et Caput
REV. MSGR. DANIEL H. MUEGGENBORG
Rev. Msgr. Daniel H. Mueggenborg has served as the Vice Rector for Administration,
Director of Admissions and Formation Advisor at the Pontifical North American College
in Rome. He is from the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The basilica of St. John Lateran is a distinctive treasure of theology, spirituality and ecclesiology. As you approach the basilica, you see an inscription across the front that says this: Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput (meaning “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head”). In a real sense, the St. John Lateran is a mother who has been teaching us, as Catholics, what it means to be Church for more nearly 1,700 years. I think it is worth listening to a few lessons that I think this basilica, our Mother, has to offer us today even as she first taught them to the Church of Rome 1,700 years ago.
The first lesson is what she says to us by her sheer size. You know, when Constantine legalized Christianity in 312/313 AD, he made it possible for Christians to worship publicly for the first time. But temples in the ancient world were very small, even the temple in Jerusalem had a very small sanctuary. That’s because people in the ancient world did not participate in worship. Instead, only the priest would enter the sanctuary to offer sacrifice. The people stood outside while the priest worshiped for them. So you can imagine Constantine’s surprise when he said to Pope Silvester, “how big of a temple do you want” and Pope Silvester replied, “How big can you build it?!” The idea that people would actually participate in worship was revolutionary. St. John Lateran was, in first place, built for public Christian worship in the City of Rome and as such it set the standard for all others. It taught them, and it teaches us, that the Mass is never something we watch like spectators but always something in which we participate. No one can do our prayer for us. Do you see why Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple? He didn’t want a temple in which others offer purchased sacrifices; He wanted a new temple in which the presence of God dwells and those assembled are members of His body raised up. So when we come here for our liturgies, do we watch the priest pray or are we transformed with the priest as he leads us in prayer? If the first words the come out of our mouths following a liturgy are observations of criticism rather than expressions of thanksgiving, then we are more observers than participants. But if we are participants, then every reading of scripture will speak to our heart and every Eucharist will be a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
The second lesson of St. John Lateran is in the Baptistry – it is the lesson of the red columns and beautifully carved pilasters. These were taken from other imperial monuments in Rome and used to build the baptistery. They could have used new materials when they built the baptistery – they didn’t have to use things from other buildings. They did so for a purpose, to teach a truth of faith. And I think the truth is this: In baptism, that which is secular becomes sacred; that which is profane, is now profoundly incorporated into the body of Christ. Those old pieces of marble and red porphyry used to adorn the monuments of the pagan emperors. They are symbols of all the forces of sin and death that tried to destroy Christianity – but through the grace of Baptism, they become a beautiful part of the Church. That is the power of baptism – It changes all people and makes them new in Christ. The Church always has been a community of sinners seeking God’s grace. The baptistery of St. John Lateran reminds us that no sin is greater than God’s mercy, and that the waters of Baptism and the grace of Reconciliation continue to take what is secular and make it sacred. How easy it would have been for the early Church to become elitist thinking that people had to earn their right to be Christian or somehow prove themselves holy before they would be accepted. St. John Lateran shatters that arrogant illusion. If the porphyry pillars that once served the personal needs of murderous pagan emperors could become the welcoming public entrance of a Christian Church, then there’s hope for us, too, and for all God’s people. St. John Lateran teaches us that the Church is where we trust and celebrate God’s all-powerful, unbounded, transforming mercy.
Lastly, the gilded bronze pillars near the altar of repose for the Blessed Sacrament. Constantine gave these pillars to the Basilica of St. John Lateran for a reason – because they tell a story. You see, in 44 BC, Augustus was named the heir of Julius Caesar. It was not an easy transition – he had to conquer Mark Anthony. And when he did, in the year 30 BC, he set sail to also conquer the famed and feared Egyptian navy of Cleopatra. And when it was over, he confiscated all the Egyptian ships of Cleopatra’s fleet and removed their prows – that’s the bronze decoration piece that was used on the bow. Augustus melted those bronze pieces and molded them into 4 pillars which he had placed in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. They were a symbol to everyone that a new day had dawned and that a new era had begun. A new chapter in world history had opened – the Roman Empire had been formed. Those pillars were powerful. And Constantine gave them to the Basilica of St. John Lateran to make the same statement … but now for the Church – a new day has dawned, a new era has begun, a new chapter in world history is now opened – Christianity is no longer only a private, personal experience of faith; it is now a public witness that courageously forms society and transforms cultures and no longer hides in fear of persecution or rejection. Those pillars are a statement to us today that we are to be courageously prophetic, and publicly vocal in our witness of faith: That the new chapter of Christianity is still open and the Church has a necessary voice in world affairs. We need to remember that–today more than ever–lest we become silent and the bronze columns of St. John Lateran become nothing but interesting artifacts from the past.
So when you visit St. John Lateran, and when you see her size, remember it is so, that we too can be participants in worship and not just watch it. When you see the columns and marbles of ancient Rome reused, remember it is so, that we too can be transformed by grace and the profane in our lives can be made profound by Christ. When you see the pillars of bronze around the tabernacle, it is so, that everyone may become priests and prophets of the Christian era in a secular world.
Today, we do not just celebrate the dedication of a church–we celebrate the dedication of that church which continues to teach us how to be Church.