Nov 16, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Today is the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Most people think of St. Peter’s Basilica when they think of Rome and the Pope. However, it is the Lateran Basilica which is the Cathedral of the Pope. The full name of the Lateran Basilica is Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sanctorum Ioannes Baptista et Evangelista in Laterno which translates as the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran. The site was first dedicated by Pope Sylvester I in 324 A.D. It was then rededicated to St. John the Baptist at the dedication of a new baptistry in the 10th century by Pope Sergius III and again dedicated to St. John the Evangelist by Pope Lucius II in the 12th century, which is how it received its full name. It may at first seem odd that we are celebrating the feast of the dedication of the Cathedral in Rome.

The prayers of the liturgy and the readings help us to understand the full meaning of this particular feast. The prayers continually reference the people of God as living stones, the temple of grace and the Holy Spirit. St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians writes, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” He says that we are “God’s building” and that our foundation is Jesus Christ. While we do celebrate the dedication of a building, we do so because of the meaning of the visible building which our Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer tells us are types, images or signs of the Church, the Bride of Christ.

The scriptural images of the new heavenly Jerusalem and its temple are less about the descent of a city or building made of stones than it is about the living building of the people of God made perfect, sanctified and glorified by their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. When Jesus became man in his incarnation, his visible human flesh became the holy place of God’s dwelling among us. His crucified and resurrected flesh communicates this holiness to his people. His humanity is the means by which, through baptism into his death, we, too, become dwelling places of the Most High God. What he is by Divine Nature, we are able to share by participation because he condescended to become a sharer in our human nature. Jesus identifies himself in the Gospel with the temple: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. ... He was speaking about the temple of his body.”

The physical and visible is not unimportant because it is a sign for us. God, in his Divine Nature, is accessible everywhere and at all times, because the Divine Nature is not material or physical but spiritual and so is not confined to being in any place at all. But the means of our salvation is the very real and physical humanity of Christ. Church buildings have a real impact on us. Their physicality is something that we can experience with the senses. Their architecture and art tell us something about the faith. The beauty and magnificence of church buildings vary. I used to visit regularly the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice when I lived in Italy. I still think it one of the most beautiful and breathtaking places of worship I have ever been in. I have also served Holy Mass for Fr. Paul Sullivan in mud huts with tin roofs in aldeas near Comayagua, Honduras. The living stones of those churches had a simplicity and beauty as well. I do think that where we have the means we should build magnificent and beautiful churches that really express the transcendent glory of God, as much as it can be expressed. I also think the people deserve to have the visible reminders and the instruction that proper church buildings can give us. And I think that the beauty of the church building is helpful in encountering God in the contemplation of his presence during prayer and in the celebration of the liturgy.

Still, we are not less than members of the Church or of our parish when we are away from this building, whether we are at work or in our homes. We are members of the body of Christ wherever we might be. But the fullest meaning of being Church has its greatest sign value and most profound reason when we are here, gathered together and participating as one in the worship and sacrifice of our head, Jesus Christ. At the Holy Mass we join our joys and sorrows, our thanksgiving and needs with the prayer of our Most High Priest. And here he makes present his humanity; he himself becomes present here under the visible signs of bread and wine. And when we participate in this prayer by our songs of worship, contemplating the Sacred Scriptures, and especially in taking part in the prayers through our responses and in communion, whether through spiritual communion or sacramental communion, we join our hearts and voices together with all the Angels and Saints.

At the heart of it, this is what this feast is about. The visible building of the Lateran Basilica reminds us that we belong to a communion of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ. The Second Vatican Council taught in Lumen Gentium 4 that the Church is “a people made one with the unity of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” This unity is not simply in intention but is a real visible and physical union, together with our bishop, a successor of the Apostles, and the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Again the Second Vatican Council in the same document (23) taught that “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church. For this reason the individual bishops represent each his own church, but all of them together and with the Pope represent the entire Church in the bond of peace, love and unity.” This is a good feast for us to reflect upon our relationship with the universal church and the manner in which we keep one another, our local bishop, and the Pope in our hearts and our prayers.

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