Entering St John Lateran in Rome is a homecoming for Catholics. It’s also a witness to the seeds of faith planted by the blood of martyrs.
Standing atop the monumental church are statues of the apostles holding the instruments used in their martyrdom. They seem more like pillars holding up the Church, showing us the long suffering and toil that bore much fruit for us today.
It is this church that the Emperor Constantine gave to the pope for all Catholics to worship in peace. It was the first church where Christians could feel safe. One is so overtaken by the grand richness of golden ceilings and vast spaces adored with artistic masterpieces that you could forget this was the first place in Rome to have a baptistry. It is where all Catholics were baptized for the first time without fear of death or persecution. It is the first place that Catholics could worship in public after Constantine decreed Christianity legal in 313.
The church, at first called the Church of the Holy Savior, was consecrated in 324 A.D. Christianity was still in its infancy, but it had grown and flourished despite harsh persecutions. While many perceive St. Peter’s Basilica as the mother-church, as it is where the pope celebrates many Masses, St. John Lateran is the official seat of the pope, who is the Bishop of Rome.
In an Angelus Address on Nov. 9, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI explained why sacred buildings are so important.
“Today’s feast celebrates an ever-current mystery: that God desires to build himself a spiritual temple in the world, a community that adores him in spirit and truth (John 4: 23-24). But this occasion reminds us also of the importance of the concrete buildings in which the community gathers together to celebrate God’s praises. Every community therefore has the duty to take special care of its own sacred buildings, which are a precious religious and historical patrimony. For this we call upon the intercession of Mary Most Holy, that she helps us become, like her, the “house of God,” a living temple of his love.”
St. John Lateran is beloved by the popes. It symbolizes our unity with the Holy Father and with the Universal Church. St. John Lateran houses many unique relics. A piece of table is enshrined over the high altar that is believed to be part of a table that St. Peter used for the Eucharist. It is housed in a ciborium that according to tradition also holds the skulls of St. Peter and St. Paul. Various popes are also buried in church, including Pope Innocent III, who approved the Franciscan order.
As we celebrate the family we belong to as Catholics, let us ponder the prayer from the Roman Missal:
who from living and chosen stones
prepare an eternal dwelling for your majesty,
increase in your Church the spirit of grace you have bestowed,
so that by new growth your faithful people
may build up the heavenly Jerusalem.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.