It seems silly to have a feast day for a building.
I don’t care how important the building is, a feast day? Would we celebrate the day the White House, Big Ben, or the Eiffel Tower was built? What exactly is the “Lateran Basilica”, and why should anyone care?
Every time this feast day comes around, I always enjoy asking Catholics what the Lateran Basilica is. I’ve had some great guesses over the years: the church Jesus went to, another name for St. Peter’s in the Vatican, or my favorite, a church in a town called Lateran. Clearly, having a feast day for a building is not enough to even inspire curiosity.
But there is a very good reason for this day, and this single building is one of the most important in the world, even if people have forgotten why it is so special, or even what it is.
In short, the Lateran Basilica is the Pope’s Church, the official seat of the Bishop of Rome. I know what you are thinking, you thought the Pope’s church was the big one in the Vatican, St. Peter’s, built right over the grave of the first pope himself. Oddly, no, it isn’t. I mean, it is in one way, in that almost everything that has anything to do with the Pope happens there. It was built for the kind of worldwide focus it now has, and so it more suited to all of the kinds of activities and liturgies that surround the Pope. But the key Church is not St. Peter’s, it’s the Lateran.
Why? What’s the big deal about the Lateran?
You may remember in the early Church, the Romans were often actively persecuting the Christians. They had to live in hiding, keeping to small, house church communities. When the going got especially tough, they would even hide out in the catacombs beneath the city. The Christian faith in it’s early stages was celebrated with great risk, and to be found out could mean the seizing of your property, or even death. It was scary.
Then the unimaginable happened, and it happened so fast that if you blinked, you could have missed it. One day the Church was being persecuted, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, the new emperor, Constantine takes control. It was miraculous, he didn’t have a chance. He should have been wiped off the map, but the night before a battle he knew he couldn’t win, he had a vision of the cross, and turned it into the symbol of his army, painting it on all his soldiers shields. And they won!
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Christianity is legal! Not just legal, but promoted by the government! It was crazy. I bet the Christians didn’t believe it at first and thought it was a trick to get them out of hiding. That’s what I would have thought.
It wasn’t a ploy or a joke. Christianity had come into the light. For the first time EVER, Christians could worship God publicly. They could put a sign on the door. They could walk freely carrying the sacred letters of Peter and Paul who were killed in the same town without anyone batting an eyelash. It had to have been surreal.
They needed a place, a great place, and the first real building they got was this one. This was the first true cathedral church, and it is still, even to this day, the Cathedral of Rome.
This building is the symbol of our true victory, our coming into the light. It is the center of the Christian world, though we may have forgotten. Time and time a agin it has been sacked, destroyed, but every time rebuilt. It has happened so many times now that I’m not sure we even know what it originally looked like. It doesn’t matter.
The Lateran Basilica is the reminder that the Church can’t be held down, that the light will win. It is our first true home on earth. Right now, as the Church is wrestling with scandal and evil in its midst, it is good to remember this. The Church will win. No matter how it may be attacked from outside or within, the Lateran reminds us that we will come back to the light.