Why bother remembering the Lateran basilica?

Nothing earthly can retain its importance for ever, writes Fr Martin Henry

Why celebrate the feast of the dedication of the Lateran basilica every year, as the Church does each November 9, the traditional date of the basilica’s dedication?

We might be tempted to reply by pointing out that Rome’s Lateran basilica is the oldest and the first in rank among what are known as the four great ‘patriarchal’ basilicas of the eternal city, and hence deserves special recognition.

But more solid grounds for celebrating the feast of the dedication of the Lateran basilica might perhaps be found, if we were to consider more closely the ambiguities implicit in the term ‘church’ itself, which can, of course, refer both to a building and to a community of people.

The original church of St John Lateran goes back apparently to the fourth century. The term Lateran itself seems to be connected with an ancient Roman family of that name, the Laterani, and the great hall or ‘basilica’ of their Roman palace was the original element out of which the first church was built.

It is known as the ‘Mother and head of all churches of the city and the world,’ and is in fact the cathedral church of the Pope, as Bishop of Rome. From about the same time as the Lateran basilica itself was first constructed, there was also a Lateran palace in existence, which was the main residence of the Popes for almost a thousand years.

The Lateran was also the venue of five Church councils from the 12th to the 16th Centuries.

All of this illustrates fairly dramatically a very old and banal truth of human affairs, which is that nothing earthly can retain its importance for ever, not even a magnificent church or temple or palace. For when we think today of the Pope, we think instinctively of St Peter’s and the Vatican, all of which looks so beautiful and marvellous and solid and stable.

And yet Popes have resided in the Vatican for not even half as long as they resided in the Lateran Palace beside the Lateran basilica.

But who thinks today of the Lateran as the home of the Pope? And it might even be asked: for how long will the Vatican still retain its pre-eminent position? 


Buildings pass away

Jesus expressed the greater reality of the sanctuary of his own body over even a purified temple in which God would be worshipped. It is not that Jesus found the idea of a building, such as a temple, irrelevant to religion.

The fact that he was outraged that the temple was being desecrated for business dealings, is a sign of the genuine importance he attached to a religious building like the Jerusalem temple. But he goes further and places his own person above even the significance of a great religious building.

A feast day like the dedication of the Lateran basilica can help people to revisit an old lesson of the Christian faith and indeed of human existence in general. Buildings like the basilicas of Rome are certainly important witnesses to the human desire to try to reflect or capture in some tangible way the greatness of God and of religious faith. Human beings are not pure spirits, but incarnate spirits, and human beings need to express their religion in concrete ways. Materialism, according to G. K. Chesterton, is the ìone mark of all genuine religionsî. But it shouldnít be forgotten that testimonies of faith, such as great churches, are precisely that: testimonies of faith. They are not more important than God himself.

Nor, by the same token, are great churches more important than the human beings who build and use them.

For Christianity claims that the Spirit of God lives most truly and most unambiguously in and among human beings. Hence that is where Godís glory can also be most unmistakably seen.

No matter how many great churches or basilicas eventually pass into history and into the dust from which they came, the truth of Godís real presence in and among human beings is one that will never die nor ever end for the simple reason that God is a living God in whose image we are made.

To that extent, Christianity can both acknowledge the greatness of human striving, symbolised in the biblical tradition by, above all, the Tower of Babel, and yet accept that God, the source and goal of all such striving, by definition transcends all its manifestations.

Hence, buildings may and do crumble and disappear and lose their significance over time, but human beings, made in Godís own image, can always live in the hope of passing ultimately beyond all the temporary testimonies to Godís glory to the eternal enjoyment of the vision of God.


*Martin Henry, sometime lecturer in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.