Sunday, November 9, 2008

Dedication of St. John Lateran

OK, why are we celebrating the anniversary
of the dedication of somebody else’s church?
And why this church?

The Basilica of St. John Lateran was given to the Church
by the Emperor Constantine
shortly after he legalized Christianity in the early 4th century.
It was dedicated as a place of Christian worship on November 9, 324 AD.
It, and not St. Peter’s Basilica, as many people think,
is the cathedral of the city of Rome
and thus the home church of the bishop of Rome — that is, the Pope.

St. John Lateran is obviously of great historical significance.
But, if I can be honest with you for a moment,
it is a building that just doesn’t do much for me.
St. Peter’s Basilica has the kind of glitzy baroque appeal
that wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas.
Particularly the elements designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini,
while certainly over-the-top,
expresses a certain characteristically Catholic exuberance
that will not be held back by the bounds of good taste.
St. John Lateran, though a very ancient building,
got a baroque make-over by Bernini’s great rival,
Franceso Borromini, in the 17th century.
Perhaps this shows my preference for the passionate Bernini
over the rather cerebral Borromini,
but I find his redesign of St. John’s rather cold and uninviting.
While grand, it is too calculated, too lacking in feeling —
it is big in a way that dwarfs the human soul, rather than inspiring.
So, while I hate to say it, it just doesn’t do much for me.
Indeed, I must admit that I much prefer
our own beautiful and tasteful and human-scaled Corpus Christi
to either St. John’s or St. Peter’s.

But, of course, the Church doesn’t ask me, or you,
to join in celebrating the anniversary
of the dedication of St. John Lateran
because it "does something" for us,
because it appeals to us,
because we happen to like it.
The Church asks us to join in this celebration
because St. John Lateran in Rome,
no less than Corpus Christi in Baltimore,
is our church.
This feast is one of those that reminds us that we are Roman Catholics —
that we are children of the Church of Rome and heir to her history.

The Church asks us to join in this celebration
because the cathedral church of the city of Rome
is a symbol of our unity as Catholics,
a unity that extends throughout the world
and down through the centuries.
The Church asks us to join in this celebration
because those who have worshiped at St. John Lateran,
from the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century
down to the humblest Roman worker worshiping there on this day
are our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Their church is our church, whether we like it or not.

It is, I think, a happy accident of the Church’s calendar
that the feast of the dedication of St. John Lateran
falls seven days after All Soul’s Day,
so that when we celebrate All Souls on a Sunday,
we celebrate this feast on the following Sunday.
Last week we celebrated the unity of the Church in its threefold form:
the Church triumphant in heaven,
the Church militant on earth,
and the Church suffering in purgatory.
As Fr. Rich preached last week, All Souls day reminds us
that we are invisibly united in prayer with those who have died.
This week we celebrate another sort of unity:
a unity that we have through time and space
in our shared adherence to the Catholic faith,
in our common celebration of the sacraments,
and in our recognition of the apostolic leadership
of the bishop of Rome and those bishops in communion with him.
This unity is not the invisible, spiritual unity
that we celebrated on All Souls Day.
Rather, it is the visible, tangible unity
of doctrines and laws and institutions and even buildings
that are for us the outward signs of our inner unity.

Of course, we do not join in this celebration
because this visible, tangible unity is always easy
for us to accept and celebrate.
Indeed, our Catholic faith is sometimes hard for us to believe,
and often even harder to live;
our sacramental celebrations sometimes seem flat and lifeless;
our Church leadership can at times seem obtuse or cowardly
or more intent on making the Church
a marketplace for various agendas
than a house of prayer for all people.
Sometimes the Church in her visible, tangible form
strikes me as being as unlovely as the church of St. John Lateran —
cold and uninviting,
unsuccessfully remodeled over the years,
enlarged beyond the human scale,
not living up to my expectations,
just not doing much for me.

But this feast reminds me that my life as a Catholic
isn’t really about what I find appealing,
either in buildings or institutions.
This feast reminds us that part of our faith is that the Church,
in both her inward reality and her outward forms,
is the temple in which God’s Spirit dwells.
The celebration of this feast is a challenge to love our fellow Catholics
as those who, along with us,
are the stones that are being built into that living temple.
And the stones of this temple are bound together
by a love that we live not just inwardly,
but also in the sometimes clumsy outward forms
that are our visible bonds of unity.

In the Baptistry of the unlovely church of St. John Lateran,
where the Christians of Rome have been baptized since the 4th century,
there is an ancient inscription that reads:
"There is no barrier between those who are reborn and made one
by the one font, the one Spirit, and the one faith. . ."
It is this unity that we are called to celebrate this day.

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