Monday, November 9, 1998
Monday November 9:
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome
First Reading: 1 Kings 8: 22-23, 27-30 or Ephesians 2: 19-22
Psalms: 1 Chronicles/Paralipomenon 29: 10-12
Gospel Reading: John 2: 13-22
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome
Known as "Christianity's first cathedral" and the "mother of all churches", the Lateran Basilica was the first church built by the Emperor Constantine after the Edict of Milan in 313. In 314 Constantine gave Pope Saint Miltiades the old palace on Monte Celio which had formerly been land owned by the patrician Laterani family. Constantine also decreed that the popes should live in the Lateran palace which was called the Patriarchate. It would remain the pontifical residence until the 15th Century, but the basilica itself would be in peril throughout the centuries. The successor to Pope Miltiades was Pope Saint Sylvester I who officially consecrated the basilica in 324 and dedicated it to Christ the Savior with Constantine's blessings. Eighty some years later the barbarian Alaric sacked the basilica; likewise the pagan Genseric in 455. It was the great Pope Saint Leo the Great who rebuilt it in 460. Three centuries later a devastating fire swept through the basilica and it was left to Pope Hadrian I in 785. A little over a century later an earthquake rocked Rome and practically destroyed the entire basilica. In 909 Pope Sergius III rebuilt the basilica and dedicated it to Saint John the Baptist. It was also dedicated to the other St. John - Saint John the Evangelist by Pope Lucius II in 1144. During the papacy of Pope Clement V the basilica was again heavily damaged by fire in 1308. No sooner was it rebuilt then another fire swept through in 1360 while Pope Innocent VI, the 199th in the line of Peter, was pontiff. It was so devastating that when Pope Gregory XI returned from exile in Avignon in the 1370's, he moved both the residential palace and the head of the See from the Caelian Hill to Vatican Hill which the Roman Senate had donated to the Pope. While the Lateran Basilica laid in ruins Gregory gave special prominence to Saint Mary Major Basilica for gaining a jubilee indulgence since people could not go on pilgrimage to the Lateran Basilica at that time. It was left to Pope Sixtus V to have the ruins of the Lateran torn down and in its place replaced them with late-Renaissance structures which he commissioned architect Domenico Fontana to construct. The only structure not torn down was the Pope's private chapel which was saved. Sixtus was known as the builder of churches and urban renewal projects. He also had the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa), which had been brought to Rome from Jerusalem by Saint Helena in the 4th Century, moved from the old palace residence to the entrance of the Sancta Sanctorum (Pope's private, holy chapel). This staircase was believed to be the one Jesus ascended in the palace of Pontius Pilate. In 1645 Pope Innocent X commissioned one of the leading Baroque architects Francesco Borromini to complete the interior of St. John Lateran's by the Jubilee Year of 1650. Nearly eighty years later later Pope Clement XII held a competition among architects to submit the best design for a new facade of the Lateran Basilica. Italian master Alessandro Galilei completed the work in 1735. The exterior of the Basilica today is a tribute to his work which aptly depicts a huge statue of Jesus holding the Cross of Redemption, the cross which Helena found and which her son saw miraculously in the sky on the eve before his victory and ultimate conversion. Flanking Our Lord at the top of the columned flat roof are a 15 gigantic statues of Saints and Doctors of the Church. The main bronze door into the church was the original one that closed the senate house and was built by the Emperor Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The magnificent massive statues of the apostles, chiseled by Italian master Gian Lorenzo Bernini, consume most of the columned side walls of the interior of the Basilica.
There have been five Ecumenical Councils held over the centuries at the Lateran Basilica and numerous diocesan synods. The Lateran Pacts signed by and Benito Mussolina on February 11, 1929 which defined the territory and status of the State of Vatican City was signed at the Basilica. Sadly, the devastation of this magnificent structure was not limited to the middle centuries, for on July 27, 1992 a bomb, planted by the Italian Mafia in retaliation of Pope John Paul II's stand against the crime organization, exploded at the Roman Vicariate of the Basilica, causing great damage. It was restored in January of this year and it was of special significance when our present Holy Father celebrated Holy Thursday liturgy there this past Lent, symbollically washing the feet of priests who had been chosen from all over the world in the Pope's display of what Jesus asks: to be the servant of the servants. The November 9th date for celebrating the feast of the Dedication of this great Basilica evolves from early in the 1100's when almost all the churches dedicated to Jesus chose this date to celebrate a miraculous event that happened in Beirut, Lebanon prior to the Nicene Council there in 787. The phenomenon occurred when a crazed man struck a statue of Our Lord with a sword and the statue, though made of stone, bled profusely as blood poured out in torrents. It was not until 1565, that Pope Pius IV decreed it be celebrated throughout the Church. Since this was the first church of Christianity, it is considered the "mother of churches throughout the world" and served as the seat of Christianity for a thousand years.