Dedication of the Lateran Basilica - 9th November 2014

For the second Sunday in a row, the liturgical colour today is not the green of ordinary time. Last week it was purple for the feast of the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed; this week it is white, because the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary time, which would otherwise be celebrated today, has been “trumped” by the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. The latter has precedence because it is regarded as a feast of the Lord.

The origin of the feast goes back a long way. In the year 313, the ban on Christianity was lifted with the Decree of Milan promulgated by the Emperor Constantine who had recently converted from paganism to Christianity. This brought to an end the period of persecution of Christians and made Christianity virtually the State religion.

The emperor gave the palace of the Lateran, the site of the former barracks of the imperial guard, to the church. A basilica was built beside the palace, and Pope Sylvester dedicated it to the Holy Saviour on November 9th 324.

Over the centuries, the church has been subjected to severe earthquakes and destructive fires and has constantly been under reconstruction and restoration. Despite this, it still bears the floor plans of the original church and the baptistery.

The baptistery, which had existed on the site before the basilica, was dedicated to John the Baptist. St John the Evangelist was also associated with the basilica. It is for this reason that it is often referred to as “St John Lateran”. It is one of the four major basilicas in Rome.

The palace of the Lateran served as the residence of the Bishop of Rome continuously until 1304 when safety concerns forced Benedict XI to move to Avignon. Although the general offices of the church were transferred to the Vatican in the mid-1400s, the Lateran basilica has always remained the Cathedral church of the pope, the bishop of Rome.

In every diocese, the cathedral is the symbol of the unity of the local church gathered around its bishop, and through him, its unity with other local churches throughout the world. For this reason, the anniversary of the dedication of its cathedral is celebrated as a solemn feast day in the diocese.
Because the bishop of Rome, the pope, has a universal ministry of charity and unity, his cathedral, the Lateran, is the mother church for the whole world. Hence in celebrating the feast of the Lateran Cathedral, we celebrate the Lord who brought the Church into being in order to gather together in unity all God's daughters and sons, wherever they may be.

And in celebrating the dedication of any church, what is really central is the holiness and Christian witness of those who worship there. Caesarius of Arles (470-543) expressed it this way:

"It is we who are God's true and living temples. If we want to celebrate with joy the anniversary of a church, we must not destroy within ourselves, with bad actions, these living temples of God. Every time we come into church, we must prepare our souls, so that they may be as beautiful as we want our church to be."


Elizabeth Harrington