Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Most people probably think that St Peter’s Basilica is the pope’s main church in Rome. But actually, it is the Church of St John Lateran which is the cathedral and hence the Pope’s church as Bishop of the Diocese of Rome. On the façade of the basilica there is an inscription in Latin which reads, “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world”. We tend to forget that the Pope is primarily a Bishop, a first among equals, and that this church has a special and symbolic importance for the whole Church.

The first church building on this site was built in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine gave land he had received from the wealthy Lateran family. That church and others which replaced it, suffered over the centuries from fire, earthquakes and war, but it remained the church where popes were consecrated until they returned from exile in Avignon, in the south of France. When the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Pope could return to Rome, the Lateran Palace and the basilica were in a serious state of disrepair. The popes took up residency at the Basilica of St Mary in Trastevere, and later at the Basilica of St Mary Major. Eventually, the Palace of the Vatican was constructed, and it has been the pope’s residence into the present time.

The current Lateran basilica was erected in 1646. It ranks first among the four major basilicas in Rome (with St Peter’s, St Mary Major’s and St Paul’s Outside the Walls) as the Ecumenical Mother Church. On top of its facade are 15 large statues representing Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and 12 Doctors of the Church. Underneath its high altar are the remains of a small wooden table on which tradition claims St Peter celebrated the Eucharist.

St John Baptist and St John the Evangelist are regarded as co-patrons of the cathedral, the chief patron being Christ the Saviour himself, as the inscription at the entrance of the Basilica indicates, and as is the tradition in the patriarchal cathedrals. The Basilica remains dedicated to the Saviour, and its titular feast is the Transfiguration. Its full title then is “Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and of Sts John Baptist and John Evangelist in the Lateran”.

Celebrating the dedication of the Pope’s cathedral today is a way of expressing the unity of the whole Church with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. And the union of each local church with this church is an expression of the unity of all churches both with Rome and with each other.

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