Wednesday 9 November 2022

The Lateran Basilica

On this day, in the year 324, Pope Saint Sylvester consecrated his new church on the site of the Lateran palace in Rome, given to him by the Emperor Constantine. The anniversary is celebrated liturgically each year, with the feast of the dedication of the Lateran basilica. It might well be one of those feast days we find it hard to get excited about. As inspiring as the church building itself may be to pray in (should we be lucky enough to find ourselves there in person), the consecration of a church catches our attention somewhat less than the characters of the holy men and women whose feast days we more commonly celebrate.

The full title of the church whose consecration we remember on this day is: ‘The Major Papal, Patriarchal and Roman Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in Lateran, Mother and Head of All Churches in Rome and in the World.’ It receives that rather grand title because this church is the Pope’s cathedral. And this is the main reason we celebrate today’s anniversary. Just as we celebrate the consecration of our own cathedral in Birmingham to show our unity with the Archbishop and the local church, so we celebrate the consecration of the Pope’s cathedral in Rome to show our unity with the successor of St Peter and the church of Rome, and thus also with the universal Church.

As in all cathedrals, one of the most important objects is the cathedra, the bishop’s (or in this case, the Pope’s) throne. It is a sign of his teaching authority. And this particular cathedra represents the Pope’s authority and responsibility to teach not just his own diocese of Rome, but the Church all over the world.

There are some other slightly more unique objects in the Lateran that say something about our Catholic faith. Above the altar are housed the heads of St Peter and St Paul. They are there as a witness. They proclaim that this is how the faith reached this city of Rome, from which it spread to the whole world. It was the work of those men, a former fisherman and a former pharisee, that brought the Gospel preached by Christ to the capital of the ancient empire. These are not the heads of mythical heroes, but of historical figures, who introduced the world to Christ the Saviour.

Slightly more obscure is another relic of St Peter housed in the basilica. It’s not a part of his body, but a wooden table said to be the altar on which he and his successors celebrated Mass. 

Although later on blessed Sylvester decreed that thenceforward all altars should be built of stone; yet the altar of the Lateran Basilica was of wood. This however is not surprising. For, from the time of St Peter down to Sylvester, persecution prevented the Pontiffs from having any fixed abode; so that they offered the holy Sacrifice either in crypts of cemeteries, or in the houses of the faithful, as necessity compelled them, upon the said wooden altar, which was hollow like a chest. When peace was granted to the Church, Sylvester placed this altar in the first church, the Lateran; and in honour of the Prince of the Apostles, who is said to have offered the holy Sacrifice upon it, and of the other Pontiffs who had used it up to that time, he decreed that no one should celebrate Mass upon it except the Roman Pontiff.

(From the Divine Office for today’s feast)

There is very little modern information available about St Peter’s altar. Perhaps people are embarrassed to talk about it in case it turns out that it isn’t really that old. Although, St Peter would have said Mass, and it is not so unlikely that the church in Rome might have preserved and continued to use the table on which he did so. Whether truly historic or merely symbolic, the Lateran altar is a reminder that St Peter was above all a priest. This reminds us that it is, in the first place, through the continuous celebration of the Mass that the Church has always made Christ present to the world and continues to make him present today.

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