Today is the feast of a church building - the Basilica of St John Lateran. When we think of Rome, we usually think of St Peter’s. But St John Lateran is actually the Pope’s own church, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. It was the first church built after Constantine brought the persecution of Christians to an end in 313, on land that had been in the hands of the Laterni family, hence the basilica’s name. Dedicated in 324, the Bishops of Rome lived and presided there until 1309 saw the Papacy move to Avignon. When the Avignon sojourn came to an end in 1377, because of accumulated damage at St John Lateran, the Bishop of Rome lived at the Basilica of St Maria in Trastevere and later at the Basilica of St Maria Maggiore. Eventually, the Palace of the Vatican was built adjacent to the Basilica of St Peter, which had also existed from Constantine’s day. This project began in 1477 and went on for 150 years.
It is typical of the Catholic tradition that on the day when we celebrate a church building, the Mass readings chosen remind us in the strongest possible terms that the Church is in essence not a literal building at all, but a community of faith, love and prayer being built Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit. The First Reading (Ezekiel 47:1-12) is the prophet’s vision of the river of life flowing from the altar of the temple out into the desert places, and the Gospel is about the purification of the temple (John 2:13-22). Particularly challenging is the Epistle (1 Corinthians 3:9-11, 16-17):
We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.
There have been times of persecution and war when Christians have experienced the loss of magnificent buildings, together with many of the accoutrements of worship, and they (and their enemies) have realised the truth that the real temple, the real Church, is the community being built by Jesus, in which we are “living stones” (1 Peter 2:2-5), with Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In times like that, Christians have worshipped in farmhouse kitchens, city houses and remote outdoor locations. Cynical people - Christians and non-christians alike - sometimes say that the peacetime construction of huge edifices housing magnificent works of art is an aspect of corrupt instutionalisation in the Church’s life. And, indeed, the Scriptures as well as many Saints throughout the ages warn against the Faith being reduced to its externals. But it is the nature of love to express itself exuberantly. In every culture, time and place, when it has been possible to do so, Christians have responded to the God of love, truth and beauty by creating, not just works of art, music and poetry, but also beautiful buildings in which we gather as Church to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Saviour’s love.
Here is a virtual tour of the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. (Click on places in the list on the left hand side)
2. Transept 13. Transept 24. Nave 15. Nave 26. Colonna Chapel7. Lancellotti Chapel8. Corsini Chapel9. Cloister10. Baptistery11. Baptistery Chapel12. Exterior (North)13. Exterior (East)