Who is Saint John Lateran?

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By Father Brian Morris

Last Thursday, November 9, we celebrated Mass for the feast of St. John Lateran. Some of you might ask, who is this fellow? You won’t find him in the authoritative “Butler’s Lives of the Saints,” or even on the almighty “Wikipedia.com.” That’s because St. John Lateran is not a person, but a church. The feast is in honor of the dedication of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the oldest basilica in all of Rome.

The Archbasilica has two co-patrons, just like our cathedral in Providence has two, St. Peter and St. Paul. In this case, the co-patrons are both named John. They are St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The second part of the name, Lateran, refers to the Laterani family who originally owned the property and the palace that was there when it was given to Pope Miltiades and the Church by the Emperor Constantine around the year 313 AD. Pope Sylvester I, who dedicated the newly constructed basilica in 324 AD made it his cathedral as Bishop of Rome and took up residence in the palace adjacent to the church.

It is believed that the early Christians moved a wooden altar into the basilica that had been used by St. Peter himself before he was martyred in Rome. That altar is still in there today enclosed by a larger altar of stone and cased with marble. St. John Lateran remained the official residence of the Bishop of Rome until he moved to Avignon, France in 1309. The Papal Court remained in France until 1376, a time referred to as the “Avignon Papacy.” When Pope Gregory XI, with the urging of St. Catherine of Siena, decided to return to Rome, the Lateran Palace was deemed unsuitable due to fires that had damaged it in 1307 and 1361. Hence the popes then resided at the other major basilicas in Rome until Pope Nicholas V re-built the Vatican Palace, adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, which became the new home for the Pope.

You may ask why does the Church celebrate the dedication of this basilica as such a major feast? There are two other feasts on the Roman calendar for the dedication of churches, the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and the Dedication of the Churches of SS. Peter and Paul, which refer to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall. Both these celebrations are optional memorials, whereas the celebration of the Dedication of St. John Lateran is a feast, not optional. This is because even though the pope now lives in the Vatican, his cathedral church is still St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s. Often, people are confused by this, because most of the major events that the pope presides over take place either inside of or in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. However, the pope’s chair is located in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran and he traditionally celebrates the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday there.

The word “cathedral” as you might remember from my previous column, comes from the Latin word “cathedra,” which means “chair.” The chair of a bishop represents his power to teach, govern and sanctify as a successor of the Apostles. For example, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, as the Bishop of Providence, has his chair in the Cathedral of the SS. Peter and Paul. Since the Basilica of St. John Lateran is the place where the Pope sits most fully as Bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter — his two oldest titles — this basilica is not only the mother church of the diocese of Rome but the mother church of the entire Roman Catholic Church. It is called “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world,” as a sign of love for and union with the universal See of Peter.

Every Catholic belongs to this basilica, not just the ones living in Rome. The Church sees this as a great symbol of the unity that Christ wanted for His Church as He prayed for in John’s Gospel “I ask...that they may all be one.” (19:20-21). This feast day serves as a reminder to us to always pray for the continued unity among all those professing the Catholic faith, and for those who have left it, to return to union with the Chair of St. Peter.

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“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers.