By Cardinal Justin Rigali
We recently celebrated a very interesting Feast, which gives us the opportunity for our reflection this week: the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. At first, it may seem strange to celebrate a building, most especially this year when this Feast displaced the normal Sunday Liturgy. In fact, we also celebrated an optional memorial of the Dedication of two other Roman Churches, those of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, on November 18. However, it is important to remember that we are not merely celebrating an edifice, but the Body of Christ, which is the Church, with Jesus as its Head. Saint Peter puts this into context for us when he writes: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house” (1Peter 2:4-5). This spiritual community of believers has always sought a place where they could gather to pray and give praise to Christ, their Head. It is Jesus Himself who tells us: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
We know that there is also a rich history of sacred places found in the Old Testament. The importance of the Temple in Jerusalem in the life of the Jewish community of believers is referenced many times. Jesus Himself uses its reality and imagery with great effect in the Gospels. Likewise, the pagans had their temples, which were not necessarily places of worship for a community, but places within which their idols were erected. We know that during the early centuries of the Church, when Christian were persecuted for their beliefs, their worship took place secretly, often in the catacombs so that they would not be discovered by the Roman authorities. When this persecution came to an end in the year 313, we have the beginning of Christian churches as we know them and this is where the Basilica of Saint John Lateran comes in.
Public places of worship
The Roman emperor Constantine (c.274-337), engaged in a famous battle, before which he had seen a vision of the true God, who had appeared to him with a standard bearing the abbreviation for the name of Christ. The prediction made to him in that vision: “In this sign you shall conquer,” was fulfilled in his victory. This victory, and Constantine’s faith in what he had seen, led to the building of the first legal Christian house of worship. It was in this way that construction of the Church, which we now know as Saint John Lateran, was begun in the year 313. It was dedicated to the Savior, although the patronage of Saint John the Apostle and Saint John the Baptist was added later. In light of its antiquity and its place as the oldest known Christian place of worship in the world, Saint John Lateran is known as the “Mother and Head of all the Churches.”
The building of this famous church, and indeed the building of any Catholic church, is a testimony to the fact that we worship as a community. While we build primarily for the glory of God and to give God an earthly space in our midst, we also build because the Christian worships as part of a larger community of believers. This has been so from the earliest times. As soon as it was possible to build publicly and openly, Christian places of worship became a part of the worshiping community. In the document of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning Church buildings, the church is described in this manner: “The church building houses the community of the baptized as it gathers to celebrate the sacred liturgy. By its practical design and beauty it fosters the full, dignified, and graceful celebration of these rites” (Built of Living Stones, USCCB, 2000, paragraph 46).
The house of God and the gate of heaven
When Jacob is granted a vision of God’s glory during a dream he had at a shrine in Bethel, he exclaimed: “This is nothing else but an abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven” (Genesis 28:17). If this was able to be said about a vision which gave Jacob an image of God’s presence, how much more can it be said of our churches, where Jesus truly dwells! In the Pastoral Letter, which I recently wrote on the occasion of my fifth anniversary as your Archbishop, I reflected upon Jesus’ gift of himself in the most Blessed Sacrament. My reflection began by writing about the celebration of the Eucharist, its communal celebration and the continuing presence of Jesus in our tabernacles after Mass, but always united with, the celebration of Mass. This is why, in the norms that were appended to my pastoral letter, I asked that, as far as possible, the churches of the Archdiocese should be open throughout the day, so that our people may visit our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. In all these ways, we reflect upon each of our churches as truly being “the house of God and the gate of heaven.” In one of the prayers of the Church’s liturgy, she describes the Church building in this way: “You (God), the giver of all good gifts, inhabit this house of prayer which we have built, and unceasingly sanctify the Church which you founded. For your Church is the true house of prayer signified by these visible buildings, the temple where your glory dwells, the seat of unchangeable truth, the sanctuary of eternal charity.” Let us pause for a moment and reflect on this threefold symbolism of our church buildings.
The temple where your glory dwells. All the figures of the Old Testament which foretold the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist are fulfilled in our churches. Greater than the manna in the desert or the Ark containing the tablets of the Law is the Presence of Jesus on our altars and in our tabernacles. If the priests of the Old Law entered the Holy of Holies which such reverence and awe, how much more do we behold the glory of God in the face of His Son in the Holy Eucharist? Very appropriately, as soon as we enter a Catholic Church where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, we genuflect before the glory of God dwelling in the tabernacle.
The seat of unchangeable truth. Jesus tells us: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33). In our churches, God’s truth is proclaimed in all its fullness and purity. God’s presence in His word is honored by the manner in which we proclaim that word, the honor we pay to the Gospels and the truths that are preached from our pulpits. Jesus tells us: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). It is this truth that is proclaimed in God’s house.
The sanctuary of eternal charity. In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on the love of God, he writes: “‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him’ (1 John 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: ‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.’ We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life’ (3:16). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). It is this love that is offered on our altars, preached from our pulpits and celebrated in our Christian communities gathered together in our churches.
As we reflect on the first Christian church that we know of, the “Mother and Head” of all our churches, we give thanks for all our local churches and chapels. In union with the Bishop of Rome, whose cathedral Saint John Lateran is, in union with the prayers offered in our own beautiful Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, we gather in our local churches as a Christian community. Since they are the places where God’s glory dwells, the seat of eternal Truth and the great dwelling place of God’s love, we can truly exclaim as we enter even the most humble of churches: “This is the house of God. This is the gate of heaven!”
November 20, 2008