“OMNIUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT” This is the inscription over the faced of the Basilica of St. John the Lateran in Rome. “Mother and Head of All Churches in the Holy City and throughout the World”.
The first thought that comes to mind for most people when they think of the Pope is St. Peter’s Basilica. They believe this is the Popes church. Of course, St. Peter’s is an important church for the Holy Father and for Catholicism, but St. John the Lateran is really more important. St. John’s is the Cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church.
The Basilica is know by the names – St. John the Lateran, The Basilica of the Holy Savior and St. John the Baptist. It is also the most important of the Roman stational churches. The major feasts of the Church – Easter, 1st Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday – were celebrated here. It is in this church where most baptisms were performed. The basilica was constructed by the Emperor Constantine on the spot where he was baptized by Pope Sylvester. It is believed that Constantine may have even helped build the basilica with his own hands.
The Feast of the Dedication of St. John the Lateran is not just about the construction of a beautiful basilica in Rome. Symbolism for the Feast of dedication is rich in meaning. The building itself is a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem that we all long for. During the sacred Liturgy, heaven descends and we are in the presence of Almighty God. As the Holy Sacrifice of Mass is celebrated and we are made one with our Lord in Holy Communion, we are given “a pledge of future glory”.
The Basilica, the Cathedral and the little country church are not just a gathering place for the people of God. Any church or chapel where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered is the meeting place between God and His people. The heavens are opened and God’s holy throne descends upon earth. Jesus reminds us of the holiness of the temple as He cries out in anguish, “My house shall be a house of prayer”. Yet today, our churches are treated like mere meeting halls where we gather in the Lord’s name.
Trends among Liturgists who see our churches simply as gathering places are misguided. The former Cardinal Ratzinger makes it clear the Christian Liturgy is not about the people or about the priest it is about God. In writing about Mass celebrated versus populum, he states that it becomes “a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking and making merry. It is a kind of banal self-gratification … no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources.”
Liturgy and our church buildings are not about us, they are about worshiping the One, True, All Holy God! We can take example from Basilicas like St. John the Lateran and other early places of worship. They were built with one purpose in mind and that alone, to “give glory to God in the highest”. This was achieved with the best of materials with proper balance, beauty and order to reflect the heavenly Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God.
We can all do our part to change the current attitudes of people. A reverent genuflection, prayerful and silent reflection and an atmosphere of silence at all time foster a right attitude in God’s house.