The gift of the Lateran Basilica

  • November 7, 2013

Nov. 9 is a rather obscure feast on the liturgical calendar — the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Obscure, but most important. A year when we are praying for a new Pope is a good occasion to revisit its significance.

The Lateran Basilica is the cathedral of Rome, the ancient and official seat of the bishop of Rome. Today we think of St. Peter’s Basilica as the Pope’s church. It is the church the Holy Father uses most often, but his cathedral remains St. John Lateran. That’s because the popes have been living at the Vatican for “only” the last 600 years or so. For about a thousand years before that they lived in an area of Rome called the Lateran. The Pope’s church was dedicated to Christ the Saviour, but over time picked up the nickname “St. John” because of a Benedictine monastery nearby dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, the priests of which would look after the liturgy in the basilica. So the official name of the Pope’s cathedral is the Patriarchal Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour in the Lateran — or for short, St. John Lateran.

Although most of us neglect it, we are supposed to celebrate as solemn feasts the dedication anniversaries of churches. Most parishes are good about celebrating their patronal days — for example, this Sunday, Nov. 10, churches named after St. Leo the Great will mark that feast — but often the dedication day of the church is overlooked, even forgotten. The dedication day of a parish church is a solemn feast for that parish; the dedication day of the cathedral of a diocese is feast for the whole diocese; and the dedication day (Nov. 9) of the cathedral of Rome is a feast for the entire Church.

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