Sunday, March 16, 2008
Stational Church: San Giovanni in Laterano
Today we return to San Giovanni in Laterano, dedicated to Our Savior and to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. It is the Mother Church of the world, the church of the Bishop of Rome, and the Cathedral of Rome.
Just as Saint John Lateran was the station of the First Sunday of Lent, so it is fitting that the Cathedral Archbasilica is the station church which initiates Holy Week. It has been today’s station since the latter part of the fourth century. The blessing of the palms and the procession have always been distinct from the stational Mass. In years past, however, the two rites were held in the cathedral of Rome with all the magnificence of the pontifical court.
In the early part of the fourth century, Constantine (emperor 306-337) gave Pope Melchiades (311-314) a parcel of imperial property, together with its buildings, for a church and papal residence. The property was known as “Lateran” since it had previously belonged to Plautius Lateranus. Melchiades may have begun the building, but Sylvester I (314-335) completed it and converted it into a basilica, which he consecrated in 324 and dedicated to the Holy Savior, naming it Basilica Salvatoris. Through sackings, fires, and earthquakes, the basilica has been restored and rebuilt many times throughout the centuries. In the tenth century it was dedicated to St. John the Baptist (who was already patron of the ancient baptistery) and in the twelfth century St. John the Evangelist was added as co-patron. The modern-day interior dates primarily to the seventeenth century and bears the unmistakable mark of Francesco Borromini.
Five Ecumenical Councils were held in the Lateran, and Popes resided here for a thousand years, from the fourth to the fourteenth century. Upon their return from Avignon in 1377, however, they converted the Vatican into their usual residence. Excavations (1934-1938) beneath the basilica uncovered remains of Christian and pagan buildings, portions of paved streets, and the foundations of the fourth-century Constantinian basilica.
Not to be missed, even on a first visit, are the “Last Supper” table that Our Lord used, now enshrined in the Blessed Sacrament altar; the wooden altar that Saint Peter and the first popes used, now in the papal altar; and the heads of Saints Peter and Paul behind the grill above the papal altar in two silver-gilded busts. Down the nave are magnificent statues of the twelve apostles and, above them, relief panels depicting Old Testament scenes on the left and corresponding scenes from the New Testament on the right.
Outside, the right-hand door into the church is the famous Holy Door, opened only during Holy Years. The piazza’s obelisk came from the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis in ancient Egypt and is 3500 years old. Consider this: while St. Peter might have seen the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, Moses might have seen this one! Around the back of the basilica is the fourth-century baptistery, the first of its kind in Rome, commissioned by the Emperor Constantine himself, and across the street is the Scala Santa, the staircase from Pilate’s house in Jerusalem which Christ climbed before His Passion. Pilgrims climb its twenty-eight wood-encased steps on their knees while contemplating the atoning suffering and death of Our Lord.
This ancient basilica was intended by Constantine and the early popes to be considered the first and mother of all churches in Christendom. Between the exterior portico and loggia is a running medieval inscription from the earlier façade which attests to this privilege: omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, that is, “Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and of the World.” The church continues to enjoy this privilege, reflected in a universal liturgical feast on November 9, which commemorates the church’s dedication.
The high altar