Today we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. The Lateran Basilica in Rome is not the oldest church in Rome – that honor seems to belong to Santi Quattro Coronati (314); but then that depends on what sources you believe. Old St. Peter’s, the original church on the spot where the current St. Peter’s stands dates to 324, the same year as St. Lorenzo and St. John Lateran. Did you know that the Lateran Basilica is the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome – the place from where the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, leads his diocese even as he leads the church universal.
The Lateran did not even start out as a church – it was a palace on the Lateran Hill that came into the possession of the Emperor Constantine who lifted the ban on Christianity in 313. Sometime later the emperor gifted it to the church and by 324 it was converted to become a church and was declared to be the “mother church” of all Christianity: ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput – of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.
The Lateran has needed a few repairs over the years. As the Roman Empire fell, the Lateran fell into disrepair. It has been rebuilt, burned down, rebuilt, partially burned, rebuilt and finally evolved into the grand basilica you can visit today in Rome. Perhaps one of the “rebuilding” stories is of most interest to we Franciscans. It is there at the Lateran that Pope Innocent III dreamed of the Lateran falling down but held up by a small, brown robed man – Francis from Assisi who had just visited the Pope requesting permission to begin a new religious order. The Pope recalled Francis and commissioned him to live the gospel life, to preach, and to reconcile. Even today the Franciscans maintain a house dedicated to preaching and sacramental reconciliation at the Lateran.
While we celebrate the dedication of the “mother church” of Western Christianity today, I think the image of the prophet Ezekiel goes to the heart of the matter. An Angel of the Lord comes to Ezekiel and describes to the prophet a temple from which rivers of living waters flow to all the corners of the earth. Everywhere the river flows there is not just life, but abundant life – urbis et orbis – to all the cities and into the world. The living waters turn saltwater to fresh, gives all living creatures the chance to thrive and multiply, and all manner of game, fish, and produce are plentiful.
How can one not think of the living water in terms of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which are so life giving? It is true, as it is true of the living waters of the Word of God proclaimed. I wonder if we so easily make the same connection with the People of God. We too, in our best days, are a stream of living water moving out into the world. It is from the heart of the Church in which women and men in every age have gone into the world. Living the faith, gossiping the gospel over the backyard fences, proclaiming it aloud in the public square, doing the works of mercy and compassion because they were – and are – compelled by the love and grace of God – all of it a living Faith.
Maybe if Ezekiel were with us today, the Angel would show the prophet a view from space, with the rivers and waves of this living faith washing over the planet.
When St. Paul writes his letter and describes the Corinthians as God’s building he understands that we are more than these beautiful buildings. It is indeed good to have places like the Lateran Basilica as “mother and head” – and to have our own parish. But it is God’s grace of the sacraments and the faith of people that make the living waters. It makes the Church a living entity composed of you and me, living stones, built upon the foundation of the Apostles with Christ as the cornerstone.
Men and women build basilicas and churches. God builds a holy people for Himself.