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.