Father O’Connor’s Homily for November 9, 2014
Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran Basilica
Ezekiel 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12
1 Corinthians 3: 9c-11, 16-17
John 2: 13-22
Today’s feast, on this November 9th, has replaced the expected 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. And its name – the Dedication of Saint John Lateran Basilica – may seem strange to us. What could Saint Vincent’s in Akron, Ohio have to do with the dedication of an ancient church in Rome? The answer is: a great deal!
First, some background. You will recall that for the first three hundred years, Christianity was illegal. Christians were persecuted with imprisonment, torture and death.
And so the Christians, during this time, had to go underground. They met secretly in homes, barns and cemeteries. But in the year 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. And he granted religious tolerance to Christianity.
Once Christianity was politically free to worship openly and publicly, it needed to build its own churches for worship.
There was a palace in Rome, formerly owned by the Laterani family, which was being used by Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena. Constantine turned over a wing of that palace to the Church, making it the first public church in Rome that was Christian.
Pope Meltiades presided and lived at Saint John Lateran in Rome, as did all the popes after him – until a seventy-year period during the 1300s when the popes resided in Avignon, France. After this, popes began staying on the Vatican Hill where the popes have lived ever since.
Even today, Saint John Lateran is the official church of Pope Francis who is also the Bishop of Rome. It is called Saint John Lateran Basilica in honor of Saint John the Baptist and the original Laterani name. [A “basilica” is a church of special religious or historical importance.] Over its doors these words are inscribed: “The mother church of Rome and of all the churches in the world.”
We celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran because it is the first Christian church, and the mother church of us all.
We also celebrate this feast because it reminds us of our origins.
Rome was evangelized by Saint Peter and Saint Paul and by countless missionaries after them. In turn, Rome – being the world center at that time, the heart of the Roman Empire – sent missionaries out to the west. And we have been evangelized from Rome, the mother church.
Saint John Lateran Basilica reminds us of our catholicity: our relationship with the center, and from the center to the rest of Christianity. It reminds us here at Saint Vincent’s in Akron that, through our connection with that mother church, we belong to a vast family – looking to the past and to the present. And, in these days of almost pathological individualism, this is no small thing. We are a part of a world-wide family. We are Catholic – with both a small and a capital C. Saint John Lateran tells us that.
A final reason that we celebrate this feast of our mother church, Saint John Lateran, is that it reminds us that we ourselves are unfinished temples.
It recalls the struggles and sacrifices, Saint Peter and Saint Paul and countless martyrs and missionaries down through the ages. And it challenges us to see how we have strayed from the Gospel message they left us at so great a price, and calls us to reform.
As Saint Paul reminds us today in the second reading: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” [1 Corinthians 3: 16].
And yet the constant media focus on our failings should not blind us to the enormous good our Church family has done throughout the centuries, and still does. Catholic Relief Services is the largest private relief service in the world. Think of all of the Mother Teresas there are, the countless Catholic hospitals, clinics and schools. Perhaps the biggest assistance to AIDS patients is the Catholic Church, although you would never know this from the daily news. We have taught people to read and write and sing. We have buried, consoled, healed and evangelized. We are in every part of the globe, day and night. We do Christ’s work in our world!
But, of course, we are unfinished temples. Just as Saint John Lateran had to be restored many times throughout the centuries because of the ravages of time, fire and vandals, so does the Church family in every time and place. We have sinned and we need constant reforms and renewals to call us back to our origins.
We celebrate today the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. Now you know why this is a weekend feast day and why we take the time to celebrate it.
And knowing this we can take pride in our ancient heritage that keeps us grounded to the truth. And we can resolve that our spiritual ancestors will not – as one of our Presidents said – have died in vain.