We are a living temple: Bishop Elliott on the Lateran Cathedral

Friday 15 November 2019

Bishop Peter J. Elliott 
When I came to Rome to study in 1984, the nearest great church to my residence at the Collegio Nepomuceno was the Lateran Basilica. This great church of Saint John, honours both John the Baptist and John the Apostle, but it was first dedicated as the Basilica of the Most Holy Saviour.

It was probably the first public cathedral ever built, which is why we celebrate its dedication each year. This is our Mother Church, the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. Only here do we find his marble throne, the cathedra, the teaching and governing seat of the Pope. He has no permanent bishop’s throne in St Peter’s Basilica, which is his chapel constructed over the tomb of Saint Peter the Apostle.

The first Lateran church was built by Emperor Constantine between 311 and 314, on an estate that once belonged to the Laterani family. He added a palace for Pope Melchiades. Since it was now legal to practice our faith, the Pontiff could govern the Church and minister openly. Now that the persecutions were over, he was able live as Bishop of Rome in public dignity.

Portions of his much-expanded palace survive: the Holy Steps taken from Pontius Pilate’s fortress in Jerusalem, the “holy of holies” or chapel of relics at the top of the steps, and the apse of a papal throne room, now bisected by roaring Roman traffic.

It was here in 1209 that Saint Francis of Assisi came with his friars to offer his apostolic project to Pope Innocent III. Evocative bronze statues commemorate that event. The Pope was cautious about approving this radical group, but then in a dream, he saw Francis holding up the Lateran Basilica, a sign of how this saint and his friars would support the whole Church, so Innocent formally recognised the Franciscans.

The Popes lived in the Lateran complex from the fourth century until French Popes chose to live in Avignon, beginning in 1309. The Papacy returned to Rome in 1376 and, finding the Lateran complex shabby and neglected, the Pope eventually moved into the Vatican on the other side of the river Tiber, next to the basilica built over the tomb of Saint Peter. Nevertheless, a new papal residence later replaced the dilapidated Lateran palace. Today this houses an art collection and the chancery offices of the Diocese of Rome, the Vicariate.

There are more beautiful churches in Rome but none more interesting. This is why I present this great church as a living metaphor of our Church, a symbol of who we are, the Body of Christ and People of God, for we are a living Temple made up of many living stones.

I believe we also find the four “marks” of the Church expressed in the Lateran. I rearrange them according to aspects of this vast temple: Apostolic, Catholic, One and Holy.

The core structure of the original church is barely visible today. As you look down the spacious nave, half the arches were filled in during the seventeenth century. Later, during the rococo era, the niches came to house twelve immense statues of the Apostles. These men are the living foundations of the Universal Church. Already our first cathedral is speaking to us. We rest on these apostolic foundations. As we say in the creed, our Church is apostolic.

In this basilica the bishops, true successors of the Apostles, have gathered for five ecumenical Councils; some were successful and others were failures. Ecumenical Councils are not always success stories. This basilica as the cathedral of Rome was also the place for ordinations, the sacrament that hands on the enduring apostolic succession. Up to the era of Vatican II, the ceremonies began early in the morning, with minor orders, and passed on through the levels of Holy Orders into the middle of the day.

Our Church is also uniquely apostolic, for she is Petrine. She is built on the fisherman of Galilee. To his cathedral the Successor of Saint Peter comes soon after he is elected, installed or crowned. The Roman Pontiff is enthroned on the Chair of Peter and then he celebrates Mass with his people and clergy as their new bishop. Every Holy Thursday he returns to wash feet and to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Every Corpus Christi he celebrates Mass with his Roman people on the forecourt. Then he carries the Blessed Sacrament in solemn procession from the Lateran along the Via Merulana to Saint Mary Major, where he imparts the Eucharistic Benediction, a practice instituted by Saint John Paul II. The basilica houses the tombs of various Popes, the last being Pope Leo XIII.

In the late nineteenth century this Pope added an immense choir area behind the altar, together with a residence for the Canons. These venerable priests serve the basilica. Care was taken to preserve much of the original mosaic in the half-dome behind the papal throne, particularly the image of the Holy Face of our Saviour, which may well go back to the original structure. These acts symbolize the passing on of tradition in the apostolic Church, respecting the past yet able to add, enrich, reform, develop and adapt.

Since it was first built, the Lateran has affirmed what Jesus Christ taught, that our Church is a “city set on a hill”, a city that cannot be hidden, the Civitas Dei. Catholicism is a public religion, a people’s religion, and as Saint John Henry Newman remarked “this is a popular religion”. Our Church is not some secretive cult, not a “denomination”, but universal and inclusive. The Lateran reminds us that our Church is Catholic, for everyone.

On many visits to the Lateran basilica, I came to see that there is a kind of patched-together untidy shape to this vast building. That also speaks to us of our Church and in a human way. Since Constantine’s time, Popes, princes and prelates have added chapels, shrines, sacristies, balconies, and a noble gothic canopy over the altar enclosing relics of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, a spacious Benedictine cloister, a majestic baroque marble façade, even recycling ancient bronze doors taken from the Roman Senate House in the forum. Gilded pagan columns were used to frame the table-top from the Last Supper, the precious relic located over the Blessed Sacrament altar in the left transept.

All these “bits and pieces” put together across sixteen centuries speak of the complex variety of our Church, her diversity, if I may use that tired word. A truly Catholic Church embraces and includes all epochs, peoples and cultures, as we see today in our Australian parishes.

Yet in her incredible variety of cultures, our Church is One. The complexity of the Lateran buildings carries an underlying unity. This rests on the apostolic foundations and the Petrine charism. But the word “one” also refers to the authentic nature of our Church, the “one true Church”, the unique continuity and identity that is only found through three millennia of communion with the Bishop of Rome.

Above all, as a busy working church, the Lateran Basilica proclaims that our Church is Holy. Founded by Jesus Christ for the worship of God in the Liturgy and Sacraments, the Church is his “sacrament” in the world, as the Second Vatican Council taught. The mission and ministry of the Church is to make people the holy members of a living temple. As Saint Paul says to the Corinthian Christians: “the temple of God is sacred; and you are that temple.”

In the daily round of confessions, the basilica becomes what Pope Francis called a “field hospital” for sinners. Many penitents prepare for the sacrament of mercy in a separate adoration chapel, praying before the monstrance that presents the Eucharistic Christ, Jesus in our midst. Indeed members of his Church are restored to holiness through reconciling grace leading to the Eucharist.

However, the source of the holiness of God’s People is our Baptism, prophesied in Ezekiel’s vision of life-giving water streaming from the Temple. The most interesting feature of the Lateran complex is the separate octagonal Baptistery, which I had to pass every time I went to the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in the Lateran University. This was the main baptistery for the Church of Rome, the place for Christian initiation.

I once baptized an American baby here, reflecting that on this site thousands of men, women, children and infants were “born again” in the waters of the Spirit. Across three millennia, the awesome rites of Christian Initiation have been celebrated here. We can picture what happened.

Having been immersed in the regenerating water and clothed in white robes, the newly baptised were brought from the baptismal bath to the Pope to be sealed with Holy Chrism, the air pulsing with chant, fragrant with incense, the mosaics of the chapel of chrismation glittering with candles and lamps. These rites have been restored and reinvigorated after Vatican II.

As we go out and evangelize, work so dear to Frank Duff, as we bring men and women to the Church’s fountain of redeeming grace, let us learn to love and cherish these rites. In the spiritual springtime that is coming in the near future, we will see these rites celebrated often and well.

The universal call to holiness is surely the great teaching of the Second Vatican Council. All members of the Legion of Mary are responding to God’s call to be holy men and women. But we do not respond by falling back on our own efforts. Like Mary and with Mary, each of us learns that it is the amazing grace of God poured into our hearts that makes us holy, the work of the Holy Spirit.

The divine call flows from Baptism, the moment each of us was called to be born again, to be regenerated, inwardly justified and sanctified. Immersed in divine holiness, we are called to be holy in our daily lives, living temples of the Spirit. A holy building points to holy people, to prayer and Christian acts of love and selfless care for others. So we are always building and rebuilding a living temple that is glorious, yet humble, a training ground for saints, yet a refuge for sinners, a Church for all times, yet God’s chosen ante-room for eternity.
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