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We Are God’s Building

I have to admit that I find it easier to get worked up about some feasts more than others. Christmas and Easter obviously attract.  On the other hand, lesser saints challenge my interest, though I’m always intrigued by some of the more arcane monastic saints.  Who doesn’t find the feast day of Saints Odo, Odilo, Maiulus, Hugh and Peter the Venerable not exciting?  Well maybe not a lot of people do, but I for one feel like I know them like old friends.  They were the five long-lived medieval abbots of Cluny in France.

Still, testing the limits of my enthusiasm are feasts that celebrate furniture — like the Chair of Saint Peter — and the dedication of buildings.  That said, I do make exceptions, and my favorite is the dedication of Saint John Lateran, which we celebrated on November 9th.  It’s a building, of course, and it’s in Rome.  But beyond that I have always felt a bit sorry for it, simply because it does not get the respect it deserves.

15A0A072-524B-4372-8506-5735992A2F90Why does it deserve better?  Well, for one thing it is the seat of the bishop of Rome, someone who also carries the title of pope.  Most people believe that Saint Peter’s is the presiding church in Rome, but in this case most people would be wrong.  Saint John Lateran heads the diocese of Rome, and all of its administrative offices have been there for centuries, and they still are.

Hands down Saint Peters draws more visitors than Saint John, but those who do visit Saint John are rewarded with a glimpse of a complex filled with history.  Originally an imperial palace, Emperor Constantine in the 330’s gave a boost to the local Christian community by building a massive basilica on the site.  It had the look and feel and size of an imperial basilica, as was fitting for a space meant to be the home of the Christian community of Rome.  It was not intended to be a place for a parish community, however, so modesty was not one of the goals in its construction.  It was meant to impress an entire city.  It asserted that after nearly three hundred years of persecution the Church was there to stay.

8F787189-70BA-4DF7-8D7C-EA4F6347D971Saint John Lateran has hosted five church councils (three more than the Vatican) and it’s seen fires and all kinds of change through the centuries.  But the interior still has the feel of an ancient basilica, and it has one surprise that Saint Peter’s lacks, a wonderful medieval cloister.

Sadly, most visitors are in too much of a hurry to venture through an unobtrusive door into the cloister, but those who do discover a stunningly beautiful and serene space.  Those precincts housed the community of Benedictine monks who served pilgrims for centuries.  The monks are long gone, but thankfully the cloister has survived generations of modernizers.  Not so fortunate was the old Saint Peter’s, which Pope Julius II had the temerity to pull down in the early 1500s.

A visit to Saint John Lateran conjures up an extraordinary history, but what it does best is remind tourists of the people who have entered its doors as pilgrims and as participants in grand liturgies through the centuries.  It is precisely for this reason that we should recall the second reading from the feast of the dedication of Saint John Lateran when we enter these monuments to faith.  In I Corinthians 3:9 Paul reminds us that we always have to maintain a proper perspective when we behold such stunning edifices.  “Brothers and sisters, you are God’s building.”

0CD325CD-28A9-4B9F-A1DA-09E86B147018NOTES

+This was an exceptionally busy week for me, and one which I will not repeat any time soon.  It began with a talk on The Saint John’s Bible that I delivered on November 5th at Marian University in Indianapolis, IN.

+On November 7th I spoke at Baylor University in Waco, TX.  This visit had special significance for me, since my father was born a few miles to the south in the village of Westphalia, TX.  My grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in that area, and our twice-yearly visits meant that we drove by Baylor on the way to see them.  I have absolutely no doubt that my grandparents would be stunned to know that I had spoken there.

+On November 8-10 I gave a retreat to members of the Lancaster PA area of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta.  I had given their retreat last year as well, and I enjoyed the return.  But it capped a busy week, and the last of my major commitments of the fall semester.

+The photos in today’s post show the apse of the basilica of Saint John Lateran and perspectives from the cloister where the monastic community lived in the Middle Ages.

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