Today we celebrate the birthday of the Lateran Basilica in the city of Rome. Built by the Emperor Constantine and dedicated on this day in the year of our Lord 324 by Pope Saint Sylvester I to the Divine Savior, this basilica was later dedicated by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Today it is known as San Giovanni in Laterano, Saint John in the Lateran.
It seems, perhaps, rather odd to celebrate the birthday of a church in Rome, but this is no ordinary church. This basilica on the Lateran Hill is known as omnium ecclesarium Urbis et Orbis mater et caput: “mother and head of all the churches of Rome and of the world.” We shall soon see why, but before we do let us first consider the purpose of a church building.
Far more important than being a place for the People of God to gather, a church building is meant to show us something. It is meant to show us the mysteries of the faith, to reveal to us, as much as possible, the divine realities celebrated in the sacraments. To the extent that a church shows us something of the heavenly realities it is a beautiful building and one worthy of sacred use.
If we consider the Lateran Basilica whose dedication we celebrate today, we recognize, clearly and vividly, several mysteries of the faith. Approaching the entrance to the basilica one cannot help but notice the fifteen statues standing on top of the façade.
The central statue and the highest is the Savior himself, Christ Jesus, stretching out his right hand in blessing and holding the Cross in his left. On his right is Saint John the Baptist pointing, as he did in life and death, to Christ. On the left of Jesus is Saint John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple, holding his quill and his Gospel, his letters and his Revelation. Next to these Johns stand the great teachers of the faith.
Looking at this façade we learn that the Church has no words of her own to say but only the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus. Like John the Baptist, the Church always points the way to Christ as she preserves the Scriptures down through the ages. Looking at the Doctors of the Church we see that the Church’s task is to interpret the Scriptures to every generation. Everything the Church does is centered on Christ and flows from him.
Entering into the great basilica one cannot help but notice the twelve niches made of the supporting columns in which are found statues of the Twelve Apostles. The image is clear: the Church is built, as Saint Paul teaches, “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone” (Ephesians 2:20).
Walking along the main aisle one comes to the altar. If one goes down the stairs at the foot of the altar you enter the confessio, in which is kept a wooden altar which, according to tradition, was used by the Popes – even Saint Peter - until the fourth century. In the canopy above the altar are kept the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, the two great pillars of the Church.
Moving beyond the altar one comes to yet another important aspect of this basilica and the reason we celebrate its dedication here in Shumway: the cathedra.
Every cathedral takes its name from the cathedra, from the chair from which the Bishop presides over his Diocese. The cathedra in the Lateran Basilica is the chair of the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of the Apostle Peter. Though the Pope now lives on the Vatican Hill, his Cathedral still is on the Lateran Hill.
The chair represents that authority given by Christ to Saint Peter when the Savior said to him, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Under the guidance and assurance of the Holy Spirit the Popes, in union with the Bishops, have handed on through the centuries the living and true faith of the Apostles. It is this unity with Saint Peter that we celebrate today.
As we consider this earthly temple built to the glory and honor of the Divine Savior Jesus Christ, we cannot help but consider also the temples of our bodies. As important as having churches is for the life of the Church, more important than these are the living temples of the Spirit.
If the Lord himself chose to build his Church on the foundation of Peter, we, too, must have our foundation in Peter, whose own foundation is Christ. Like that wise master builder, we must build our lives on the foundation laid by Peter and the Apostles, the foundation that is Christ himself. But, as Saint Paul warns us, we must build on this foundation cautiously and wisely (cf. I Corinthians 3:10). We do so by listening always to the teaching of the Church, for what she teaches is not her own, but Christ’s.
Today Saint Paul pointedly asks us, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (I Corinthians 3:16)? If I am God’s temple then it must mean that I do not belong to myself; I am not my own. In this same letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle asks,
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body (I Corinthians 6:19-20).
We glorify God in our bodies by continually building our lives upon the solid and rocky foundation that is Christ, by listening to and following the teachings of the Church to better follow Christ, so that when the winds and storms of life come we might remain firm (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).
Paul’s warning is clear: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” (I Corinthians 3:17). With every sin we commit we harm God’s temple and if our sin is grave enough we can destroy this temple. But the Lord Jesus – the true Master Building – can refashion these lowly temples through the grace of the Sacraments which he entrusted to the Apostles.
Through the waters of Baptism we become one with Christ Jesus and become his temple. In Confirmation, the fullness of the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Through the Eucharist our temple is cleansed. In Reconciliation our temple is rebuilt and made firm.
For all of these reasons we celebrate today the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica 1,674 years ago. The truths of the faith which are found in the very structure of this building remain true. The Popes continue the ministry of Saint Peter, guiding and teaching us always in the way of faith, and we must listen to them because they speak in the name of Christ.
If, then, we wish to celebrate this birthday of the Lateran Basilica with a joy that befits such an occasion, then let us not defile the temple of God in ourselves with sin.
Too often we miss the simple and obvious meaning of coming to Church. We might say that is like going to the gym. Going to the gym is a start, but it is not enough. It is too easy to go to the gym with the intent of exercising, but instead chatting with people and not really doing any real work. It is one thing to go to the gym; it is another thing altogether to exercise. It is, by way of analogy, the same with coming to church.
It is a good first step to come and a necessary one, but simply being in church for Mass does not mean I have actually prayed or listened or participated in the saving action of the Liturgy. It is too easy to enter the church building and simply stand, sit and kneel without any real recognition of what is happening. It is too easy to simply “go through the motions” and we must always be on guard against it.
Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this [church] immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins. Do you wish this [church] to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us, so that he who dwells in the heavens will be glorified. Just as you enter this church building, so God wishes to enter into your soul, for he promised: “I shall live in them, and I shall walk the corridors of their hearts”.Let each of us then this day open our hearts to the Lord, allowing him to walk the halls of our hearts every moment of our lives. Amen.
 Saint Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 229, 3.