It is a rare privilege to celebrate the dedication of the basilica of Saint John Lateran on a Sunday, and so it is perhaps a good opportunity for us to reflect on two characteristics presented to us in the liturgical texts appointed for this feast. First, if we look at the title given to today, we see that we are here to commemorate the dedication of a building. We know that the word ‘church’ properly designates not simply an architectural edifice, but the company of believers who are incorporated into the life of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. In the Old Testament the word ekklesia is frequently used to describe a gathering of God’s chosen people above all, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, ‘for their assembly on Mount Sinai where Israel received the Law and was established by God as his holy people’ (CCC 751). We take that word and apply it in a similar sense when we speak about ‘ecclesiastical institutions’ or ‘ecclesial communities’, and so we have the idea of the Church as a convocation of people in the service of God.
The place of that assembly is also called a church, and yet in reality it is much more than simply a gathering space for worship. Rather, the church building is a temple to the Most High God, where the Almighty ‘tabernacles’ or dwells with his people in the Most Holy Eucharist, and where the thanksgiving sacrifice is offered for the sins of the world. The church building is a sign, then, of the nature of the Church itself: the dwelling-place of God in the world and the primary place of man’s sanctification as we are caught-up in the action of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. As proof of the importance of these buildings, the Church does not simply build and use them in a solely functional way, but consecrates them in sacred rites, setting them apart for the cultic worship of God by those who, by grace, have become his beloved children. We can truly say that a church building is ‘none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven’ (Gen. 28: 17), because it is a sign that the authentic worship of God which has been restored to mankind in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ (cf. Jn 2: 13-22).
Secondly, the Church bids us here today to reflect on the particular significance of the basilica church of Saint John Lateran. We know that every church building is a temple sacred to Almighty God, but the basilica church of Saint John Lateran has an added significance as the seat of the Bishop of Rome. The dedication of the principal church of any diocese is celebrated within that diocese (as indeed we will see this coming week in the Archdiocese of Washington) because it contains within it the cathedra, the seat which is the sign of the bishop’s teaching authority. As Moses taught from the seat of judgement in the Old Testament, so each diocesan bishop, as the one to whom the power of teaching has been entrusted, presides over his flock from his cathedral.
Writing in the second century, Saint Ignatius of Antioch taught that the Bishop of Rome ‘presides over charity’, that is over the entire Christian community, and enjoys the same primacy as that given by Christ to Saint Peter himself (Pastor Aeternus, II), the power of binding and loosing sin (Mt. 18: 18). Thus by Christ’s own institution the Roman Pontiff enjoys ‘supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls’ (CD 2). In other words in the Church’s hierarchy the Bishop of Rome—the Pope—has primacy in the structure of the Christian community. This is why this feast is kept today throughout the world and not simply in the Diocese of Rome, because the role of the Bishop of Rome has a universal significance, not as ‘an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law [but] a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word’ (BXVI, Mass for Possession).
These two ideas, the locus or place of worship as a temple of God and the importance of the particular temple of the basilica of Saint John Lateran, find their most perfect expression in the very thing that we have come to this very temple to do. In the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice we are most fully the Church, the mystical body of Christ united in the action of the Most Holy Trinity in the eternal worship of God the Father. And in our participation in that action we are most closely united to the faith of the Church, guided by the Bishop of Rome, the Roman Pontiff.
In the Eucharistic oblation the company of believers which is the ekklesia is gathered together in perfect communion with Christ, and thus in perfect communion with one another. Indeed in this sacred mystery, ‘the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about’ (LG 3). By our participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we are most fully united to Christ, most fully the living stones of his mystical body and ‘the sign and instrument of the communion of God and men’ (CCC 780). This means that at the altar we become what the Church in her essence is, as we unite ourselves with the action of Christ in his perfect offering of himself to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and in Holy Communion receive his very Body and Blood, the Bread of Heaven and the Food of Angels.
Here we also find what Pope Pius XII called ‘a striking and wonderful figure of the unity of the Church’ (Pius XII, MC 83). Because it is here that we come to the fullness of communion with Christ, it is also here that we find the essence of the Christian faith which is guarded and cherished by the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him. In celebrating the paschal mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, our participation in the Mass is itself a sign of our unity with the faith of Saint Peter, when he confessed, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt. 16:16). By our faith, with and under Peter, we come to the fullness of union in Christ in the supreme action of the Eucharistic offering.
Conscious of the nature of this sacred place, then, and with our eyes fixed firmly on the fullness of what it represents, let us unite ourselves at this altar with the perfect offering of the Church above. Let us pray with a renewed zeal for the Lord’s house which is the Church on earth, over which our Holy Father presides in charity (Ps. 69:9; Jn 2: 17). And let us pray that the Lord may continue to guide and protect his Holy Church and her bishops, that confident of the merciful truth which is found in him alone—that inæstimabile sacramentum—we may all profess the joy of knowing Christ as our Saviour and Lord, and so bring all men to the fullness of life in him (MR, Gradual).