St. John Lateran

In our last article, we tried to answer the question, “what is a Papal Basilica?” We will now investigate a very important Papal Basilica. Here is a hint as to its identity: it is the Cathedral of the Pope and the Diocese of Rome. In every Diocese, there is a special church which is called the Cathedral because it has in it the cathedra (latin for “chair”) of the Bishop. Each Cathedral, therefore, is associated in a special way with the Bishop of that Diocese; it is like his headquarters. As well, the Cathedral is a special sign of unity for the Diocese. People often assume that the Pope’s Cathedral is St. Peter’s since he spends much of his time there. In fact, the Pope’s Cathedral is St. John Lateran. Because it is the Cathedral of the the Diocese of Rome, this Basilica is sometimes called the “mother church” of all the world.
Photo: Livioandronico2013 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The land on which St. John Lateran sits was given by Constantine to the Pope (probably Pope Miltiades) in the year 313. The building that we see today, which is the end result of many renovations over the years, is truly impressive. What perhaps strikes me most about this building are the enormous statues of the Apostles that flank the two sides of the nave. As a visitor walks through the Basilica, these imposing statues, which were created in the 18th century, make quite an impression. If you were to take a tour of the Basilica, a question often asked is, “which St. John is the Basilica named after?” The group is then usually divided as to whether it is named after St. John the Baptist or St. John the Evangelist. In fact, it is a bit of a trick question. The original and primary patron of the Basilica is “Christ the Saviour”.  Hundreds of years later, in the 10th century, the Basilica was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Then, in the 12th century, the Basilica was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. Therefore, the main patron of the Basilica is Jesus and its two other co-patrons are St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.

From the year 313, every Pope lived beside the Basilica in the Lateran Palace until Pope Clement V transferred the Papacy to Avignon in 1307. While the Popes were in Avignon, two fires greatly damaged the Basilica and the Palace. When Pope Gregory XI finally moved back from Avignon to Rome in 1377, the Lateran Palace was deemed to run-down to live in. Instead, the Popes lived for a time at St. Mary in Trastevere and then at St. Mary Major. After some years, the Papal Palace beside St. Peter’s was constructed and it became the official residence of the Popes. Pope Francis changed this practice as he chose to live in Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guesthouse located a few hundred meters from the Papal Palace.

On November 9th, the entire Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran.

What are the Papal Basilicas?

Among the most popular attractions in Rome are the four churches known as “Papal Basilicas”: 1) St. John Lateran, 2) St. Peter’s, 3) St. Mary Major, and 4) St. Paul Outside the Walls.  All of these posses a long and interesting history, beautiful architecture, and important relics.  Because of their significance, over a series of five articles we will explore these churches.  Here, we begin by investigating what is meant by the term Papal Basilica.

In general, the word “basilica” is used either to indicate an architectural style or as a title designating the special status a church possesses.  The basilican architectural form arose in the Roman empire.  A basilica is basically a large rectangular building with an apse at the short side of the structure which is furthest from the entrance.  Often there was a raised platform in the apse.  The latin word basilica is derived from the greek basilike stoa, which literally means “kingly walkway”.  As such, a basilica originally referred to the court chamber of the king.  The place for the king was the raised platform in the apse.  Between 200 BC and 300 AD, numerous basilicas were built in Rome, many of them around the forum area.  The ruins of these buildings are still visible today.  These structures were used as public halls for secular events such as court sessions, public talks and even business transactions.  As the number of Christians in the Roman Empire grew, they eventually needed special buildings to hold their liturgies.  The well known basilica style was used by the Church for this very purpose. Whereas a human king used to be on the raised platform in the apse, in these new basilica churches, the King of Kings, Jesus, was now present on the altar in the celebration of the Mass.  Though few of the Papal Basilicas still retain this architectural style, originally they were built in the basilican form.

The word “basilica” is also a title given by Popes to significant churches around the world.  The four Papal Basilicas are known as Major Basilicas.  The vast majority of other basilicas around the world, including those in Canada (ex. St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal) are called Minor Basilicas.  Each of the Papal Basilicas has a Holy Door.  When a pilgrim visits one of the Papal Basilicas, he or she is able to receive a special Roman Jubilee.  Further, each is assigned to one of the Patriarchs of the Catholic Church, who traditionally were understood as governing over an ecclesiastical territory.  Therefore, taken together the Papal Basilicas symbolize the unity of the Church.  With respect to law, the Papal Basilicas are related to the Pope in a special way.  St. Peter’s is in the State of Vatican City, of which the Pope is the head.  The other three Papal Basilicas, even though found within Italian territory, still have a special relationship to the Vatican City as they enjoy “extraterritorial status” under the Lateran Treaty (1929).  In subsequent articles we will investigate what makes each of the Papal Basilicas unique and interesting.

St. John Lateran
St. Peter's
St. Mary Major
St. Paul Outside the Walls

Qoheleth says "All is vanity!" But what does this even mean?

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).  For many, this well-known phrase sums up the message that the narrator of the book Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, is trying to present.  Qoheleth looks out at the world and concludes that all he sees is vanity.  He challenges his audience to reconsider the value of things that they unquestionably accepted as good.  To paraphrase, Qoheleth argues like this.  “You think that it is better to be wise than foolish?  But I have seen that the ultimate fate of the wise and the fool is the same: death.  Why then should we bother being wise?”  We could express the mindset of Qoheleth by imagining how he might question one of our accepted Christian values.  “You think that God is loving?  But, I have seen young children die from cancer. How can you say that God is loving?  Life is meaningless.”
Though many scholars consider the message of Qoheleth to be incredibly pessimistic, numerous others view the book quite differently.  How one interprets Qoheleth’s message depends greatly on how one translates a word that is often repeated in the original Hebrew text of the book: hebel.  Hebel, which literally means “vapour”, is most commonly translated as “vanity”.  Some, assigning an even more negative connotation to the word, translate it as “futility” or “meaningless”.  Others, however, argue that hebel really means something like “enigmatic”.  Understanding hebel in this way gives Qoheleth a very different message.  Qoheleth does not want us to have a naive understanding of the world.  He challenges us to realize that there is much that does not make sense or fit our idea of how God should act.  For example, innocent people suffer while the evil prosper.  Life is full of such enigmas and paradoxes.  If we do not realize that there are things we cannot hope to understand, then we are foolish.  Qohelth teaches us to appreciate life, which is a gift from God, is spite of its enigmatic nature.  Far from being pessimistic, the vision of Qoheleth is rooted in a realistic faith.

This message is important to hear.  Questioning how a loving God can allow the innocent to suffer does not mean that we lack faith.  At times we give suffering people overly simplistic advice which can do more harm than good.  “If you just prayed more, it would make sense!” or “You are suffering, but you just need to offer it up!”  No, Qoheleth wants us to avoid thinking that we can understand everything.  Some things do not make sense and cause us to question our faith.  In spite of this unavoidable aspect of human existence, Qoheleth encourages us not to give up.  The solution is not to ignore the paradoxes but to accept that they are a part of life.  We need to wrestle with them.  At the same time, there is always goodness in life that comes from God.  Regardless of what we are going through, we are called to search for this goodness and appreciate it as a gift.

How does Jesus appear to me? Two different ways God intervenes in our life

During the Easter season we read at Mass different stories describing how Jesus appeared to His disciples.  When considering these stories, we can ask, “but… how does Jesus appear to me?”  Even in the Gospels, we see that there are variations in Jesus’ appearances.  Sometimes He shows Himself in a direct and bold way, like with Mary Magdalene at the tomb or the apostles in the upper Room.  At other times, however, Jesus appears to people in a gentler, more indirect manner.  This was the case with the disciples along the road to Emmaus.  They walked with Jesus and never knew it was Him until they finally recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.

In the Old Testament, God intervenes in people’s lives in two main ways, one forceful, the other less direct.  When God revealed Himself to the prophets, He did so in a powerful way.  Think of Moses at the burning bush or the dream of Isaiah when he was first called to be a prophet.  They had no doubt that they met God.  As a result of God’s powerful intervention in their lives, they spoke His words to people in an equally bold and direct way.  They passed on God’s revelation in the same way that they received it.  In what we call the Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon), however, we see a very different way of perceiving God’s revelation than with the prophets.  There are no visions or fantastic dreams.  Rather, the sages who wrote these works began by observing nature and human experience.  Grounded in the belief that all this was made by God, they were able to perceive an order in creation.  They then became convinced that the best way to live was in accord with this order.  In transmitting what they discovered to others, they used a very different mode than the prophets.  They did not speak forcefully.  Rather, they expressed the revelation they had perceived in creation through proverbs and beautifully constructed poems and stories.  In this way, they led their audience to ask questions, ponder and discover for themselves the order that they had found and choose to live in accord with it.

God sometimes speaks to us like He did to the prophets.  When describing how they knew what important decision to make in life, some explain that they had an incredible experience.  For example, maybe someone knew that their spouse was the right person to marry after having a profound and moving experience on a retreat.  Oftentimes, however, God reveals himself to us as he did to the sages who wrote the Wisdom Literature.  If we take the time to prayerfully ponder creation and our experiences, we too can perceive the order in it that comes from God.  We discover slowly which actions will lead to our well-being and the well-being of those around us.  God reveals Himself in different ways. No way is better than another.  The important thing is to approach life prayerfully, with an open heart and mind, confident in the fact that God is indeed revealing Himself to us.

Why the words of Isaiah never get old

The Book of Isaiah is incredibly versatile.  We read from it regularly at Mass.  Its words speak strongly to us year of year when we are passing through very different circumstances.  The rich versatility of Isaiah arises in part from the fact that although it possesses an overall unity, different voices are discernible which were initially aimed at distinct audiences in dissimilar settings at specific moments in history.  When we identify with certain aspects of one of these audiences, the message originally intended for them exerts power over us.
Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah were initially directed towards a people under threat in the 2nd half of the 8th century BC.  At this time, both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah faced the very real possibility of being wiped of the map by the Assyrians, the strongest and most brutal force at that time.  Isaiah called this threatened people to trust in God and to use this moment of crisis to convert and grow closer to Him.  At different times, we too can feel as though everything is about to be taken away from us.  Those faced with health troubles, financial insecurities or tensions in their marriage often feel like they are living under the weight of a looming threat.
Chapters 40-48 were originally spoken to a devastated people in the 2nd half of the 6th century BC.  At this time, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon.  The temple, Jerusalem and the surrounding cities lay in ruins.  All seemed lost and many felt abandoned by God.  To this people, the author of Isaiah spoke a message of hope in the darkness: God is still with you and He will make something new rise from the ashes.  When I think of people today who are experiencing something similar, my mind turns to those in Syria.  There are, however, many circumstances that provoke us to lose hope and feel that all in our life has been destroyed, for example, the death of someone we love, the loss of a job or a family break-up.
Chapters 49-66 were initially addressed to people trying to start anew.  After the Persian King Cyrus defeated Babylon in 539 BCE, Jews began returning to Jerusalem.  Once there, they faced the challenge of rebuilding.  There were setbacks.  Divisions arose regarding the best way to proceed.  The author of Isaiah called this fractioned people to be united and focus on what is most important, namely, the love of God and neighbour.  This is the only foundation on which anything can be built.  Often we need to be challenged to return to basics when we are trying to accomplish something individually or as part of a group.  Divisions can too easily arise in families, Church groups, schools and other communities over inessentials.

The Book of Isaiah illustrates a principle we find throughout Scripture.  Words addressed to people living more that 2000 years ago who had a culture alien to our own are heard today as though they were spoken personally to us.  The message comforts and challenges us.  The words God uttered to His people long ago have not lost their power.

Choosing to be agents of unity

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron. A divided holy site in a divided city.

I hoped that after having spent some months in the Holy Land I would have gained some clarity regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.  The longer I stayed, however, the more confused I became.  I had the opportunity to hear from people on both sides and found aspects of each narrative compelling.  I cannot say that one side is all in the right while the other in the wrong.  Unless things change dramatically, I do not see how things will change for the better.  A critical problem, in my opinion, is the breakdown of communication. People on both sides of the conflict rarely get to personally know one another.  They often don’t appreciate what the other thinks and why.  This problem is hardly confined to the tensions between Israel and Palestine.
There seems to be growing division in many areas.  Politics is becoming increasingly polarized.  Within the Church factions can easily arise.  In families a breakdown of communication is all too frequent.  Disagreements are becoming more charged.  Those on the other side are quickly dismissed, often in a nasty way.  People don’t seem to be able to talk with those who have a different view than themselves, let alone trying to understand why they think as they do.  This deterioration in dialogue is ironic considering we live in an age where technologies such as social media promise to make us more connected.  It seems to do just the opposite.  On Facebook for example, the algorithms of the program ensure that we generally see content we like and agree with.  Hearing and learning from those we disagree with is not really facilitated.  More traditional media operates similarly.  The variety of newspapers and television newscasts cater to every taste.  Unless we really make an effort, we tend to read, watch and listen to perspectives we find most in line with our own.
This fracturing of community goes contrary to our Christian understanding of what it means to be human.  We believe that we are made in God’s image.  God is a Trinity of three persons living in a perfect relationship of love.  Though we are all unique individuals, we become more like God and therefore more human when we grow in deeper relationships with others.  When we polarize into groups we move further away from how God intends us to live.
On the one hand, when we consider the various conflicts around us, whether it be between Israel and Palestine, local politics, the Church or within our own family, it can be tempting to despair because the situation is so complex and seemingly hopeless.  On the other hand, the first and most important step towards peace is simple: we choose to get to know those on the other side, attempt to understand their point of view and empathize if possible, even if we disagree in the end.  Maybe the other will not reciprocate, but we will never know until we try.  Moreover, we need to seek to be agents of unity if we really believe we have been created in God’s own image.

Christmas Midnight Mass in Bethlehem

The birth of a famous person is usually a pretty big deal in our society.  For example, when Princess Charlotte, the daughter of Prince William and Princess Kate, was born not so long ago, the news was on TV and in newspapers around the world.  Countless pictures were taken.  The parents were sent many messages from government leaders and ordinary folk alike.  Because of all the media coverage, it was difficult to miss the birth of Princess Charlotte.  Things were very different when Jesus was born some 2000 years ago in Bethlehem.  His parents had to leave behind their family and well-known surroundings in order to travel to an unfamiliar city where they were strangers.  They had trouble finding a place to stay.  The birth of Jesus was not covered in the media of that time.  Mary and Joseph probably did not receive many congratulatory notes!  The birth of Jesus passed largely unnoticed.

This Christmas I had the opportunity to concelebrate the midnight Mass in Bethlehem, steps away from the place where Jesus was born.  From antiquity, the Basilica of the Nativity has stood over the grotto where Jesus was born.  Though this Basilica is ancient and beautiful in its own way, it is not the kind of monument that stands out and is immediately recognizable by everyone in the way St. Peter’s in Rome is.  The Basilica of the Nativity can also be a bit complicated to get to.  In spite of the fact that Bethlehem is less than 10 km from Jerusalem as the crow flies, it takes a while to get there as you need to pass through the border wall that separates Israel from the West Bank.  Although the Mass was solemn and well prepared by the Bishop and the Franciscans who care for the holy site, the liturgy was also humble and simple.  While it was December 25th, it didn’t quite “feel” like Christmas.  The day is not a holiday in Israel.  In Bethlehem, the minority Christian population is continually declining.  In comparison to the Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s or even many parishes in Vancouver, the celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is modest.  When we went to pray in the grotto after Mass, it struck me that this precisely is the way that Jesus enters the world: humbly and unnoticed by most.
Star marks the spot. The place where Jesus was born. Grotto.
Basilica of the Nativity. Bethlehem.
As we have just celebrated Christmas, perhaps it is helpful to consider how we expect that Jesus should enter our life now.  Do we think that Jesus acts in a flashy, St. Peter's-style or in a more quiet and humble Bethlehem-style?  As we enter Ordinary Time, it is important to remember that Jesus usually works in very ordinary ways.  In our simple prayer, when we perhaps feel that “nothing” is happening. Through our family and friends who are so familiar to us.  At the daily grind at work.  Like in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, Jesus enters our life in a quiet, seemingly-unremarkable way that is all too easy to miss.