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.