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.