St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome is considered the mother church of all the Catholic churches in the Western world; inscribed on the church facade for all to see are the Latin words “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput,” meaning, “The mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world.”
But why is this particular church so important to our Catholic faith that it is designated as the “mother church,” and so prominent that it garners a feast day on the Church liturgical calendar?
In first-century Rome, a palace existed adjacent to the site where the basilica would eventually be built. The palace belonged to Plautius Lateranus, and through the centuries it became known as the Lateran Palace. The Roman Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) confiscated this property from Lateranus, and in the early fourth century it came into the possession of Emperor Constantine the Great when he became emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Constantine, convinced that all his military and political successes were gifts from the Christian God, was favorably disposed to Christianity and eventually ended the persecution of religious groups while extending special attention and support to the followers of Jesus. In 312, he gave the Lateran Palace to Pope Melchiades (also known as Militades), and it became the residence of the popes for the next 1,000 years.
St. John Lateran
After emerging as ruler of all the Roman Empire, Constantine began building places of worship for Christians throughout his vast empire, and the earliest Christian basilica in the West was the Lateran Basilica, which he located next to the pope’s palace. Around 324, at the urging, or perhaps insistence, of Constantine, it was dedicated to Our Most Holy Savior by Pope St. Sylvester.
The basilica was twice rededicated, first in the 10th century to St. John the Baptist, and again in the 12th century to St John the Evangelist. The official title of this church is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and of Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. It is best known as St. John Lateran.
The building of the Lateran Basilica not only gave the Christians of Rome an exclusive place for worship, but architecturally equaled or exceeded any of the monuments previously raised to the pagan gods. This was a momentous period not only in Rome but in both the history of the world and the history of Christianity. The early historian Eusebius of Caesarea (263-340) wrote, “After this was seen the sight which had been desired and prayed for by us all; feasts of dedication in the cities and consecrations of the newly built houses of prayer took place, bishops assembled, foreigners came together from abroad, mutual love was exhibited between people and people, the members of Christ’s body were united in complete harmony” (“The History of the Church,” Book X, Chapter III).
The use of the Lateran Palace as a papal residence ended in 1309 when the popes moved to Avignon, France, and stayed there for nearly 70 years. The Holy See returned to Rome in 1377, but the Lateran facilities were in such a deteriorated state that the pope’s living quarters were relocated, eventually to Vatican Hill, where the pope still resides. The Lateran Basilica and Palace were mostly rebuilt in 1586, and despite the permanent relocation of the pope’s living quarters, the basilica has remained the primary church of the Roman pontiff.
A feast day
The feast day honoring the dedication of St. John Lateran was introduced in the 12th century and was initially celebrated only in the city of Rome. In 1726, Pope Benedict XIII ordered a worldwide commemoration of the basilica as a sign of universal Catholic unity. The feast is celebrated on Nov. 9 and is known today as “The Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica.”
The intent behind the annual feast day is to encourage Catholics to keep strong ties to our past and to the universal Catholic Church. The building of St. John Lateran was a mark of religious freedom. Christians could worship without fear and in a church of their own. Through the grace of God the followers of Jesus had persevered over sufferings and persecutions; Christianity had been granted both legal recognition and public security. What joy those early Christians must have experienced in this newfound freedom, what excitement in joining together in their own house of worship which some historians claim held 10,000 people. This feast day reminds us of our Catholic heritage, the significant role the dedication of the Lateran Basilica played in that heritage and the courage of those first followers of Christ and the importance of uniting ourselves to the Holy See. As the pope is our universal pastor, the Lateran is our universal church.
From the eighth through the middle of the 19th century, the papacy had been gifted with many territories, including much of central Italy. That area, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic Sea, became known as the Papal States and geographically split Italy in two. In 1870, King Victor Emmanuel II, as part of his effort to unite all of Italy and establish a new government, annexed the Papal States and occupied the city of Rome in a movement called the Risorgimento. The new government essentially took the Papal States and Rome away from the pope. Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-1878) reacted by excommunicating everyone involved with the invasion.
The king attempted to treat the papacy diplomatically and offered Pius that the pope could keep Vatican City, the palaces and churches, the liberty to conduct religious activities, receive financial compensation for the Papal States and even have authority to conduct diplomatic relations. Pope Pius stated firmly that the state government had illegally seized Rome and the Papal States. Further, and most importantly, he claimed that he would not be put in a position of being subject to the Italian government as required by King Victor Emmanuel. He declared himself “a prisoner of the Vatican” and retreated into the Vatican palace from which he and the popes who followed refused to leave for the next 59 years. This situation, or standoff, became known as the Roman Question.
In early 1929, after many of the original principals associated with the Roman Question had died and the political situation had changed, the Vatican and the Italian government ended this problem. Pope Pius XI recognized the Kingdom of Italy with the city of Rome as the capital and officially ceded the Papal States to the government. In return, the government agreed to recognize the Vatican as a sovereign state with its own police force, post office, newspaper and radio station. The Vatican could exchange diplomatic emissaries as it deemed necessary. The papacy would possess Vatican City and all the palaces and churches including those extraterritorial possessions like St. John Lateran and the pope’s summer home, Castel Gandolfo. Other concessions included a financial payment to the Vatican for the annexation of the Papal States, and the government agreed that the Catholic Church would be identified as the state church of Italy. There was no mention of the pope being subject to the Italian government. Treaties reflecting these agreements were signed in the Lateran Palace on Feb. 11, 1929. The Holy See was now a national state, independent of Italy, with its own head of state (the pope), government and church. The Lateran Agreement was superseded by a new concordat between the Holy See and the Italian government in June 1985.
Dennis Emmons writes from Mount Joy, Pa.