First of the Roman Basilicas
St. John Lateran, the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after he came to power early in the 4th century, is a good spot to follow the journey of the Catholic Church through time. It’s a history of the church in stone.
Imagine the joy of Roman Christians crowding into this church for its dedication. What would they have thought? Many may have suffered in the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of century. Now an emperor was building them a splendid church.
The tiny mustard seed from Jerusalem had grown over the Roman world and beyond. Now, there was a great Christian church in Rome! Not wishing to antagonize the city’s traditional religions. Constantine built it in the southeastern edge of Rome away from the city’s forum. But still, the Lateran church said: Christianity had arrived!
In the beginning at Jerusalem, members of the Christian church met in ordinary homes while continuing to worship in the temple and in synagogues. (Acts 2, 46-47) They put little emphasis on special religious buildings, because they expected all was passing quickly away. Their connection to the Jerusalem temple ended as they were persecuted and then as the temple itself was destroyed in 70 AD. In time, as they spread through the Roman world, Christians broke with Judaism altogether, and instead of synagogues, met in private places of their own.
The new religion puzzled its pagan neighbors precisely because it lacked a public face. Romans could not understand a faith whose members refused to take part in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire. They thought them godless, atheists. According to the 2nd century pagan Celsus, “This is the language of rebellion, of people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2) Before the construction of the Lateran basilica, Christians had no great temples or public rites.
Mother of all churches
Now times were changing. An inscription at the entrance of St. John Lateran calls it “the Mother of all Churches.” After centuries of meeting in homes and small community settings– Rome itself had twenty four of these “tituli”– Christians now had a great temple like the others, the first of many to be built.
Some critics claim that the Lateran church and other large churches ended a vital diversity found in early Christian house churches and small meeting halls. For them, Constantine’s church was a step to control these independent churches.
A better answer, though, is that from the beginning most small churches saw themselves belonging to one church. True, there were differences and some were tempted to see their church or party as unique. St. Paul confronted this temptation at Corinth where some claimed “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Apollos.” “Is Christ divided?” Paul wrote, “ Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1,13)
To the church at Rome, gathered in houses and meeting places, Paul wrote “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5) One faith and one baptism united them in Jesus Christ.
A gathering place for the churches
The Lateran church, holding about 10,000, became a gathering place for Rome’s growing Christian population, yet it was not meant to be, nor did it become, a “mega church” displacing the existing communities in the city. They continued on as churches of God. Though many, they were one body in Christ.
The ancient practice of the “fermentum,” of putting aside fragments of the Eucharist to be distributed to other churches as a sign of unity, had a place early on in the liturgy of the Lateran church. A relic of the practice still exists today in the Mass, when the celebrant places a fragment of the Bread into the chalice before communion.
As the “mother of all churches”, St. John Lateran became the center of western Christianity, and fulfilled this role for centuries. Popes resided here from the 4th to the 15th century, when they moved to the Vatican. Papal elections, ecumenical councils, imperial coronations took place here. Emissaries from the nations and ordinary Christian pilgrims came here to visit the pope, the bishop of Rome. The Lateran is an archive of the church’s eventful past.
The present basilica stands over the foundations of Constantine’s church erected for Rome’s Christians on land he seized from his enemies after conquering the city in 312. He dedicated it to Christ, the Savior, whom the emperor believed helped him defeat his enemies in his conquest of Rome.
Later, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, whose statues are atop the facade of church, were added as its patrons. A large statue of Constantine faces the doors of the church; paintings of his military victories and participation in church affairs appear within the church and its large baptistery, telling about his role as its original builder. The church’s impressive bronze doors came from the ruins of the Senate building in the heart of imperial Rome. Here is Rome’s new place of power, they seem to say.
The Baptistery Constantine built
The first building Constantine erected was a large octagonal baptistery dedicated to St John the Baptist, which stands at the right of the present church. Exposed parts of its walls reveal the emperor’s original construction. Conveniently, the baptistery was placed over an existing Roman bath to supply running water for those to be baptized. Eight porphyry columns surrounding the baptismal pool were Constantine’s original gift. It’s a good place to begin your visit to this important site.
Why was the baptistery built first and have such prominence? Surely Constantine recognized the importance of the sacrament for the new faith. Though attracted to Christianity, he deferred being baptized himself until approaching his death. Not an unusual step; others like St. Augustine, uneasy about their ability to live up to Christian ideals, also delayed being baptized.
A 5th century legend popularized in some early Christian paintings reports that the emperor was baptized by Pope Sylvester shortly after arriving in Rome, but in reality he asked for baptism year later on his deathbed.
Did Constantine create the church?
Some historians and popular writers present Constantine as a ruthless pragmatist who used the Christian church for his own ends. They call him the church’s creator, not its liberator, who imposed on Christians a rule of faith bullied pliable bishops and church councils. A building like the Lateran was a pay-off for their support.
The bestselling novel The DaVinci Code, for example, has its historical “expert” Sir Leigh Teabing, a British Royal Historian, characterize Constantine as a good businessman who “could see that Christianity was on the rise, and he simply backed a winning horse.” The shrewd emperor created a hybrid religion out of existing pagan symbols and a growing Christian tradition. He enhanced the power of the Christianity by pushing through at the Council of Nicea in 325 “the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus.” To rewrite the Christian story, Constantine commissioned a new bible and destroyed any writings that emphasized the human Jesus. Knowledgeable historians have written about these things, Teabing claims.
Standing in the Lateran baptistery, one wonders about these simplistic claims–first made by historians like Edward Gibbon and Adolph Harnack. Constantine was a more complex figure than these historians and novelists think. He was dedicated to the empire and used its religions to promote imperial interests.
Certainly, he was not a fervent Christian disowning Rome’s past and its large pagan population, as some of the paintings around the Lateran seem to indicate. He was emperor of Rome, half-Christian, half-pagan, but not a crass opportunist out only for personal gain. Only gradually did he fully embrace the Christian cause.
At the same time, he honored heroes like Peter, Paul and Lawrence, long dear to Roman Christians. His plan was to keep the old and new faiths together in an ambiguous embrace for the common good of his empire.
Nor was Constantine’s relationship to Christian bishops as cozy as some claim. The 250 bishops Constantine called to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD were leaders of a church that some twenty years earlier fiercely resisted the Emperor Diocletian in his efforts to crush Christianity. Some had suffered personally during Diocletian’s persecution. A painting at the Lateran portrays the emperor kissing the disfigured hands of Paul of Neocaesarea, a bishop who was burned by hot irons by Diocletian’s torturers. The bishops were hardly pliable hacks conniving with an ambitious politician.
Nor did Constantine create church doctrine. He honored the settled creed he found in Christian baptismal formation. That creed, in which his mother Helena firmly believed, summed up writings of the Old Testament and the apostles that proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord, God and man. Constantine didn’t make it up. Church councils over which the emperor presided simply made the baptismal creed more explicit.
The Mystery of Baptism
The Constantinian baptistery, worn and patched up today, is a reminder of the ancient faith passed on here. It must have been a splendidly decorated place. Its octagonal form symbolized the Eight Day, the day that fulfills the seven days of creation. Going into the mystic waters of the baptismal pool those being baptized entered into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here they were promised a Paradise lost by sin.
The mystery of baptism inspired awe in the most powerful, like Constantine. The fainthearted might be tempted to shy away from it feeling unworthy. On the architrave over the Lateran baptistery one sees today a beautiful 5th century inscription, possibly written by Pope Leo the Great, summing up the awesome nature of this mystery and encouraging the timid to come forward:
Those bound for heaven are born here,
born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.
Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.
No differences among those born here,
they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.
The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.
So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.
Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.
Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.
The Baptismal Rite
We know about the baptismal rite celebrated here. The Apostolic Tradition, a church order compiled by the 3rd century Roman churchman Hippolytus, contains a rite used in the Roman church before Constantine’s baptistery was built, and it was most likely used here.
“And when the one who is to be baptized goes down to the water, let him who baptizes lay hands on him saying:
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? And the one baptized shall say: I believe. Let him then baptize him once, having his hand laid on his head.
And after this let him say:
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God,
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate,
And died and was buried
And he rose on the third day living from the dead
And ascended into heaven
And sat down at the right hand of the Father,
And will come to judge the living and the dead”
And when he says: I believe, let him baptize the second time.
And again let him say:
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church
And the resurrection of the flesh?
And he who is being baptized shall say: I believe.
And so let him baptize him the third time.
And afterwards when he comes up from the water he shall be anointed by the presbyter with the Oil of Thanksgiving saying:
I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.
And so each one drying himself with a towel they shall now put on their clothes, and after this let them be together in the assembly.” (The Shape of the Liturgy, Gregory Dix.)
From the Lateran baptistery it’s only a short distance to the Lateran church. One can envision a procession of the newly baptized into the vast basilica where, together with the bishop of Rome and other believers, they would take part in another part of the sacramental mystery: the Holy Eucharist. This usually took place on Holy Saturday evening at the Lateran Basilica, during the celebration of the Easter mysteries of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If we can judge from the great mosaic that dominates the apse of today’s church–probably inspired by one from earlier times–the figure of Christ triumphant in heaven gazed down upon the assembly. He was the one who brought together those believing in him. From the cross beneath him waters flow to quench the thirst of deer and sheep–symbolizing those sharing his life through the waters of baptism. The figures of Mary, Peter and Paul, John the Baptist and Andrew, also pictured in the present mosaic, are leaders of “those bound for heaven.”
The ancient church was renovated in the 18th century and reproduces faithfully Constantine’s original church. The The large statues of the 12 apostles on either side of its nave as well as the present facade were added in the renovation as reminders of the disciples chosen by Christ as its teachers and founders. In the church’s center stands the altar table where the mystery of the Eucharist is celebrated.
In the Lateran baptistery and church we see an ancient faith visually displayed, firmly based on the Jewish scriptures and the teachings of the apostles of Jesus, who brought it to the world centuries ago.
The Popes at the Lateran
Besides offering a visual picture of a faith transmitted in signs and sacraments, the Lateran is a place to study the development of church leadership from New Testament times till the present. From the 4th to the 14th centuries, this was the headquarters of the papacy. Even after moving to the Vatican on the other side of the city, the popes considered the Lateran a vital part of their patrimony.
As the large statues of the twelve apostles in the nave of the Lateran church indicate, the apostles are the church’s “living stones”, the first Christian leaders commissioned by Jesus to go into the whole world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul, records how two of them, Peter and Paul, fulfilled the apostolic role. They and their companions were founders of the Roman church, and they labored and shed their blood in the city.
After the death of the apostles, Christian communities throughout the world turned to “elders” and “priests” as their successors. In a crucial period at the end of the 1st century, which some call the “subapostolic age,” the gospels were written and new leaders emerged. At the same time, between the years 80 and 140, a swarm of heretical teachers arose who sought to fill the vacuum caused by the loss of the apostles and their companions. Christ’s coming seemed to be delayed, and new radical religious theories were advanced that contradicted the church’s traditional beliefs.
The fight against heresy
Rome, the imperial city, with its many Christian house churches, was a magnet for heretical teachers like Marcion and Valentinus, who preached a new way of redemption based on a mixture of Christian teaching and Gnosticism. The Gnostics saw the world as evil and offered a special saving knowledge to lead the elect to salvation. They claimed their teachings were superior to Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth and the life,” and they denied he was Son of God in the real sense of the term. For them, redemption came through knowledge, not through grace.
In the Gnostic view, the God of the Old Testament was the author of evil, distinct from the God of the New. The elaborate Gnostic speculative systems, at once bizarre and cleverly imaginative, made the facts of Christian history fit their speculations in order to draw Christian believers to their ranks.
Faced with heresy, mainstream Christianity looked to its bishops and orthodox thinkers for guidance against the false teachers. At the time, the role of monarchical bishops presiding over churches in the cities of the empire was strengthened, a list of Christian writings, a canon, including the four gospels and the letters of apostles and evangelists was accepted as the authentic story of Christianity, and the rule of faith transmitted in creedal formulas at baptism became the basic summary of Christian belief.
The ancient Christian communities of Antioch, Alexandria, Caesarea, and later Constantinople and Jerusalem, with their bishops and teachers like St.John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, Origen, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, were recognized as important voices of Christian orthodoxy. A special role for preserving the Christian faith, however, fell to the church of Rome where Peter and Paul labored and died.
With the creation of the Lateran basilica the pope, the bishop of Rome, who previously resided in one of the city’s house churches, received from the emperor a magnificent stage to preside, not only over the local Roman church, but also over churches throughout the world.
The power of the papacy increased after Constantine moved his government from Rome to Constantinople in 324, a move that produced the brilliant flowering of the Byzantine Empire, but ended centuries later when it fell to Turkish armies. Embroiled in internal conflicts and exhausting wars on its eastern frontiers, the imperial government’s control of its western territories weakened, and gradually the popes assumed temporal and spiritual leadership in Rome and much of the Italian Peninsula.
Great figures like Pope Leo the Great (440-461), who faced invading armies of Goths and Huns and Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), who sent missionaries to England, strengthened the office of the papacy. Rome looked more and more to itself, even though the imperial government in the east tried periodically to maintain control over its western territories, particularly its ancient capital, Rome.
By the 8th century, as Moslem armies began their invasion of the eastern empire, Constantinople’s power over its western territories had almost slipped away.
Popes of a pilgrim church
Not all the popes in the church’s long history were saints, of course. In the Dark Ages prominent Roman families sometimes fought over the papal office to assure the election of one of their members.
Later, powerful nation states lobbied for the election of a countryman, or someone who would foster their interests. Politics and greed sometimes were responsible for weak spiritual leaders who caused scandal by their way of life. But, remarkably, the institution of the papacy endured, and the Lateran church is a witness to its endurance and powers of rejuvenation.
Rejuvenation came, often enough, from powerful movements of reform that arose within the church itself. Outside the Lateran basilica, today, is a large statue of St. Francis of Assisi facing the church with outstretched arms as if to hold it up. It commemorates the visit that Francis and some companions made to the Lateran on April 16,1209 to ask Pope Innocent III for approval of the Franciscan rule, which he granted. They say the pope had seen in a dream previously Francis holding up the pillars of the falling Lateran church. A spiritual storm followed the papal approval, as the Franciscans and other religious orders brought new life to the church.
Before the year 1300 Pope Boniface VIII announced the first Holy Year from the Lateran balcony to the people of Rome and all Christendom. The city was overwhelmed with the number of visitors that came; Christians from all over Europe sought renewal of their faith by visiting the shrines of the city as pilgrims.
The frightening specter of the Black Death descended on Europe that same century, cutting its population by a third. The popes abandoned Rome for the safety of Avignon in France to escape the plague and the political chaos that engulfed the city. St. Bridget of Sweden, the great woman mystic, came as a pilgrim for the Holy Year of 1350, to a city without its bishop, the pope. As she made her pilgrimage through the downtrodden churches of the Holy City, she began a series of relentless appeals to the pope in Avignon in the name of Christ to return to Rome and carry out the reforms necessary to purify the church. Later, St. Catherine of Siena joined her in pleading with the popes to come back and walk in the footsteps of their holy predecessors like Gregory the Great and rebuild a church from the ruins. Eventually, the voices calling for reform were heard.
Councils and political pacts
Under the leadership of the popes, important councils and meetings on church business met at the Lateran. From the 12th to the 16th century five Lateran councils took place, which provided the church with laws and important initiatives. It was during the IV Lateran Council in 1215 that Pope Innocent III urged on by St. Bernard and others called for a crusade against the Moslems to regain the Holy Land. The V Lateran Council, convened in May 1512 by Pope Julius II and ending on March 16, 1517, was occupied with questions of reform of papal government and the clergy, but tragically made little headway in the matter. Less than seven and a half months after its close, Martin Luther began his mission of radical reform.
Closer to our time, the Lateran Pacts, important agreements between the Holy See and the Italian government under Mussolini, were signed at the Lateran palace on February 11, 1929 and then updated on June 3,1985. The original pact, occasioned by the loss of the Papal States during the Italian revolution in the 19th century, settled the simmering feud between the church and the Italian government by creating Vatican City as an independent state ruled by the pope. The latest revisions spell out further the relationship of church and state. Each is independent and sovereign, the pacts declare, and both sides agreed that “the Catholic church is not longer to be regarded as the only state religion” in Italy. The pacts are reminders of the church’s turbulent political past and its delicate relationship with states and governments over time.
A visual reminder of the delicate relationship between church and state can be found across from the Lateran basilica in a large mosaic facing the busy modern street. It reproduces an earlier mosaic commissioned by Pope Leo III in 8th century as part of a large banquet hall he built to welcome distinguished visitors. One panel shows St. Peter offering to Leo the pallium, a sign of his spiritual authority, and to Charlemagne, the newly installed emperor of the west, a spear that signifies his temporal power.
Leo and Charlemagne undoubtedly interpreted the meaning of the mosaic differently. Leo most likely considered Charlemagne’s role to be a dutiful protector of the church, who acknowledged the authority he had came through Peter. Charlemagne, on the other hand, most likely saw his power coming from God, who made him leader and defender of the Christian people. The emperor in a letter to Leo urged the pope to pray for his success, like Moses who prayed for Joshua when he fought against the enemies of Israel. The pope’s role was to say prayers and offer a good example to the Christian world, the emperor believed. No pope could accept such a limited role.
The Lateran today
For almost 2,000 years, the Lateran has played a role in the history of the Catholic Church. After the popes moved their principal residence and offices to the Vatican on the other side of the city in the 15th century, the Lateran lost much of its pride of place and power, yet some of its glory remains today. The area, sparsely populated from the 6th until the 19th century, is now clogged with the traffic and sprawl of modern Rome–certainly a questionable blessing.
The church was newly renovated for the Jubilee of 2000. In 1963 Pope John XIII brought the offices of the diocese of Rome to the Lateran Palace adjacent to it; the Lateran University behind the church draws students from all over the world studying for the ministry. Hospitals nearby were there during the Middle Ages. Remnants of the old papal palace across the street from the basilica house ancient devotional sites like the Holy Stairs, reputedly the stairs that Jesus ascended to the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate, and the Sancta Sanctorum, a storeroom for papal relics, which still attract devout pilgrims who ascend the stairs on their knees.
Centuries converge at this site which goes back to the church at its beginning. “Mother of all churches,” the Lateran church marked a dramatic turning point in the way Christians gathered together, as well as a new relationship to civil government. We can see in this place what early Christians believed, how they passed on their faith in sacraments, and some great Christian figures from the past. The hand of time has touched this place; it has seen empires pass away; invaders have broken into its precincts; fires and earthquakes have leveled its walls. Generations have passed through its doors.
Tides of change wash over the pilgrim church in her journey through time. They always will. Believers know, however, that behind them all is the hand of God.
Saints and Sinners, A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy, New Haven, Ct 1997
Rome, Profile of a City, 312-1308, Richard Krautheimer, Princeton, NJ 1980
The Companion Guide to Rome, Georgina Masson, revised by Tim Jepsen. Woodbridge, England, 1998
Rome 1300, On the path of the pilgrim, Herbert L.Kessler and Johanna Zacharias, New Haven, Ct. 2000