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Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.
Churches have stories, which is especially true of St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built. At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.
The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around 320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.
Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum, because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the traditional religions. Still, the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.
Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes where they met and worshipped.
That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)
So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.
That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “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)
An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery, a large building connected to the church itself, worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.
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.
One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.
Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.
“If anyone destroys God’s temple,
God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”