Mother and Head of All Churches

November 9 is the feast of the dedication of the pope’s cathedral. No, it’s not St. Peter’s: it’s the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Actually, the full name is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. Now say it five times fast.

I was there once, in the middle of a whirlwind European trip I took with some college friends in May and June 2006. It’s been rebuilt—a lot—so the interior is somewhat hodgepodge, overwhelmingly late baroque but with an altar canopy and various sarcophagi dating to the Middle Ages. An inscription proudly reads MATER ET CAPVT ECCLESIARVM (“mother and head of all churches”).

Well behind the high altar is the chair, the cathedra, which Pope Benedict XVI holds as bishop of Rome. Every cathedral has one, hence the name. On either side of the altar, up on the walls, are papal tombs. Leo XIII is sealed into a dark green sarcophagus at left. On the right, Innocent III—perhaps the most powerful medieval pontiff—is buried above, of all things, the door to the gift shop.

As soon as I realized people were walking back and forth beneath papal bones, doing brisk traffic in calendars and shot glasses, I thought of a line from the now defunct papal coronation ceremony: “O Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world.”

One of my friends and I attended the six p.m. weekday Mass in a side chapel. It was probably the Lancellotti Chapel, but I’m not certain. I stared up into a dome, guarded by cherubim, which let in light through a kind of celestial eyehole. My semester of undergraduate Italian enabled me to translate the priest’s homily here and there, but not too often. He kept saying “Spirito Santo, Spirito Santo,” which made sense, because it was a few days before Pentecost.

When he distributed Communion, the priest did not say “the Body of Christ” as we do here, and he looked a little startled when I responded “Amen” anyway. Afterward, my friend and I walked to a trattoria down the street and I ordered a pizza capricciosa and a beer.

My friend started talking about life and love and women and all the things you are supposed to talk about when you are Americans sitting in Rome on a hot evening eating pizza. I’m sure I uttered appropriate responses.

But I spent most of the time staring over his head, all the way down the avenue, to the basilica façade fading in the sunset. History is sometimes palpable, grainy in your hand, melting in your mouth, and in that moment it definitely was so.

The Lateran is not the oldest church in the world. There were ecclesiastical buildings from the 200s C.E. that are now archaeological digs. But the Lateran may be just about the oldest church plant still in use. And its emergence symbolizes a grand turning point.

In 313, after declaring Christianity legal, Constantine took an estate on the Caelian Hill he had received from the Lateranii family and gave it to Pope Miltiades. The actual church was not publicly consecrated until November 9, 324, the first such event ever.

Before that time, the Eucharist was something celebrated in homes and catacombs by people perpetually on the run, for whom the bread and wine sealed an intimacy that could be broken at any time by persecution and death. The leaders of these household cells were chosen by the community for their demonstrated ability to minister under pressure and to love amid threat.

After Constantine called off the dogs and began developing relationships with bishops, all this changed. The Eucharist became something you watched being performed by semi-government officials in a grand hall donated and decorated by rich families. “Church” had less and less to do with its root meaning (ekklesia means “community” or “assembly”), and became instead a catch-all for the buildings (“St. John’s Church”), rituals that happened in those buildings (“I’m going to church”), and those who ran the buildings (“the Church has always taught that…”).

According to my copy of the Liturgy of the Hours, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran is an act of “devotion to and of unity with the Chair of Peter.” Yes. But it is also a memorial to the exact moment when (as so many have said that I cannot pinpoint an original source) Constantine did not so much convert to Christianity as Christianity converted to Constantine.

But that, I may say, is why I observe the Dedication. I want this day, this ambivalent feast, to think about how the Church started, what it turned into, and what it should be.

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4 thoughts on “Mother and Head of All Churches

  1. This was so enjoyable and so true! As a lover of history myself I found this really enticing to read – while it detailed the history of St. John Lateran itself, it did at the same time remind us that Constantine (and the Church’s consolidation with his empire) was one of the major catalysts that helped change the universal Church – particularly in the Catholic tradition – into a monarchical, authoritative, top/down institution that we know today. It is indeed edifying to preserve and remember venerable traditions of one’s cultural – and in our case, ecclesiastical – heritage. Yet, we can’t remember the original purpose and fundamental essence behind these traditions and evolutions in Church practice. And in this case, that the Church is not composed of buildings, clerics in elegant vestments and the link – but rather is an “assembly” the People of God here on earth. All the members of the universal Church compose the Household of God here on earth, in a uniquely and mystical exercise of living spirituality through the communion of the Holy Spirit.

    • By the way, were you at the National Conference in Milwaukee this weekend? It was my first Conference and it was so wonderful to finally meet some of the people involved with Call to Action in person – especially fellow bloggers who I’ve kind connected with online but not yet in person. Just wondering if you were among them? And if I didn’t get to meet you sorry! But the schedule for the Conference was so tightly-compressed… =/

      • Hi Phillip! Thanks for your insightful comments. I am always particularly reassured when I find other history geeks out there. Yes, I was in Milwaukee all weekend (my first conference too) but no, unfortunately we didn’t meet. I was trying to meet 20/30 folks to the extent that I could, but there wasn’t really enough downtime.

  2. I posted my entry before I read this one because I wanted to keep my mind clear-ish (and not use reading this as an excuse to procrastinate, of which I’d already found several). But I’m struck by the similarity in themes, and I appreciate your “wider-lens” approach to the coldness and disconnect I so often feel “at church.” I’d never heard the saying about Christianity converting to Constantine, but I’ve definitely traced the discrepancy to that point often myself. Thanks for a great, and timely, reflection.

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