Wednesday, February 13, 2008

First Week of Lent: San Giovanni in Laterano

San Giovanni in Laterano is the cathedral church of Rome, the Patriarchial Lateran Archbasilica. It has been the site of five ecumenical councils and home of the popes until 1304 when they left for Avignon. The Roman Emperor Constantine gave the Bishop of Rome this parcel of imperial property, together with its buildings, for a church and residence in the early 4th century. The property was known as Lateran since it had previously belonged to Plautius Lateranus.

The first basilica was consecrated by Pope Sylvester I in 324 and dedicated to the Holy Savior, naming it Basilica Salvatoris. This basilica was restored and rebuilt many times because of sackings, fires and earthquakes. In the 10th century it was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist was added as a co-patron in the 12th century. The interior that is seen today dates from the 17th century and is primarily the work of the architect Francesco Borromini.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Entering the basilica today, your eyes are first drawn to the front, where an elaborate tabernacle-like structure above the main altar holds reliquaries of Saints Peter and Paul. When your eyes look down, you notice that the floor is an intricate design made of marble, and as you gaze up, you behold an immense carved ceiling of gold on top of a background of blue and red. It takes awhile to settle down and pause for reflection.

This basilica and the adjoining palace are the places where the influence, wealth and power of the Church grew. It is also the "Mother Church" responsible for directing the spread of Christianity for over 1,000 years. The Lateran Basilica was the site of four Ecumenical Councils. It was where Charlemagne was baptized and St. Francis of Assisi came here and received approval from the Pope for the Franciscan way of life.

Two weeks ago the Community of Sant' Egidio celebrated their 40th Anniversary here. This lay community began as a group of high school students and are now more than 50,000 members around the world, with a commitment to the Gospel and prayer, friendship, helping the needy, dialogue and peace.

For over 1,500 years this basilica has been a place where Christians have come to meet God. During my recent visit I was sitting in the nave in front of a statue of Saint Philip. Pilgrims and tourists were coming and going in a constant flow. Some were in groups and some were alone. It was interesting to see nuns in various styles of habits - some carrying rosaries and others with digital cameras. Directly across the nave, in a side chapel, there were two dozen people praying the rosary in Italian. I heard voices singing from the front of the basilica. I thought it might be a recording, as can be heard in many Roman churches during the day. I discovered that a group of about 80 American pilgrims were celebrating the Eucharist in another side chapel.

I encountered many facets of the Kingdom of God in this basilica. How can I be "poor in spirit" so that I can have a fuller experience of the Kingdom of God?

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

These angels are in the chapel dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.

The statues of Christ and the saints look down upon the thousands of gay men and women gathered in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano for Gay Pride. The people may not all be religious, but they have come to this basilica to celebrate who they are.

No comments: