October 29, 2021

Reflection / John F. Fink

The Roman basilicas

John F. FinkThe Church celebrates the dedication of three Roman basilicas during November, including the only archbasilica. If you guess that’s St. Peter’s, you’re wrong. The dedication of St. John Archbasilica in the Lateran, on Nov. 9, is a major feast while the dedications of

St. Peter’s and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls share a day, on Nov. 18, as an optional memorial at Mass.

Pilgrims and tourists who visit Rome often spend their time waiting in lines to see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. That’s fine, but you shouldn’t skip the other major basilicas: St. John Lateran, St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls and St. Mary Major. Or, as I’ll tell you below, St. Clement.

The archbasilica of St. John is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the pope. It’s about two-and-a half miles from Vatican City. Founded in 324, the palace was owned by the Laterani family. Emperor Constantine acquired it and gave it to the Bishop of Rome.

The full name of the church is Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Sts. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran. This is where the popes resided until 1309, when Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon, in modern France. The Lateran Palace was also the site of five ecumenical councils.

During the 67 years the papacy was in Avignon, the Lateran Palace deteriorated severely. There were two fires. It was not a fit place for the pope to live. For a while, they lived at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere and then at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Eventually, the palace of the Vatican was built and popes moved there.

The Lateran Basilica was reconstructed several times, and the neo-classical façade as it appears today was completed in 1735. The porticoes have frescos commemorating the Roman fleet under Vespasion, the taking of Jerusalem, the baptism of Emperor Constantine and his “donation” of the Papal States to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps, though, what most people remember are the larger-than-life sculptures of the 12 Apostles. Yes, 12. Judas isn’t there, but neither is Matthias. St. Paul is there instead.

It’s also good for Catholics in central and southern Indiana to know that St. John Lateran served as the architectural model for SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.

Pilgrims to this archbasilica shouldn’t ignore the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs, across the street. These white marble stairs, encased in wooden ones to protect them, are the steps that led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, so they would have been stairs that Jesus climbed. You can see the marble steps through openings in the wooden risers. The stairs were taken from Jerusalem to Rome by Constantine’s mother, St. Helena.

St. Helena, by the way, was entombed in the Lateran basilica, but her sarcophagus is currently in the Vatican Museum. Twelve papal tombs were constructed in the basilica starting in the 10th century, but they were destroyed by the two fires in the 14th century. St. Helena’s tomb was the only one that survived the fires. However, there are six papal tombs inside the basilica today. They include Pope Leo XIII, who died in 1903. Every pope since then has been entombed in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica. If they’ve been declared a saint, they’re moved into the basilica itself.

When visiting St. John Lateran Archbasilica, it would be a shame not to check out the Basilica of St. Clement in the Lateran, only a few blocks away. It’s really two basilicas, one on top of the other. The bottom one was built in the first century when it was the private home of a Roman nobleman and the site of clandestine Christian worship during persecution by the Roman emperors.

By the sixth century, that private home had become a basilica. But it was a church well before that because St. Jerome wrote about it in 392. The church was dedicated to Pope Clement, the fourth pope.

The basilica was also where two ecumenical councils were held. The last major event in the lower basilica was the election of Pope Paschal II in 1099. Here, too, is one of the largest collections of Medieval murals in Rome.

The current basilica was built between 1099-1120. In one of the chapels is the tomb of St. Cyril, who translated the Bible into the Slavic language and Christianized the Slavs. St. John Paul II used to pray there sometimes for Poland and the Slavic countries.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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