Feastday Highlights: Dedication of St. John Lateran

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Nov 07, 2014

Every five years several feasts interrupt the cycle of the Liturgical Calendar; these feasts take precedence over the Sundays in Ordinary Time: September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, November 2, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, and this Sunday, the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran Basilica.

The feast of St. John Lateran can be confusing. I remember as a child trying to figure out who was St. John Lateran and puzzling as to why we are celebrating a church building for a feast day?

The original basilica dates back to the 4th century, built by Constantine over the site that was formerly the home of the Laterani family and also the fort for the imperial calvary. It is hard to believe that a church building could not be built for centuries, but the early church was being persecuted and it was not until Constantine declared the end of the persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire that public churches be built. St. John Lateran is the oldest church in the West, although the current structure reflects the major renovations of the the 16th and early 18th centuries.

This church is massive, and with the surrounding buildings, such as the Lateran Palace, cloister, and baptistery, one could take weeks and still not see all the treasures and learn all the history of this church.

Why is this such an important feast that it takes precedence over the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time?

1) We celebrate with Our Holy Mother Church as the family of Christ.
Today we celebrate Sancta Mater Ecclesia, or Holy Mother Church. Christ founded the visible Church, and she is the Bride of Christ. The Church acts as a mother, taking care of her flock with tender, loving, maternal care. The Supreme Pontiff is the bishop or shepherd of the whole universal church with St. John Lateran is his cathedra, or throne seat. The physical church is a symbol of the relationship of Christ and our connection with the Mystical Body. We turn to the pope as our Holy Father, and celebrate this closeness of the family of Christ, united by our baptism. How awesome to think that though we are so diverse and widespread, we are also closely connected spiritually through Holy Mother Church. The physical figurehead of the pope and his cathedral reminds us of the care and protection of the Church and our intimate family connection in Christ.

2) We celebrate the birthday of a church.
Every diocese has a cathedral or "mother church" and St. John Lateran is the cathedral or physical "mother church" of all Christians. It is our universal cathedral, so to speak. St. John Lateran is "the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world.” We celebrate the birth or nameday of this church, recalling the dedication and consecration to God. The ceremony of the dedication of a church is very beautiful and rich. This readings today recall the liturgy of the consecration.

3) We see the the significance of our parish, diocese and bishop
This feast we see the larger picture of the pope and his cathedra (seat), but we can also see how this applies to us in our local level. Canon Law is one of the Church documents that explains the structure and laws concerning the hierarchy of the Church, such as dioceses, bishops, pastors and parishes. Canon Law also shows the rights and obligations as lay faithful to pastors, such as:

Can. 212 §1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.

4) We connect with the history of the Church.
There was no "St. John Lateran"; this basilica has been dedicated to both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.
The history of this physical church reflects so much of the history of the entire Church. From its foundations by Constantine we can follow the rises and falls, the highs and lows, the sinners and saints throughout the history of this basilica.

In particular this feast reminds us of the unfortunate Avignon papacy of the 14th century. Before this time, the popes resided in the Lateran palace. Returning from France the structures of the Lateran were falling apart and unlivable, so the pope began residing in the Vatican. Recalling this bit of history helps us understand why St. John Lateran and not St. Peter's is the Pope's cathedral, even though that The Vatican and St. Peter's is his residence.

I have had the opportunity to visit this basilica twice, but hope to someday return, because I didn't see enough. The Vatican has a website for the Basilica of St. John Lateran sharing some photos of the treasures and the history of the basilica to get a little feel of this basilica and its treasures. The website is in Italian, but the web translation is still readable.

A simple way to celebrate

Sunday holds primary importance, as General Norms of the Calendar and Liturgy explains:

4. On the first day of each week, which is known as the Day of the Lord or the Lord's Day, the Church, by an apostolic tradition that draws its origin from the very day of the Resurrection of Christ, celebrates the Paschal Mystery. Hence, Sunday must be considered the primordial feast day.

5. Because of its special importance, the celebration of Sunday gives way only to Solemnities and Feasts of the Lord...

Despite this being a feast that takes precedence over the Sunday in Ordinary Time, we are still celebrating Sunday as the day of Resurrection and rest. We try to emphasize Sunday with our family dinners and usually a special dessert on this day.

Not everyone has one available, but there is a wonderful cathedral shaped bundt pan that is perfect reminder for this feast commemorating the dedication of this basilica. I prefer homemade cakes, but there are a few adapted mix cakes such as our favorite, Kahlua Cake, that are delicious and wonderful baked in a bundt pan. (I used this recipe for my husband's groom cake at our wedding.) Another option I'm considering is an apple cake, since it is still apple season, either adapting Brandy Apple Cake with Grand-Marnier Sauce or Sour Cream Apple Cake. The former will need to be doubled and baking soda and baking powder added to rise. The latter will require extra greasing and putting the crumb mixture first instead of last. I also am hankering for our family's Sugar Plum Cake which we usually serve for Christmas brunch.

Whatever cake recipe is used, the visual cake shaped in the original bundt or cathedral pans are a impetus for discussion of this feast.

This feastday is not just remembering an old dusty Roman church, but it provides such richness in understanding our connection with our family in Christ with our holy Mother Church, and also a heavy dose of our Church history and a better understanding of our role as laity in connection with the hierarchy of the Church. Above all, it is a day we pray for Our Holy Father and our Universal Church.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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