Below is an annual repost with a few pieces of new and interesting material (courtesy of Marco da Vinha).
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Today is the feast of the dedication of the Cathedral of Our Savior, commonly known as the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the diocese of Rome and hence the foremost Church in the world. The cathedral has probably been re-built half a dozen times due to fires, earthquakes, and the Avignon papacy, yet some of the original building remains, which traces its origins to the Emperor Constantine. I had re-published an old post showing some pictures I took of the Cathedral during my visit there a few years ago. I think this better than posting images available from the internet because the display the "flow" of the cathedral and lend themselves to an appreciation of the look and scale. At the end I have added a video of the consecration of the FSSP seminary chapel in Nebraska which, although done to the 1962 rite, is textually very close to how the Mass part of the rites would have been done at the Lateran during its several re-consecrations. Happy feast!—one of my favorite of the year.
|The image of Christ dominates this great cathedral built in His name|
|The throne of the Bishop of Rome|
The Church of Our Savior eventually became the main seat of the Bishop of Rome due to its proximity to the Lateran Palace. Important stational days during Holy Week—particularly Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Holy Saturday—which are communal in nature take place here. The consecration of the Bishop of Rome, and his coronation as Pope, and special blessings took place at this cathedral, emphasizing the Pope's role as a bishop for the City. During one Maundy Thursday Pope St. Gregory the Great was performing the mandatum (re: foot-washing ceremony) and after washing twelve men's feet and thirteenth appeared. This man's luminous face was described as perfect by the Pope. The man immediately disappeared. St. Gregory concluded it was an angel, or perhaps even Our Lord Himself. This is why in the old Roman rite thirteen men's feet were washed in Maundy Thursday as opposed to the instinctive twelve.
The Cathedral of Our Savior was subjected to barbaric invasions by the Goths in the sixth century, by the Saracens in the ninth century, and earth quakes throughout. By the reign of Sergius III (r. 904-911) the Cathedral had fallen into such disarray it required a re-model, including a new roof. It was re-dedicated by Pope Sergius and given a consecration to Ss. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, hence its vulgar name "St. John Lateran."
In the late first millennium through the high Middle Ages the Lateran dominated the Latin Church's liturgical understanding of Christian worship as the fulfillment of the Law in light of Calvary. It was the "Mother and Head of all churches in the City and the world", the new Temple. At an altar in the confessio were held several false relics of the Ark of the Covenant and the Rod of Moses, kept mainly for the amusement of pilgrims until better judgment won out and the items were confined to the Lateran's museum, where they still reside to this day.
More intriguing was the Lateran's liturgy for Mandy Thursday, which by the 11th century combined the festive Mass (sung after Terce in the Ordo Romanus I) of the Roman tradition with the penitential Gallican view all under a praxis unique to the Lateran church. According to Bonizo, bishop of Sutri, and Bernardus, the 12th century rector of the Cathedral, Mass was sung at 3PM, after None and in much the same manner as Papal Mass until the papacy of Paul VI. The cardinal bishops of the suffragan sees, along with the cardinal priests and deacons of the major churches, vested for Mass and sat around the Lord Pope in the apse of the cathedral according to rank, with the cardinal bishops on the top row and nearest the Bishop of Rome and the cardinal deacons near the floor. The readings were sung in both Latin and Greek by the Latin and Byzantine monks of the City. At the conclusion of the Nicene Creed, newly introduced to the Roman Church's liturgy at that point, the Mass would come to a full stop and the monks would remove the mensa from the high altar and place it in a cave-like recess at the altar of Saint Pancras, near where the Blessed Sacrament chapel is today in the south transept. The Pope would then process from the apse to the mensa at the chapel of Saint Pancras and show the people assembled a relic containing the Precious Blood, their Communion for the day much as the creeping to the Cross was their Communion on Good Friday. The Lord Pope would then sing Mass alone, without the aid of any cardinals save the cardinal deacons and he alone would communicate the Sacred Species after the Canon (the deacons would communicate later). The parallel was unmistakable: the Pope was the heir to the Apostles in the Lateran, and he partook of Christ's feast, His Sacrifice, and His priesthood in the Upper Room that day.
As in the pre-Pius XII rites of Holy Week, the Mass would stop during the Canon and the Pope would be brought vials of olive oil to hallow. Olive oil recalls the olive branch the dove brought Noah after the Flood, that peace finally followed the purification of Mankind; a similar peace would flow into the catechumens, in the unlikely there were any in that more Christian age, after the living waters of Baptism in two days. Much like the Canon's recitation away from the high altar, the solitude of the consecration of the Holy Oils reflected the Pope's exercise of Christ's priesthood and living transmission of His ministry. Moreover, it mystically rhymed with the Old Testament, when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year to offer sacrifice for the people. This act was so unique to both the Pope and the Lateran that if either the Pope were unavailable or the Mass had to take place at Saint Peter's Basilica instead the transmission of the mensa was omitted, Mass was celebrated as normal at the high altar, and the oils were presented for consecration on a table behind the altar, exactly as in the Curial and Tridentine books celebrated until 1955.
|The Lateran Cathedral as seen from the square|
|Pope Benedict XVI enthroned after election|
As the Popes moved to Avignon, the Cathedral fell again into disarray and was partially destroyed due to a fire. It was re-modeled during the Renaissance and again during the 18th century, when the statues in the niches were added. Today the Popes still use this great Cathedral for Maundy Thursday, Ascension Thursday, Corpus Christi, pastoral visits, and enthronement after election.
I was blessed by God to be able to visit this awesome place a year and a half ago, whilst in Rome during Lent. My two friends and I, one Catholic and one then-searching, thought the Lateran to be an interesting one hour stop we could make on our way to the Colosseum. We spent five hours in the Lateran and two in the Colosseum.
The facade, a baroque addition, is impressive, but not as impressive as the one gracing St. Mary Major. I was not impressed with the Lateran until I stepped inside. What first struck me was the sheer scale of the place. I have been to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City several times, a larger church, but less open and hence smaller in scale.
|The imposing Cosmatesque floor|
Terrible is this place and This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God.—Genesis 28:17We made our way through the various side chapels over the course of an hour or two, before coming to the Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi, shown below. The five piercings on the heart held by the angel simultaneously recall the stigmata of St. Francis and the devotion to the Five Wounds, popular during Francis's time.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is next to the Papal Altar. There is a grand tabernacle surrounded by four statues of Popes and crowned with an ethereal image of the patronal feast, the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Interestingly the Popes are vested as deacons, indicating that they too are just servants at the altar of the High Priest, Christ. May his holiness, Francis, wear the pontifical dalmatic and find himself in the same self-effacing service as past pontiffs.
In the center of the Cathedral is the Papal Altar, topped by a canopy and reliquary which, although ornamented with busts of St. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, contains the head of St. Paul. Imagine that almost every Pope from the fourth century has celebrated Mass in this place, surrounded by St. Paul and Our Lord Himself.
|The Papal Altar|
And the ciborium with the reliquary:
Across from the altar is the great apse of the Cathedral. A massive back wall is topped with gold mosaics containing icons of Our Lord, Our Lady, Ss. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, and other Biblical figures. One must also recall the organic continuity of this cathedral. Icons of Ss. Francis and Dominic were not-so-deftly inserted at a later time! At the end of a long aisle, containing an organ, balconies for the cantors, and choir stalls for clergy in attendance, is the throne of the Supreme Pontiff:
Beyond the apse is a gift shop. Horrifically, the tomb of Pope Innocent III, the most powerful man of the Middle Ages, is a cross beam for the door frame! How passes the glory of the world!
Something striking about this place is the color in it. The nave is a bland white, as per Italian baroque style for public places, but the sanctuary and other locations from the early Christian era, Middle Ages, and Renaissance is thriving with life and color. Even niches between icons and mosaics were treated as opportunities to paint images, images which literally pop out into a third dimension:
The nave for contrast:
The layout is distinctly Roman, the floor is medieval, the ceiling Renaissance, the chapels Baroque, and place entirely Catholic.
|The ceiling is a wonder|
The Cathedral's altars, chapels, aisles, and niches are a testament to the on-going effort that is the Gospel of Christ, one held by sinners and saints, which must endure every trial and be maintained and expressed through every age. This aisle towards the entrance contained numerous chapels under renovation.
I will leave on a light note. One of my companions was quite taken with the statues of the twelve Apostles in the nave, which are gargantuan in this size given the scale of the Cathedral. Upon arriving at St. Matthew, my friend decided that since the former tax-collector no longer needed his gold, there was no excuse to let is sit unused.