Homily for the Feast of the Dedication of St John Lateran, November 9, 2014
Sunday, November 9, 2014
Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran
Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church, Springfield, VA
Today, and every November 9,
we celebrate the dedication of a church called St. John Lateran.
Its a church far away in a foreign country most of us will never visit.
Many of you are probably wondering why we’d celebrate something like this,
especially on a Sunday.
After all, the general rule is that when feasts fall on Sundays
we don’t celebrate them,
since Sunday is set aside to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection.
But a few very special feasts break this mold:
for example last week we did it for All Souls day, November 2.
The general rule is set aside because these feasts remind us of a very important fact:
on the one hand there can be no worship without someone to worship—Christ;
but on the other hand there’s also no worship
if there’s no one to do the worshipping—the Church.
The mystery of the people of God, the Church,
and the mystery of Jesus Christ are not in conflict,
but are bound together, so that we call the Church the Body of Christ.
So the great feasts that reflect the mystery of the Church
don’t detract from the mystery of Christ,
but rather they deepen it and show its wonderful richness.
But how does the dedication of some church building in Italy called St. John Lateran
reflect the mystery of the people of God?
The thing is that St. John Lateran is no ordinary church.
Its a big church, but its not the biggest church in the world.
Its a beautiful church, but not the most beautiful in the world.
And yet above its doors is printed the saying:
“Omnia urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput”
–“mother and head of all the churches of the city and the world.”
Because St. John of the Lateran is the cathedral of the diocese of Rome,
and the “home” church of the Bishop of Rome–the Pope.
In today’s second reading St. Paul calls Christians members of God’s house.
He says we form a building built by Christ himself.
A building, much like the buildings we call “churches”,
consecrated for one purpose and one purpose only: the worship of God.
Each of us is part of this building–this Church of Christ.
Christ has taken us like rough ordinary materials from the world,
unworthy as we were,
to adorn and build his home, transforming us,
and re-forming us into something extraordinary.
Some of us are like solid stones or beams of oak or steel
that lift up or hold the walls together;
Some, like the great saints, are like beautiful stained glass windows
that so marvelously let the light of Christ illumine the sanctuary;
Whatever we are in the Church, each of us comes together under the masterful skill
of the carpenter from Nazareth to form God’s house,
the temple of God, the Church of Jesus Christ.
So to celebrate the dedication of a building which is a house of worship,
also called a “church”,
is to celebrate the dedication of the people of God as the Church.
And this is even more the case when we celebrate
the dedication of the Church of the Bishop of Rome.
Before St. John Lateran became the cathedral of Rome in year 324,
its earliest structure was part of the palace of a wealthy Roman family
–called the Laterani family.
Up until just 21 years before that the Catholic Church was still operating underground
and being persecuted by the Emperors.
But when the Emperor Constantine came to the throne things began to change,
as he not only stopped the persecutions
but also generously supported the Church and eventually was himself baptized.
And as part of his support he gave the Laterani home to the Church:
and from that time on, through various expansions and refurbishings,
it became known as the Church of the Popes,
or as we call it today,
the “Archbascilica of the Cathedral of the Most Holy Saviour
and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran”
–or simply “St. John Lateran.”
A building that had once been the palace of a worldly pagan family,
was transformed into a house of God and
“the mother and head of all churches”.
As “the mother and head of all churches”
it represents most profoundly the entire Church of Christ.
Like the Church of Christ it too is composed of materials taken from the world,
and transformed by their dedication or consecration to God.
And as the home church of the successor of Peter,
it symbolizes the unity of Christ’s Church,
and the things that foster and bring about that unity:
While you and I and the saints and holy souls
are the bricks and beams and windows and doors of the Church of Christ,
this whole Church is, according to St. Paul,
built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
And while Jesus is the capstone of the Church
–the highest point that holds the roof and walls
from crashing down on themselves
–He himself made one of these apostles, Peter, is the Rock,
the strong solid ground on which the whole Church is built.
As the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter,
St. John of the Lateran stands as a symbol of the entire Church of Christ
built by Jesus stone by stone on the Rock of Peter.
Of course St. Peter himself was a man not many would have predicted
would some day be visible head of God’s people on earth.
He was just a rough, and course fisherman,
clearly a smart man, but not very well educated.
And many of his successors have seemed even less likely to be called
“vicars of Christ” on earth–some have even been scoundrels.
But once again, the papacy, like the Church herself,
is fashioned from ordinary material taken from the world
and then used by Christ to build up and strengthen his dwelling place,
By the power of the Holy Spirit, in Christ,
the Church is greater than the raw material taken to build her up.
Still, as we’ve seen very dramatically in the last 50 years,
the Church of Christ sometimes seems to be falling apart
–it seemed especially like that at the Synod of bishops last month.
It’s a lot like a church building with broken pews,
a leaky roof and bricks falling from the walls,
as Catholics—both clerics and laypeople—
reject the grace of the Holy Spirit
and stray from the teachings passed down from the apostles.
Unfortunately, it’s been this way almost since Christ founded the Church.
Anyone who knows anything about the history of the last 2000 years
knows that the Church has constantly been in a state of renewal and reform.
We remember the great story of St. Francis of Assisi, 800 years ago,
who, when he heard the voice of God tell him to
“Go and rebuild my Church, which you see is falling into ruins.”
actually started to rebuild church buildings.
Until he realized that Christ was talking about the whole Christian Church,
which was racked by all sorts of sin and corruption.
Whenever we get discouraged by corruption and sin in the Church,
all we have to do is remember the great renewals the Church has seen,
when God had sent great saints, who are,
as St. Paul calls himself in today’s 2nd reading:
“like a wise master builder.”
Saints like Gregory the Great, Gregory VII, Bernard, Francis, Dominic,
Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, Pius V, and Charles Borromeo.
And I would add the great St. John Paul II.
The great reformers who chase the moneychangers out of the temple of Christ,
and who sweep it clean,
restoring the fallen bricks and repairing the stained glass;
reforming the Church, by the grace of God,
to be the beautiful temple she was meant to be.
Today we celebrate the fact that we have been taken
from the ordinary world and transformed.
And that we are not alone:
Christ brings us together with each other and Catholics throughout the world
and builds us into to one beautiful home, or house,
for himself and his Father and Spirit.
And that no matter what external repairs the Church is in need of at any point in time,
because Christ has built his Church
on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
and on the Rock of Peter,
and endowed it with his grace,
she will endure until the Lord comes again in glory.
So that on this day—Sunday—reserved for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection,
we can celebrate the mystery of the Church which he established
for our salvation, for our resurrection in him.
Come, my brothers and sisters,
let turn toward the Lord and offer worship in the heavenly temple,
the temple which is the Church, the body of Christ himself.