Friday, November 9, 2012

Mother and Head

Today the Church commemorates the Dedication - on this date in 324 - of the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope's "cathedral" as Bishop of Rome, and hence (as the inscription says) Omnium Urbis et Orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput ("Mother and head of all the Churches of the City and the World"). It is the oldest (and hence highest-ranking) of the major papal basilicas and one of the seven "pilgrimage" churches of Rome. The reliquary above the papal Altar contains the heads of SS. Peter and Paul.

The Basilica gets its name from the Laterani family, whose palace originally occupied the site. When in the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine built the church – not in the center of what was still a very pagan city, but at the city's edge - the neighboring Lateran Palace became the papal residence. The whole complex functioned as the center of Christian life in Rome - until the Popes moved to Avignon, France, in the 14th century. When the popes returned to Rome in 1377, the Vatican replaced the Lateran as the Pope’s principal residence. Still, up until the Kingdom of Italy put an end to papal rule in Rome in 1870, it remained customary to impart the Papal Blessing, Urbi et Orbi (“To the City and to the World)” from the Lateran on the feast of the Ascension, and also on the occasion of the enthronement of a new Pope.

The historic coincidence of this feast's falling in November fits well with November's over-arching liturgical theme of the communion of saints. The solemnities of All Saints and All Souls on November 1 and 2 and the liturgy's annual eschatological emphasis highlight the temporal dimension of the communion of the saints - uniting us, past and present, across the limits of time. Today's feast focuses us on the spatial dimension of the communion of saints - uniting us, across space, "from the rising of the sun to its setting." As one universal Church, we are a communion of communities - local Churches organized and united around their Bishop, through whom they are united across space with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, through whom we are also all united across time back to Peter.

In the 19th century, American Catholic convert Isaac Hecker - having himself experienced the divided and fragmented character of much of American religion - readily recognized and appreciated the importance of an authoritative center of unity in the Church, as the divinely sanctioned providential alternative to such division and fragmentation.  For Hecker, “the test of our being directed by the Holy Spirit, and not by our fancies and prejudices, is our filial obedience to the divine external authority of the Church" and "The measure of our love for the Holy Spirit is the measure of our obedience to the authority of the Church.” [“The Safeguards of the Paulist," The Paulist Vocation, pp. 141-142]

The visible unity of the Church across space and time which the ministry of Peter and his successors both effects and signifies seems especially relevant in our even more religiously fragmented century, in which the Church is constantly being challenged not just to proclaim its authoritative answers but also to incarnate a communal experience of the Body of Christ in the world, which responds to the deeper questions of people’s souls, both outside and inside the Church.


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