Plautius Lateranus was a 4th century playboy who was executed for being implicated in a conspiracy to murder the Roman Emperor. A few years later, his confiscated home, known as The Lateran Palace, was given by the Emperor Constantine to the Pope, who, in turn, constructed a large Church adjacent to the palace. The Church became known as St John In Lateran.
From that time until the Middle Ages the name "Lateran" had the same connotation as "Vatican" has today. The Lateran was, then, the administrative centre of the Church.
The Church of St. John Lateran was the first of the great basilicas of Christendom and its mosaic of The Saviour was the first image of Jesus to be seen in a public place.
Both the palace and the church were heavily damaged in the 14th century and from that time on the Pope has lived at the Vatican. The ancient church was later restored and still remains the Cathedral of Rome.
Today, the Universal Church celebrates the memory of the dedication of this ancient building. But why? Why this celebration of stone and mortar, no matter how ancient?
I suggest that this celebration is more significant now than ever before. What organization can reach back into history over 1700 years and be able to graphically illustrate that its basic structures, purpose and means have remained essentially unchanged...have remained tried and true through countless generations, civilizations and cultures? Anyone of us could walk into that Church for the first time and yet be on familiar ground. The altar, the pulpit, the Baptismal font, the works of art...all would be familiar to you just as, in the same way, your parish church with its appointments and rituals would be easily interpreted and appreciated by a visiting 4th Century parishioner of St John Lateran.
And so you see we are not celebrating inert stone and mortar but rather a living tradition that is absolutely unique in its universal span of years and cultures.
Properly understood, this image of transcendent unity and solidity is not destroyed, nor is it even distorted by the fact that every generation has been disturbed by controversy. Controversy surrounding subjects such as the interpretation and application of moral principles, the administration of the Sacraments, the use of funds, clerical immorality, the abuse of authority, the language of liturgy, the relationship of Church and State, methods of evangelization...the list goes on and future generations of popes, bishops and priests, deacons, religious and men and women of every walk of life will no doubt add to that list...for we are a pilgrim church, a sinful people and our ways are not always His ways and His ways are not always clear to us. But He judges Popes and peasants alike and that is according to how hard we try, not how well we do. Today He reminds us that He is still with us. With us until the end of time. With us and within us as we gather in this holy place to express ourselves as Church. With us and within us in the sharing of the Eucharist, the Baptizing of a baby, the joining of bride and groom. With us and within us as we seek forgiveness of sin which separates us from Him and from each other. With us and within us in the holy anointing of Confirmation. And as Deacon, Priest and Bishop receive their mandate to be His arms, His legs, His Mouth. With us and within us as the sick and the dying find comfort and strength in His touch. With us and within us as we hear His sacred Word, express our Faith in Creed, Prayer and mutual service.
Over the main entrance of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, chiselled into the stonework centuries ago, there is an inscription, the timeless validity of which speaks to us today of our identity and expresses our hope for the future: "Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput."... "Mother and head of all the churches of this city and of the world."