“In your benevolence you are pleased to dwell in this house of prayer in order to perfect us as the temple of the Holy Spirit” – Roman Missal, this Sunday’s Preface
This Sunday’s feast is another one of those feast days that commemorate a “thing” in Rome. It’s celebrations like these that really bring out the Roman in Roman Catholic. The Dedication of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran commemorates the dedication of the official Cathedral of the Roman diocese, thereby being the main cathedral for the whole Roman Church. St. Peter’s is the most famous basilica, but the seat of Peter is actually at St. John (named in honour of both St. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist). Lateran referes to Lateran hill where the church itself is located. St. John Lateran, like all the major roman basilicas, is replete with all the trappings of a grand Catholic church – high ceilings and arches, huge statues of the apostles above and inside, and mosaics and frescoes that tell the Christian story. Its cruciform layout might suggest itself to be a major prototype for the tradition of Christian architecture in the years to come.
Being the Mother Church in this way, this feast celebrates the buildings that house our own parish communities. The prayers throughout the mass don’t reference St. John directly and I’d like to think that by honouring the Mother Church, we honour our own home parish building and all the good that happens within its walls.
An interesting feeling that I got on my first visit to this Basilica more than the others is a real feeling of being at home. As grand as everything is, there is a novelty of St. Paul’s outside the walls or St. Peter’s Basilica that in a way makes it more of a spectacle. St. John is spectacular, but also familiar. You may get a similar feeling at your local cathedral, in some sense.
This is Catholicism in an architectural sense – the blueprints are somewhat handed down from the proto-church and subsequent church buildings are somewhat images of the model, albeit still unique. This is why there’s a sense of sadness when the church building itself does not convey this sense of architectural tradition or inherit its design from the design of a secular building. Interesting innovation within a recognizable heritage is a good analogy to the evolving richness of Catholic theology – think of the innovation of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona which is weird yet still familiar. Then there is architecture that is clearly divorced from the tradition of Catholic design like Our Lady of Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles. Architecture itself is part of the dialogue within the Church over continuity vs rupture in her evangelical mission to the modern world. I hate to admit that I have a tendency to pre-judge a parish community by its architecture and interior layout – where the Tabernacle is, where the altar is and how dignified it looks…I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find orthodox parishes within very spartan and angular buildings, just as I’ve seen liturgical disasters in heavenly spaces.
Ultimately these buildings are symbols themselves and what matters most are the people. But it doesn’t hurt to be inspired by the arches reaching towards the heavens, the perspectives drawing people toward the Blessed Sacrament, and the rich mosaics, sculptures, stained glass windows and tapestries that tell the marvelous tales of the Lord and his followers at work in the world. Listen to the prayers and the readings this Sunday and rediscover the marvel of your own parish building and how God’s presence is made known within those walls.