The Dedication of the Archbasilica of Our Savior, the Lateran Basilica of St John

November 9

Today is the feast day of The Dedication of the Archbasilica of Our Savior.

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

In the fourth century, the cessation of persecution seemed to give the world a foretaste of its future entrance into eternal peace. “Glory to the Almighty! Glory to the Redeemer of our souls!” wrote Eusebius at the opening of the tenth and last book of his History. Himself a witness of the triumph, he describes the admirable spectacle everywhere displayed by the dedication of the new sanctuaries. In city after city the bishops assembled, and crowds flocked together. From nation to nation the goodwill of mutual charity, of common faith, and of recollected joy, so harmonized all hearts that the unity of Christ’s Mystical Body was clearly manifested in these multitudes animated by the same inspiration of the Holy Ghost. It was the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies: the living city of the living God, where all praise together the Author of all good things. How solemn were then the Rites of the Church! The complete perfection therein displayed by the pontiffs, the enthusiasm of the psalmody, the inspired readings, the celebration of the ineffable mysteries, formed a divine pageantry.

The Emperor Constantine had placed the imperial treasure at the disposal of the bishops; and he himself stimulated their zeal for what he called in his edicts the work of the churches. Rome, the place of his victory by the Cross, the capital of the now Christian world, was the first to benefit by the prince’s munificence. In a series of dedications, to the glory of God and the holy Apostles and Martyrs, St. Sylvester, the Pope of peace, took possession of the eternal city in the name of the true God.

Today is the birthday of the mother and mistress of all churches, called “of Our Savior, Aula Dei (God’s Palace), the golden basilica” (Ancient inscription once found on the greater apse. It is also called ‘St. John Lateran’‘Lateran’ after its location in Rome and ‘St. John after St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, who are both specially honored therein). It is a new Sinai, whence the apostolic oracles and so many Councils have made known to the world the law of salvation. No wonder that this Feast is celebrated in the Universal Church calendar.

Although the Popes have for centuries ceased to dwell in the Lateran palace, the Archbasilica still holds the first rank. It is as true now, as it was in the time of St. Peter Damian, to say that “as Our Savior is the Head of the elect, so the church which bears His Name is the head of all churches; those of St. Peter and St. Paul, on its right and left, are the two arms with which this sovereign and universal church embraces the whole earth, saving all those who desire salvation, cherishing and protecting them in its maternal bosom” (Epist. Lib. 2:1). And St. Peter Damian applied conjointly to Our Savior and His Basilica the words of the prophet Zacharias: “Behold a Man, the Orient is His Name: and under Him shall He spring up, and shall build a temple to the Lord. Yea, He shall build a temple to the Lord: and He shall bear the glory, and shall sit, and rule upon His throne: and He shall be a priest upon His throne” (Zach. 6: 12-13).

It was at the Lateran Basilica that the Roman Pontiffs took official possession of their See. There each year, in the name of the Pope as Bishop of Rome, the episcopal functions were performed-the blessing of the Holy Oils on Maundy Thursday, and on Holy Saturday the blessing of the Baptismal Font, the Solemn Baptisms and Confirmations, and the general Ordinations. Let us now read the liturgical history of this day:

The rites observed by the Roman Church in consecrating churches and altars were instituted by the blessed Pope Sylvester. For although from apostolic times churches were dedicated to God, and called by some ‘oratories,’ by others ‘churches;’ and in them the Christian people assembled on the first day of the week, and there they would pray, hear the Word of God, and receive the Holy Eucharist; yet hitherto they were never so solemnly consecrated, nor was an altar erected in them, anointed with Chrism, to represent and signify Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is our Altar, our Victim, and our Priest.

But when the Emperor Constantine had received health of body and soul by the Sacrament of Baptism, he promulgated a law to the whole world, allowing the Christians to build churches; and he encouraged them in this work by his own example as well as by this edict. Thus, in his Lateran palace he dedicated a Church to Our Savior; and founded the adjoining Baptistery in honor of St. John the Baptist, on the very spot where he himself had been baptized by St. Sylvester and cleansed from the leprosy of infidelity. The Pontiff consecrated it on the fifth of the Ides of November (November 9); and we celebrate the memory thereof on this same day, whereon for the first time a church was publicly dedicated in Rome, and there appeared before the eyes of the Roman people an image of Our Savior depicted on the wall.

Although later on, when consecrating the altar of the Prince of the Apostles, Blessed Sylvester decreed that thenceforward all altars should be built of stone; yet the altar of the Lateran Basilica was of wood. This, however, is not surprising. For from the time of St. Peter down to Pope Sylvester, persecution prevented the Pontiffs from having any fixed abode; so that they offered the Holy Sacrifice either in crypts or cemeteries, or in the houses of the faithful, as necessity compelled them, upon the said wooden altar, which was hollow like a chest. When peace was granted to the Church, Saint Sylvester placed this altar in the first church, the Lateran; and in honor of the Prince of the Apostles, who is said to have offered the Holy Sacrifice upon it, and of the other Pontiffs who had used it up to that time, he decreed that no one should celebrate Mass upon it except the Roman Pontiff. This church, having been injured and half ruined in consequence of fires, hostile invasions, and earthquakes, was several times repaired by the care of the Popes. After a new restoration Pope Benedict XIII, a Dominican, solemnly consecrated it, on the 28th of April in the year 1726, and ordered the commemoration thereof to be celebrated on this present day. The great works undertaken by Pius IX have been happily completed by Leo XIII – that is, the principal apse, which was threatening to fall because of age, has been very much enlarged; the ancient mosaic, already partially restored at different times, has been reconstructed on the old model, and transferred to the new apse, which is beautifully and richly decorated; the roof and woodwork of the transepts have been renewed and ornamented. Moreover, a sacristy and a house for the Canons have been added, as well as portico connecting these buildings with Constantine’s Baptistery. The whole work was completed in 1884. (1)

The Basilica
‘Basilica’ is the word given to an early form of building used for Christian worship.  It was modelled on the Roman Basilica – a building used as a law court and a commercial exchange. At first the name ‘basilica’ was used of churches which resembled the Roman building, but now the title of ‘basilica’ is given by the pope to certain privileged churches both in Rome and throughout the world.

Pope Sylvester I (314-335) then had the basilica (which literally means a royal hall for transacting business or legal matters) of the house extended and it functioned as a church. It soon became the cathedral of the Church of Rome and the seat of the popes for a thousand years.  It was the residence of the popes until 1308. Ecumenical councils, all called Lateran, were held there: in 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215 and 1512-17. While the popes were absent from Rome in Avignon (1305-1403), the Basilica fell into disrepair. The popes did not return to live there, but resided first at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, then at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, and lastly at the Vatican.

Restoration of palace and basilica
The palace was restored by Pope Sixtus V (Felice Peretti 1585-90). Pope Innocent X (Giovanni Battista Pamphili 1644-55) commissioned the present structure of the basilica in 1646 and Pope Clement XII (Lorenzo Corsini 1730-40) gave it a grand new façade in 1735.

The Lateran Treaty 1929
In 1929 the Lateran Treaty was signed in the Lateran Palace by Mussolini and Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. Today the palace houses the Vicariate and offices of the diocese of Rome which Pope John XXIII located there. (3)

Image: Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, photo by Livioandronico2013 (4)

Research by REGINA Staff


Sign up for REGINA's weekly newsletter

  1. You will usually hear from us about once a week, usually on Sunday. 
  2. At other times, we may send a special email. 

To subscribe, go here!