Dedication of Lateran Basilica at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Ex 47:1-2, 8-12; 1 Cor 3:9c-ll, 16-17; Jn 2:13-22]

Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. But why should the dedication of a church displace one of our Sunday liturgies? What significance does it have for us? Well, pay attention and we shall see.

The hour had come to carry out plans to assassinate Emperor Nero. The boy who had ruled the Roman Empire since he was 17 was now 28 years old. He had already killed his mother, and his first wife, Octavia, daughter of the former Emperor Claudius, and his second wife, Sabina. Provinces were in revolt because of Nero’s oppressive taxation to pay for his imperial extravagances. The assassins were ready.

During this time, a former fisherman named Peter, an itinerant Christian preacher, was passing by one of Rome’s most beautiful palaces, the Lateran, owned by a noble Roman family of that name. If a prophet had told Peter that one day this magnificent palace would belong to the impoverished, persecuted Christians of Rome, he would have belly laughed and shared the joke with his friends. Instead smoke from the smoldering ashes of the old city of Rome was still twisting into the air and emperor Nero had just issued a decree saying, “Let there be no more Christians.” They were nailed to crosses, or covered with smelly hides to be hunted by hungry wild animals, or tied to poles and torched to light the pathways weaving through Nero’s gardens. The great persecution had begun. Peter would be crucified upside down, and Paul beheaded in this loss of religious freedom. The future of Roman Christians would not be in palaces like the Lateran, but in the catacombs.

Some senators, officers, and palace guards were about to carry out Nero’s assassination when their treachery was uncovered. The assassins became the hunted. Angry at the attempt on his life, jittery and suspicious, Nero listened to the denunciations that began to fly back and forth. Enemies of his teacher and wise advisor, Seneca, accused the Stoic philosopher of being a conspirator. Nero sentenced him to die by suicide, like another Socrates. Among those implicated in the attempted coup d’état was the patriarch of the Laterani family who was put to death and whose property was confiscated by the emperor. For the next three hundred years the Lateran Palace became an Imperial Palace. But Nero would not enjoy it for long. Two years later, when he was 30 years old, legions of soldiers revolted, and his own Praetorian Guard abandoned him. The senate condemned Nero to die a slave’s death by crucifixion. Nero tried to escape from Rome but was trapped. Preferring suicide to dying on a cross, he put a knife to his own neck and whimpering said, “What an artist dies in me.” Unable to complete the act, he asked an attendant to kill him.

Nero died, but persecutions continued off and on for the next 240 years. The Eucharist had to be celebrated furtively in private homes or in the dark chambers of catacombs by the light of smoky lanterns until the conversion of Constantine. The cross that was embraced by Christ, and from which a terrified Nero escaped by suicide, converted Constantine when he saw it shining in an evening sky above the setting sun. Under the dazzling cross were the words, “In this sign you shall conquer.” With the sign of Christ emblazoned on his soldiers shields he defeated his rival, Maxentius, at the Milvian Bridge on the edge of Rome. The following year, 313 AD, he issued the Edict of Milan, granting religious liberty to Christians and all people of good will. He writes, “… [May] this restoration of equal privileges to all, have a powerful effect in leading them into the path of truth. Let no one molest another in this matter, but let everyone be free to follow the direction of his own mind.” Constantine was not promoting religious indifference. He believed Christianity was the truth, but he wanted the faith to spread by preaching, not by force. The emperor and his wife, Fausta, gave the Lateran Palace to the Church. This is where the successors of Peter were consecrated and resided for the next thousand years, and the Lateran basilica became the first of all the Churches that are now spread around the world, the mother church. We are able to worship here today, in this place, because of the religious freedom that was celebrated with the consecration of the Lateran basilica on Nov. 9, 324 AD.

The need for religious freedom continues in our own day. At Vatican II the bishops repeated Constantine’s decree. They write, “The demand is increasingly made that people should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion. It regards in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society(Declaration on Religious Freedom, #1).

What is it that makes a place of worship, that defines a church as holy? Every culture has certain sites revered as holy. The Aztecs built a city called the “place of the gods,” home to the Pyramids for prayer and communion with the gods. The Hindus regard the Ganges River as holy. The Ugandans reverence as holy the place where twenty-two Catholics and forty-four Protestants were martyred for their faith in 1886. One of Islam’s most holy places is the rock under the Golden Dome in Jerusalem, where they believe Muhammad ascended to heaven. For the people of Israel it was the Temple in Jerusalem that was holy.

But Jesus said the Jerusalem Temple would be destroyed and he would rebuild it in three days, not the Temple of stone, but the Temple of his own body. In Jesus, the holy place is a Divine Person, the presence of God. Churches are holy because Jesus is there, and people are holy when they become Temples of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.

The consecration of the Lateran basilica that we celebrate today reminds us how wonderful it is to have religious freedom. But sometimes freedom to worship is taken away in various countries. When persecutors say, “Let there be no more Christians,” then we once again need the grace given to the early Church, the grace of martyrdom, courage to embrace the cross with Christ, not to flee it like a terrified Nero who had no hope. For we know that the future of Christians is not in palaces like the Lateran, nor in catacombs, but in heavenly places, with Christ in the heart of his Father. Only there will the Church, the bride of Christ, be truly free from all harm, loving and beloved of God.