The Dedication of the Church of Saint John Lateran
[Scripture Readings: 1 Cor 3: 9-17; Jn 2: 13-22]
The hour had come to carry out plans to assassinate Emperor Nero. The boy who ruled the Roman Empire since he was 17 was now 28 years old. He had already killed his royal mother, and his first wife, Octavia, the daughter of the late Emperor Claudius, and his own mistress, Sabina, who became his second wife. Provinces were in revolt because of Nero’s oppressive taxation to pay for his imperial extravagances. Like the Golden House, an estate intended to cover one-third of Rome in the area destroyed by the great fire. His tutor and chief advisor, Seneca, had resigned three years earlier when Nero began to follow the sinister designs of a new prefect. Some senators, officers, and palace guards supporting Calpurnius Piso for emperor, were preparing to carry out a coup d’etat when their treachery was uncovered. The assassins became the hunted. Their conspiracy caused the fall of many royal families in Rome.
At this time, a former fisherman named Peter, an itinerant preacher, was passing by one of Rome’s most beautiful palaces, the Lateran, named after a noble Roman family called Laterani. 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 humor with friend and foe. For Nero had issued a decree after the great fire saying, “Let there be no more Christians.” Nero’s persecution had begun. Peter and Paul were among the martyrs whose blood was spilled. The future of Roman Christians would not be in palaces like the Lateran, but in the catacombs.
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. Evidence also mounted against the Laterani family resulting in the confiscation of their estate by the emperor. But he would not enjoy it for long. Two years later, when he was 30, legions of soldiers revolted, and his own Praetorian Guard abandoned him. The senate condemned him to die a slave’s death on a cross and under a whip. Nero tried to escape from Rome but was trapped. Preferring suicide to crucifixion, he put a knife to his neck and whimpering said, “What an artist dies in me.” Then, unable to finish, he asked an attendant to dispatch him.
Nero was dead, but persecutions continued off and on for the next 240 years. The Eucharist was 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 fled by a terrified Nero, converted Constantine when he saw it shining in an evening sky in front of 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. The emperor and his wife, Fausta, gave the Lateran Palace to the pope. This is where the successors of Peter were consecrated and resided for the next thousand years.
Within ten years an octagonal baptistry in honor of St. John the Baptist, and a large basilica dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, were built next to the palace residence. Pope Sylvester consecrated it on Nov. 9th, in the year 324 AD. Our freedom to worship in this beautiful church of New Melleray began on that November day so many centuries ago.
The Roman empire rose and fell. The Coliseum, where Christians died for their faith was abandoned. Six times throughout the centuries barbarians, earthquakes, and fires severely damaged or entirely destroyed the cathedral church and palace residence of the Lateran. Each time they were restored with even greater beauty by the Christians of Rome. The empire is no more, but Christians still celebrate the Eucharist in the church of St. John Lateran. And in our own times, 1929, it was at the Lateran that a concordat between Italy and the Holy See was signed by Cardinal Gasparri and Mussolini, making Vatican City free, independent and sovereign.
The Lateran basilica 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 the grace of the early Church is needed once again, 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.