Every time this feast takes the place of a Sunday Mass I find myself wondering why the dedication of a basilica, which up until recently I had never visited, should be so important. Because when it falls on a Sunday, the Dedication of Saint John Lateran Basilica is celebrated.
I understand that this is the pope’s church, though many may think of Saint Peter’s Basilica as the pope’s church, since the earliest days that Christianity was legal in Rome, the Lateran Basilica has been the pope’s church. Named both for Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, it is usually just called Saint John Lateran.
So why the big deal? Primarily it is because this basilica reminds us that the Catholic Church is a worldwide, universal Church. When we celebrate the dedication of this church, we are recalling the long and deep history of our Church and all that it has endured.
In that sense, it serve’s as a reminder that while we celebrate Saint John Lateran, our faith is about so much more than a building, or even a lot of buildings. We are the Church because of the promise of Christ, and the action of the Holy Spirit. The gates of Hell are not enough to prevail against this Church because of the constant companionship of Christ.
This universal sense of the Church becomes very apparent in visiting Rome and the Vatican. The Vatican (and the surrounding churches and basilicas in Rome) are flooded with visitors from all over the world. One cannot help but be caught up in the immensity of the Church. It is something that I knew intellectually but did not fully appreciate until I was there.
We saw a glimpse of the universal Church in the first session of the Synod on the Family. But we also saw how we need to be careful in interpreting what we see and hear. The mainstream media does not have many models for covering the happenings of the Church. And, the Church has not had too much experience wjith media coverage until very recently.
To be sure, the differences were not as significant as may have seemed at first glance. I tell my students that real writing is re-writing. Rarely do we get something right on the first time. (Believe me, as one writing a disseration, I know.) Documents that are produced in the collective are bound to have changes. I remember studying the US Bishops document on war and peace as it was being written and published in its various drafts. Many changes occurred between the first draft and the final draft.
The same is happening at the Synod. Our view of the Church here in the United States can be a bit parochial. I remember commenting when people I knew were saying they were hopeful to have a pope from the developing world that they probably did not know what they were asking.
On some level, the style of Pope Francis comes from a long live of pastoral ministry not set in the first world and not as a bureaucrat working in an office. His style of minstry has been deeply affected by his Jesuit training, and his numerous encounters with the poor.
This serves as a reminder that true unity is hard work. And maybe for this reason we are given this important feast. It is easy to talk of unity when we agree with the perspectives being shared. For some, Pope Francis has posed the question of style and substance. I think the pope is modeling for us a type of pastoral listening that was very much like the listening of Jesus when he ate with tax collectors and sinners. It was this pastoral listening that knew how to deal with the woman caught in the act of adultery, and it was the pastoral listening that healed on the Sabbath.
At the same time, I think those who see the pope as a very liberal reformer, who will change all sorts of Church teachings, also miss the point. To be sure, Pope Francis has made some significant moves, but most of them, I think, are needed overhauls of structure. There is little evidence Pope Francis proposes to make major changes. Even his oft-quoted question, “Who am I to Judge?” was not the open-ended question it is being made into. (The actual quote refers to priests who are gay, who if they are faithful to their ministry, to their celibacy, then the pope poses this question about judging.)
True unity can not be mandated solely by force. True unity must be the work of the Holy Spirit, and true unity comes as a fruit of that same Spirit. This requires active discernment to the words and movements of the Holy Spirit. The celebration of this feast reminds us of that Spirit and the person of Jesus that no matter what may come, nothing will destroy his Church.