THE whole Western church celebrates today the anniversary of the consecration to divine worship of the basilica of St John Lateran, on whose facade is carved the proud title OMNLUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT : The Mother and Head of all churches of the City and of the World; for this church is the cathedral of Rome and the pope's permanent cathedra stands in its apse. It is senior in dignity to St Peter's itself, and is in some sort the cathedral of the world.

     In the earliest days of Christianity worship was carried out in private houses  and the Holy Sacrifice was offered at an ordinary table (doubtless a special one was often kept for the purpose) ; but so early as the first quarter of the third century we hear of a building in Rome specially set apart as a Christian church, at the beginning of the fourth century there are said to have been many there, and Constantine's decree of freedom was naturally followed by great activity in the building of new churches. Following the example of the Jews with their Temple (and indeed of the pagans with theirs), these places of worship were set apart for their purpose by a dedication of them to the service of Almighty God. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History speaks of the solemn dedication of the church at Tyre in the year 314, and several historians make reference to the magnificence with which Constantine's basilica at Jerusalem was dedicated in 335, on the anniversary of the finding of the true cross. For long the dedicatory rite consisted simply in the consecration of the altar by the solemn celebration of Mass thereat, to which the deposition of relics was added when there were any, and later certain prayers, sprinklings and anointings, modifications which arose in respect of buildings that had formerly been used for pagan worship and had to be purified. But the developments which went to form the long, complex and imposing ceremony that is now found in the Pontificale Romanum hardly began before the eighth century.

     The annual celebration of the anniversary of a church's dedication is a practice probably as old as that of the dedication itself, and certainly far older than our present rite of consecration. It was undeniably a custom of the Jews, for such a feast was instituted by Judas Machabeus in 164 B.C., when the Temple had been purified after its pollution by Antiochus Epiphanes ; St John in his gospel (x 22) speaks of our Lord walking in Solomon's porch at the time of this feast. This Jewish festival was, and is, kept with an octave and was celebrated not only in the Temple at Jerusalem but in every synagogue as well, somewhat as every Western Catholic church observes the dedication of St John Lateran. These things are referred to in the sixth lesson at Matins in the common office of the octave-day of a dedication anniversary, which is said in the Roman Breviary to be taken from a letter to Pope St Felix IV (III), who died in the year 530. Actually the piece belongs only to the ninth century, but its words represent a much older discipline. In Sozomen's time, the early part of the fifth century, the anniversary of the dedication of the Martyrion at Jerusalem, referred to above, was observed with an octave and other solemnities. This custom of commemorating the dedication of a church is responsible for the existence of several feasts in the Church's calendar, and determines the date of others, e.g. St John before the Latin Gate (May 6), St Peter in Chains (August 1), and St Michael the Archangel (September 29).

     The mansion of the Laterani at Rome came into the hands of the Emperor Constantine through his second wife, Fausta, and by him it was given to the Church. It was the principal residence of the popes from that time until the exile to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century, a period of a thousand years. The church made there was in all likelihood an adaptation of the great hall of the house, but the famous baptistery was founded and newly built, in its main lines as we see it today. The basilica was dedicated to our Most Holy Saviour and the baptistery in honour of St John the Baptist.* The now universal practice of calling the church itself St John Lateran arose at a time when it was served by monks from an adjoining monastery of St John the Baptist and St John the Divine.* In its fifteen hundred years of Christian history the basilica has undergone numerous vicissitudes, from pillage by the barbarians, from earthquakes, from fire ; but it retained its ancient basilican form till the seventeenth century, when Francesco $orromini made of it the church that we see today. The apse was enlarged into a choir, in more happy fashion, in 1878. The high altar of St John Lateran, encased in marble, is the only altar in the Western church made not of stone but of wood. It is a relic of the days of persecution, and is believed by some to have been used by St Peter himself. In the ciborium over the altar are enshrined the reputed heads of SS. Peter and Paul.

* It may be here noted that all churches and ecclesiastical buildings are dedicated to God and to God only. Other names by which they may be known are those of saints or mysteries of religion in whose honour or under whose patronage they are dedicated. Nevertheless, custom allows the loose expression " dedicated to such-and-such a saint ". 

     "As often as we celebrate the dedication festival of an altar or church," says St Augustine, " if we assist with faith and attention, living holily and righteously, that which is done in temples made with hands is done also in us by a spiritual building. For he lied not who said, `The temple of God, which you are, is holy ' ; and again, ` Do you not know that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you ? "Therefore, since we are made worthy to become the temple of God—not by any foregoing worth of our own but by His grace—let us work, as hard as we are able with His help, that our Lord find not in His temple, that is, in us, anything whereby the eyes of His majesty may be offended. . . . If no one in dirty garments would dare to approach the table of an earthly ruler, how much the more ought one who is infected with the poison of envy or hate, or full of unrighteous anger, reverently and humbly to draw back from the table of the eternal King, that is, from the altar of God ? For it is written, ` Go first and be reconciled with thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift '; and again, ` Friend, how tamest thou in hither not having on a wedding-garment ? '

" Much has been written about the Lateran basilica and its history, as well as upon the rite of the consecration of churches. Concerning this last topic the reader may be conveniently referred to Duchesne, Christian Worship (1919), pp. 399—418 ; cf. also The !Month, June 1910, pp. 621—631. Among the many works dealing with the Lateran that of P. Lauer, Le palais du Latran, Etude historique et ariheologique (1911) is perhaps the most comprehensive ; and in special relation with the subject of this notice consult also Lauer on the " Date de la dedicate de la basilique du Latran " in the Bulletin de la Soc. nat. des antiquaires de France for 1924, pp. 261—265. A very long article on the Lateran with a vast bibliography has been contributed by H. Leclercq to DAC., vol. viii, cc. 1529—1887, in which see especially cc. 1551—1553.

Source:  Butler's Lives of the Saints