A Homily for the Feast of St John Lateran

"Rom, San Giovanni in Laterano, Innenansicht" by Dnalor 01 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Rom, San Giovanni in Laterano, Innenansicht” by Dnalor 01 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Today is the Feast of St. John Lateran in Rome. This is the Pope’s true Cathedral (not St. Peters). And thus, in celebrating this Feast, we celebrate the unity of the Church. The Pope’s work is to unite and strengthen the members of the Church, whom the devil would like to sift (divide) like wheat (see Lk 22:31ff). On this feast, we do well to examine a few teachings about the Church from today’s readings.

I. The Shock of the Church – One of the more puzzling aspects of God’s approach to reaching us is his subtlety. Considering that God could thunder from the heavens and visibly, forcefully interject Himself into the doings of this world, His quiet and more subtle methods surprise and even shock us. In terms of entrusting His message to the world, His methods seem even stranger to us. Jesus never wrote a book or left anything physical behind that related to His person. Instead, He taught disciples and entrusted His teachings specifically to twelve rather ordinary men, telling them to go out into the whole world! So much of the Lord’s plan seems to depend upon weak human beings. Scripture says,

For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? … So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ (Rom 10:13,14).

But what if preachers are unholy or lazy? What if they are weak or ineffective? Are you shocked that God would make your faith depend on the preaching of the Church? Are you shocked and scared? Or do you trust that God can work even through weak, sinful, inconsistent human agents to accomplish His mission?

We might speculate that the Lord chooses not to overwhelm us (as Satan does) since His call is one of love. He seeks sons and daughters who love Him, not slaves who cower in fear and say “yes” more to escape His wrath than to enjoy His love. Perhaps He uses this quieter and less overwhelming way to propose rather than impose. The Feast of St. John Lateran commemorates the Pope’s Cathedral in Rome and is a symbol of the endurance of this unlikely system. During the age of the Church, nations have risen and fallen, and empires have come and gone, yet here we still are. The Psalm today says, The LORD of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob (Ps 46:8).

Many today also express shock and horror at sin and weakness within the Church. And it is a disgrace when the charges are accurate. But remember, Jesus was found in some pretty strange company as He walked this earth. He dined with sinners and spoke the truth to them. He compared Himself to a doctor caring for sick people. No surprise then that the Church, a hospital really, would have some sick sinners in her care.

Whatever His reasons, the Lord does not follow the usual “marketing” plan of the world, what with all its loud and intrusive methods. He did not write a book, but rather founded a community, the Church, which is His body. It is quite a shocking departure form worldly ways and expectations. It requires a lot of trust to understand how such an unlikely method could win the day. And that leads us to the next point.

II. The Surety of the Church – Another shocking truth that we express every Sunday in the Creed is that the Church is an object of faith. We say, “I Believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Many today will quickly announce that they have faith in God not in man. And yet every Sunday, there it is: I believe in the Church. How and why can we say this? Because the Church is not merely a human institution; the Church is also divine. The Church is the Body of Christ; He is the head of the Body, the Church, and the Holy Spirit indwells it.

Someone else may say, “I don’t believe in the Church, I believe in the Bible.” But of course we would not have a Bible without the Church. Scripture itself speaks of the Church, not the Bible, as the pillar of the truth. St Paul wrote, If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).

So again the Church is an object of faith. But how can we trust the Church, the apostles, and their successors? Here too Scripture is replete with teachings showing that the Lord will guide His Church and preserve her from error:

  • John 14:26 “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
  • John 16:13 “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
  • Luke 10:16 “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
  • Mat 16:17 “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'”
  • Luke 22:31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”
  • Mat 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

So here is a call to faith. Do you believe that Christ speaks through His Church? Works through His Church? Teaches through His Church? If not, you are an orphan; you don’t even have Scriptures, since the Scriptures derive their origin and delineation from God, but through the Church.

Stand with Jesus today and say of the Church, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

III. The Sanctification of the Church – The Gospel today clearly shows that the Church, like any group that includes human beings, is always in need of cleansing and purification. Ecclesia semper reformanda. (The Church is always in need of reform.) At one level we can become too worldly, too entangled with the world. At another level we can allow sins in our own members and clergy to go unaddressed. At yet another level we can become timid and fearful and not live the radical call to the Gospel or no longer proclaim it to others.

Frankly, Jesus needs to “rough us up” at times. He needs to enter and unsettle a few tables, and even scatter a few “sacred cows.”

It is hard to know exactly the origin of our current struggles. Some of us who are older remember the times of packed churches, schools with waiting lists, and filled convents and seminaries. Some blame Vatican II; others think we would be worse off without it. Whatever the case, the robust Church of 1950s and ’60s collapsed quickly and seemed ill-prepared for the cultural tsunami that hit in multiple waves. The Church did not have the loyalty of the faithful, who largely departed to the ranks of the revolutionaries.

Today, a painful purification is going on, and all the answers as to why and how much longer are not clear. But in my own life I can say that the persecution has sharpened my faith and forced me to be clearer about what I believe and why. I know many others who have the same experience.

But just as on the day that Jesus threw over the tables, the purification is painful and unsettling. Let Him do his work. Stay faithful and do not lose heart. Some, indeed many, have departed. But as for you, stay faithful; stay in the conversation with Jesus and His Church.

IV. The Situation of the Church – Where is the Church to be found? Jesus was once asked  this same sort of question by the Pharisees. The Scripture records, Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:20-22). And in today’s second reading, St Paul says, You are God’s building … Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)

Therefore, one need not get on a plane to find the Church. It is as near as our very self. As we shall see, that is not ALL that the Church is, but remembering that the Church does not start and end in some distant land, or reside merely among the clergy, is an important summons to responsibility.  Sometimes we let the concept of the Church become abstract or institutional. But in a very real way, you and I are the Church.

And how have you done? Have you proclaimed the faith to your children and grandchildren? Your spouse? Have you been a good influence on friends and co-workers? Have you done these things or do you think that is that the job of the clergy?

But note, too, St. Paul warns that our membership in Christ and His Body the Church is not an individualistic notion. Thus he says, But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11). In other words, as members of Christ’s Body, we must function under the authority of the Head of the Body, Jesus. We are not to be among those who simply cast aside what He has taught.

This is especially important today because many demand that the Church reflect the views of its members. Some will, with great indignation, cite polls that x% of Catholics do not agree with this or that teaching. But such polls are irrelevant in determining what the Church should teach. The job of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members. The job of the Church is to reflect the views of its head and founder, Jesus Christ.

Consider that in a natural body if the members were not following the directives of the head, we would rightly assume that the body was sick with epilepsy or some neuromuscular disease. And thus it is with the Church. An individual or group within the Church cannot really say “I/we are the Church” unless, as St. Paul says, they are building on the foundation of Christ, unless they are following the directives of the head of the Body, Christ.

These are four basic teachings on the Church. I pray you, do not consider such things as merely esoteric. So many problems today center on questions of ecclesiology. What is the Church? What is her nature and purpose? Who has authority to teach and speak in Jesus’ name? How do we sort out the competing claims of some groups to be or speak for the Church or Christ? What are the different gifts and roles in the Church? These are just a few teachings to help us reflect more accurately on the Church.

I know that the Church is not buildings, but we do have some very nice ones. Enjoy!

11 Replies to “A Homily for the Feast of St John Lateran”

  1. Unfortunately, there is now an elephant in the basilica that really cannot be ignored. Consequently, the message of this piece about reform and purification and unity behind the Pope takes on a far different color than it would have two months ago. There have been in the interim some self-inflicted wounds to unity and to the trust that people previously would have taken for a given. Words that before would have been comforting are, sadly, now unsettling and ominous.

  2. We carry the Church within us first. When we live in the Christ, there lives the Church. Too many souls worship the Church, while refusing the Christ and His teachings. You are so right Father. The Church is not the exteriors of stone, but is comprised of souls who live the truths of Christ in their daily lives. The stronger, the more faithful and obedient we are, the stronger the Church becomes. We must stop pointing fingers at Bishop How Now or Father Guiseppe the knock kneed and work on ourselves. For it all begins and ends with us, as to the strength and sanctity of the Church.

  3. It’s seems almost scarry to realise how easy it is to slowly, gradually drift away from our obedience to Christ’s will for the Church and do our own will instead. Regular frequentation of the sacraments which were instituted by Jesus draws us nearer to him, and allows for his kingdom to come. “DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME”, we can’t have God’s will any clearer than that. The Eucharist is essential in keeping the Church united and keeping it in the right path, nourishing it, keeping it healthy. Without the Eucharist there is no Church.

  4. It seems almost scarry to realise how easy it is to slowly, gradually drift away from our obedience to Christ’s will for the Church and do our own will instead. Regular frequentation of the sacraments which were instituded by Jesus have the power to draw us nearer to him and allows for his kingdom to come. “DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME”, we can’t have God’s will any clearer than that. The Eucharist is essential in keeping the Church united and putting it in the right path, nourishing it, keeping it healthy. Without the Eucharist, there is no Church. Let’ s not so much look and examine one another which is a source of distraction, but instead direct our attention on God’s Holy Face and obey his will with humility.

  5. Dear Monsignor Pope,
    Thank you for your homily. May I offer you my thoughts?

    I have chosen and consecrated this house, says the Lord,
    that my name may be there forever.
    (Gospel Acclamation, 2 Chronicles 7:16)

    Dear temples of the Holy Spirit,

    Today we honor the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, our Holy Father Francis. The title engraved in stone over the entrance proclaims it to be omnium ecclesiarum Urbis et Orbis mater et caput, “the mother and head of all the churches of Rome and the world.”.
              The earliest Christians met in homes or in secret underground burial grounds called catacombs.  In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  He gave the church in Rome a palace with grounds that had once belonged to the Laterani family.  In 324, a basilica, literally a building fit for a king, was consecrated to our Savior.  Its baptistery, the first and foremost in Rome, was dedicated to St. John the Baptist.  It became known as the Basilica of St. John of the Lateran.  Legend says that its high altar is built over a wooden table where St. Peter celebrated the Lord’s Supper with the Christians in Rome . 
              However, on this feast day we celebrate not a building but a loving God who provides a home for us on earth and waits for us in heaven.  According to St. Paul, we are the living stones that form the church wherein God is present on earth. Do you not know that you are the temple of God , and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? …for the temple of God , which you are, is holy. (2nd Reading, 1 Corinthians 3:9-11, 16-17) Our faith in God’s Presence gives us certain hope that will be fulfilled in God’s loving embrace.

    To animate the children of Israel as they endured the Babylonian Exile, the prophet Ezekiel used dreams and visions as vehicles to prophesy of the coming kingdom: The angel brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east … wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish …Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow … Every month they shall bear fresh fruit … Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.” (1st Reading, Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12)
    The images in these dreams and visions were sharply drawn. Some were of utter destruction from God’s judgement, “Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, now say: An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the earth! Now the end is upon you …I will deal with them according to their conduct, and according to their judgements I will judge them; thus shall they know that I am the Lord.” Some were of the great glory that emanates from God’s presence, “Then he led me to the gate which faces the east, and there I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. I heard a sound like the roaring of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory.” Notwithstanding, all verses highlight God’s presence, not his judgement. In these verses, life-giving water poured from the Temple. This symbolized the return of God to his dwelling place and manifested the power of his presence which, like water, spilled in torrents from all sides of the Temple. With God’s presence came life, even in the regions of the dead, “for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.”
    Just as the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers brought life and prosperity to the peoples in the region, so, too, in God’s presence, life grows in abundance and prospers. God returns to his exiled people as they journey through the valley of tears. God does this because God truly loves us, first, foremost and forever.

    We are experiencing unstable times and threatening situations. Our Responsorial Psalm 46 proclaims that “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Therefore we fear not, though the earth be shaken and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea. The psalmist summons us to Come! Behold the deeds of the Lord, the astounding things he has wrought on earth: He has stopped wars to the end of the earth; the bow he breaks; he splinters the spears; he burns the shields with fire. The psalmist repeats Ezekiel’s image of life-giving waters: There is a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God, the holy temple of the Most High. God is in its midst; it shall not be disturbed.

    The notion of “sacred place” has existed throughout human history. Temples, churches, synagogues and mosques have a history and function in our human family. They are the holy buildings in which people expect to have a religious experience and hope to meet God. This was especially true for the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews believed the Divine Presence dwelt in the Temple on Mt. Zion.
    Today we hear of the one time Jesus expressed anger, recorded by all four evangelists. His disciples recalled the words of Scripture. Zeal for your house consumes me. Why did Jesus choose to express his fervor in the Temple courtyard? The Court of the Gentiles represented the universal message God revealed through the Jews. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the God of all people. By welcoming non-Jews and providing them a place of worship on the Temple grounds, God asserted that this was a house of prayer for all people.
    Selfishly, the people God had chosen to be his witnesses commercialized the Temple and disparaged the people God was calling. “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” In this one act, Jesus declared himself to be the Messiah. After centuries of infighting, corruption and palace intrigue, the Temple priests had lost the respect of average believers. In fact, many Jewish groups boycotted Temple worship. The person on the street awaited the coming of the Messiah who would sweep these men from power and restore a worship that pleased God. Jesus‘ real message was to the leadership: the Saducees, the Pharisees, the Herodians, the scribes and the priests: Remember! All are welcomed into my Father’s House.
    Jesus declared, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up..” Christians understand that the true Temple is the Risen Body of Christ and his Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. Jesus is present and active in his Church. When we are in communion with our Brother and Lord, we become God’s true Temple, for he now works in us and through us.

    Behold God’s dwelling with the human race.
    He will dwell with them and they will be his people,
    And God himself with them will be their God.
    (Entrance Chant, Revelation 21:3)

    Paz y Bien, Rolando.

    p. s. Tuesday, Nov. 11th, is Veterans’ Day.  This day memorializes Armistice Day when at Compiègne, France, 96 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the Allies and Germany agreed to end the “war to end all wars”.  By this choice, the signers of the peace treaty suggested that humankind had waited until it was nearly too late.
              The day chosen for the beginning of peace was special for another reason.  It is the memorial of St. Martin (c316-397), Bishop of Tours.  Martin had been a soldier in the army until he laid down his weapons and became a peacemaker.  He was the first person who was not a martyr to be honored as a saint.  His feast day, Martinmas, was and continues to be a celebration of peace for Christians everywhere. 
              Sadly, World War I was not the “war to end all wars”.  Today, God’s children are still threatened by armed conflicts throughout the world.  Let us honor the memory of our countless honored and beloved veterans and express our gratitude by honestly laying down the thoughts, words, actions and weapons of war, as together, we prepare to welcome the Prince of Peace.

    p. p. s. This year, we celebrate the 275th anniversary of the establishment of the first Roman Catholic dioceses in United States.
    Before and during the American Revolutionary War, the Catholics in Great Britain’s 13 colonies in America and its colonies in Canada were under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of the London District in England. The war was formally ended by the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on September 3, 1783, ratified by the Congress of the Confederation of the United States of America on January 14, 1784, and by the King George III of Great Britain on April 9, 1784. The ratification documents were exchanged in Paris on May 12, 1784.
    A petition was sent by the Maryland clergy to the Holy See on November 6, 1783, for permission for the missionaries in the United States to nominate a superior who would have some of the powers of a bishop. Their nominee, Father John Carroll, was confirmed by Pope Pius VI on June 6, 1784, as Superior of the Missions in the newly independent 13 colonies of th United Stated of America, with the power to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation. This act established a hierarchy in the United States and removed the Catholic Church in the U.S. from the authority of the Vicar Apostolic in the London District.
    Because Maryland was one of the few regions of the colonial United States that was already predominantly Roman Catholic, the Holy See established the office of Apostolic Prefecture in Baltimore on November 26, 1784, and then elevated and designated it as the Diocese of Baltimore on November 6, 1789. On the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1790, John Carroll was consecrated and installed as the first bishop of the first diocese in the United States.
    The now Archdiocese of Baltimore is rich in historical associations. In 1793, Stephen Badin became the first priest ordained by Bishop Carroll in the United States. He had studied at the first American seminary established by a group of French Sulpicians two years earlier. It was later moved to Emmitsburg, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and College. In 1809, Mother Elizabeth Seton arrived in Baltimore where she established a small academy and founded a community of religious women. In 1858, Pope Pius IX conferred “Prerogative of Place on the Diocese of Baltimore, giving it precedence over all other U.S. Bishops in councils, gatherings, and meeting of whatever kind of the hierarchy, regardless of the seniority of the other bishops in promotion or ordination. And there’s the Baltimore Catechism, the de facto standard Catholic school text in the United Stated from 1885 to the late 1960s.
    Today all Catholics in the United States have cause for joy.

    I have chosen and consecrated this house, says the Lord,
    that my name may be there forever.
    (Gospel Acclamation, 2 Chronicles 7:16)

    1. Dear Rolando,

      With respect, please allow me to offer a clarification to your statement, “In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.”. Taken from Epic: A Journey Through Church History by Steve Weidenkopf; In 313 A.D., Constatine and the Eastern Augustus, Licinius, LEGALIZED Christianity and restored all property that was taken away under Emperor Diocletian but allowed paganism to remain as well as the Christian heresy called Arianism. It was Emperor Theodosius I that declared Christianity the official religion of the empire in 380 A.D.

  6. “We might speculate that the Lord chooses not to overwhelm us (as Satan does) since His call is one of love. He seeks sons and daughters who love Him, not slaves who cower in fear and say “yes” more to escape His wrath than to enjoy His love.”
    Love this one but, it’s fairly easy to do so.
    “Frankly, Jesus needs to “rough us up” at times. He needs to enter and unsettle a few tables, and even scatter a few “sacred cows.”
    Accept this one because, although it’s uncomfortable, it’s seen as necessary.
    If my faith becomes at least as large as a mustard seed I may come to love such uncomfortable concepts instead of reluctantly accepting.

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