Rome’s Baptism Church

Tourists to Rome are sometimes surprised to learn that St. Peter’s Basilica — the largest church in the world — is not the cathedral of the popes. That honor belongs to a church across the Tiber from the Vatican, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, known in full as the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. 

Remarkably, the long and colorful history of St. Peter’s is positively serene in comparison to the Lateran Basilica, having been built in the fourth century and then replaced in the 16th century with the magnificent edifice present today. The Lateran has been destroyed several times by fires, flattened by an earthquake and even brutally sacked by the Vandals in the fifth century. The earthquake in 897 was so bad that a chronicler of the time declared the church had collapsed utterly “from the altar to the doors.” To read this long and often terrible history of destruction and looting, one can only wonder at the sheer gift of fortitude that helped encourage the Romans to rebuild new and even more beautiful versions of the church. 

Every Nov. 9, the Church celebrates the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran. In this issue, Dennis Emmons traces not just the history of the archbasilica but answers the question as to why there is a feast at all. Other churches in Rome have days that celebrate their dedication, but the Dedication of St. John Lateran is a feast that honors the mother church of Rome and hence the mother church for all of us. 

The history of the Lateran Basilica is a prayerful reminder to all of us of the Church herself. Come what may — earthquake, fire, even the sacking of the treasures of the Church by the barbarians of every age — we will rebuild anew. We never forget who we are, giving new expression to our timeless faith, bequeathing to a new generation our love for the Church and reminding all who follow that the Lateran and the Catholic Church is omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, “The mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world.” 

On behalf of all of us here at The Catholic Answer and Our Sunday Visitor: a blessed Advent and joyous Christmas season! TCA

Matthew Bunson, D.Min., M.Div., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at mbunson@osv.com.