“The Church is not about a building, it’s about the people” is a fairly common phrase in churchy-circles. There is a lot of truth to it – especially when it is used to express the feeling that people are becoming more focused on keeping a parish running than about changing lives by bringing the Lord to the world in new and deeper ways. That makes sense. But that can also be taken too far, and we need a remedy to that “a building is just a building” attitude into which we might slip. So today, we celebrate not an event during Jesus’ life, nor a saint, but the dedication of a church: St. John Lateran in Rome. We celebrate that a bunch of stone were placed together, that a roof was put in place, that mosaics were laid out, and that finally the whole thing was dedicated to God.
Churches have always been significant places in the lives of Christians. They are where we were brought into eternal life in baptism and sealed in confirmation. They are where we’ve encountered the mercy of God in reconciliation and stood shaking before our families to exchange wedding vows. They are where week after week we’ve received the Lord. They are where we’ve prayed in good times and bad. The most sacred, significant, and enduring moments of our lives take place here. And the Church, in her wisdom, has decided that moments like these should take place in a place that is totally dedicated to the things of God. Building a church is a very physical way of professing our belief that “God is with us.”
Sometimes we don’t realize what we have until it is taken away. The most widespread persecution of Christians in the early church was undertaken by the Roman emperor Diocletian. It all began in 303 AD, when he ordered that the newly constructed church in Nicomedia (in Turkey) be burned to the ground. The next day and in the coming months a series of orders followed: all churches were to be seized, Christian worship was to be prohibited, liturgical books were to be burned, and clergy were to be arrested and commanded to worship Roman gods. The persecution dragged on for a number of years, but problems remained even as it dwindled. A huge debate among the Christians arose: should those Christians who sacrificed to Roman gods be readmitted to the church? Or should they do a lifetime of penance? Or were they simply lost? People took sides, and the Church was divided.
This was the context in which St. John Lateran was built. Within weeks of conquering Rome, the emperor Constantine donated a palace belonging to the Lateran family to the Church. What a change from the situation ten years earlier! Construction began on the basilica, and it was dedicated on this day in 324. Families who had seen their loved ones tortured for worshipping in churches suddenly found themselves praying to those martyrs in the new church. And those factions of Christians found themselves forced to worship under one roof again. It must have been quite a joyous day: Christ had been faithful to his people, the Church was spared, and the community was able to begin healing – and the physical expression of all these realities was this basilica. Good luck telling them that St. John’s was “just a building!” For them, it meant that God is with his people.