The local Church or diocese established in Rome was founded by the two Apostles Peter and Paul and sanctified by the lives of many martyrs. As the spiritual leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, the Pope is also the Bishop of Rome in the footsteps of St. Peter the Apostle, the first Pope and Bishop of Rome. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome.
The prime title of Pope Francis is 'Bishop of Rome', a role he has emphasized on many occasions during the past month. Beginning at the start of his pontificate when he said: "...the diocesan community of Rome has its Bishop and now let us begin this journey: bishops and people - this journey of the the Church of Rome which presides in Charity over all the Churches".
MOTHER AND HEAD OF ALL CHURCHES IN THE CITY AND THE WORLD
There is a significant inscription on the façade of the Basilica of St. John Lateran: "Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput." "Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head"
Many think that St. Peter's Basilica is the head of all the churches but in fact it is the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Every bishop has a cathedral and the Pope's cathedral is the Basilica of St. John Lateran not the Basilica of St. Peter. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral of Rome and was the Pope's official residence until the 15th century.
This magnificent Church was first called the Basilica of the Savior but later was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist and so it acquired the name Basilica of St. John Lateran. When the Papacy transferred to Avignon for about a century, the condition of the Lateran deteriorated so much that when the Papacy returned to Rome the Pope lived in two other locations before finally settling adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica where he now lives.
The word "basilica" comes from the Greek word meaning royal or royalty. Basilica is a name given primarily to certain ancient churches of Rome and elsewhere which were built in the fourth century and later in a form chiefly derived from that of Roman public and private halls. The church was approached through a portico, beyond which was an open space with colonnades around it (the atrium) and on the far side an ante-room or narthex; the church itself was usually divided by columns into a nave and two aisles.
In the course of its history, St. John Lateran suffered just about as many disasters and revivals as the papacy it hosted. Sacked by Alaric in 408 and Genseric in 455, it was rebuilt by Pope Leo the Great (440-461), and centuries later by Pope Hadrian I (772-795). Almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 896, the basilica was again restored by Pope Sergius III (904-911). Later the church was heavily damaged by fires in 1308 and 1360. When the Popes returned from their sojourn in Avignon, France (1304-1377), they found their basilica and palace in such disrepair, that they decided to transfer to the Vatican, near St. Peter's (that basilica, also built by Constantine, had until then served primarily as a pilgrimage church).
Several important relics are kept within the Lateran basilica. The wooden altar on which St. Peter celebrated Mass while in Rome is believed to be inside the main altar. The heads of Sts. Peter and Paul were once believed to be inside busts above the main altar. Part of the table on which the Last Supper was celebrated is said to be behind a bronze depiction of the Last Supper. At one time the Holy Stairs which is nearby was also in the Lateran, the stairs in Pilate's house on which Jesus is said to have walked during his trial. It is a marble stairs and is now covered with wood to protect it. Pilgrims ascend the stairs on their knees contemplating Jesus' Passion and on the way up drops of blood may be seen on the marble stairs beneath protective glass. The stairs was brought to Rome by Constantine's mother St. Helena.
Many important historic events have taken place in St. John Lateran, including 5 Ecumenical Councils and many diocesan synods. In 1929 the Lateran Pacts, which established the territory and status of the State of Vatican City, were signed here between the Holy See and the Government of Italy.
CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic