Pope Francis and the Revolutionary Significance of the Lateran Basilica

pope on subway

Yesterday the entire Roman Catholic Church celebrated the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. That’s right Roman Catholics everywhere turned their attention to a seemingly obscure building in Rome. Pastors from every pulpit, I’m sure, took the occasion to urge us all to explore the wonders of the basilica the next time we find ourselves in Rome. (I’ll try to remember that on my next visit to the Holy City.)

But there’s more to the commemoration than we’re led to believe. That’s because the arch-basilica of St. John Lateran (named for both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist) is actually the pope’s parish church. Yes, Pope Francis’ parish church is not St. Peter’s; it’s St. John Lateran. Pastors yesterday, no doubt, told us that too.

They also probably said that St. John Lateran has enjoyed such prominence since the arch-basilica was first built in the early 4th century. Its original site was a gift of the Emperor Constantine who awarded the Lateran Palace to the pope of the time. His name was probably Miltiades. The palace got its own name from the Laterani family, the citadel’s proprietors. They were trusted bureaucrats who faithfully served Roman emperors for many years.

And that’s the point I’d like to make here – the Constantine connection. St. John Lateran offers archeological evidence of the tragic moment in history when the would-be followers of the poor working man, Jesus of Nazareth, sold the soul of the church to the highest bidder. The buyer happened to be the Roman Empire – the very agency responsible for the execution of the one Christians pretend to follow. Constantine paid in the coin of land grants and palaces like the Lateran castle.

Can you spell “co-optation” in its most debilitating form?

The result was the nearly complete corruption of the church. Popes started to act like kings and emperors themselves.

In other words, the Church got into bed with Constantine in 313 (the Edict of Milan). Sadly, it didn’t escape till the second half of the 20th century with the development of liberation theology – which the current pastor of St. John Lateran, Pope Francis, has embraced.

That’s right. The pope has embraced the strain of theology repudiated by his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. On this please check out the wonderful article by Newsweek’s Paul Vallely. He published it less than a month ago under the “The Crisis that Changed Pope Francis.”

The pope’s conversion is mirrored in his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” published last year at this time. The document calls for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” (Joy of the Gospel 1, 25). On this new path, the pope says, things cannot be left as they presently are (25). Instead they must include new ways of relating to God according to new narratives and new paradigms (74) – including new customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules and language (27), and with emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159). According to the pope the roles of women must be expanded, since women are generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104).

All of this the pope said quite clearly. And he called for the laity to take the reins.

As far as I can see, NOTHING at the parish level has changed since last November.

As lay people called by Francis to exercise our power, what should we do about that?

The feast of the dedication of the pope’s parish church is a good occasion for answering that question.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “Pope Francis and the Revolutionary Significance of the Lateran Basilica”

  1. I found this blog unusually strong from you Mike.
    I find myself however in total agreement as for years now I felt seeking church renewal based on the present approach of the faithful was/is a waste of time.
    Regrettably back in 1966 when i first sought official permission for official dispensation from the priesthood I discovered the new commandment “by your [our] love all will know you are my disciples” did not include Rome then and since post 400 ad.
    When I joined a large US firm in 1968 the VP suggested I not include the letter of recommendation I got from our Society as it sounded he said like “I had spent time up the river.”
    As I said in a previous comment I saw no joy in Pope Francis’ booklet and dismissed it as just words. No action other than shapes. Like popes of old he is too close to Empire.
    Thomas Cox said it well in the NY Times Nov 9th – and the National Catholic Reporter same day.
    He forgot that one of the 6 Catholic in the US Judiciary is female!)
    It will take one empire to come down before others.

    Thanks Mike always for your clarity and courage.


    1. Jim, thanks for the (as always) perceptive and challenging comment. In its light, I know you’ll have differences with this week’s reflection. I agree with you that Francis is not without severe limitations. But then too, so are we all. And, despite my initial reservations about him, I find Francis so much better than expected — certainly than his predecessors. He’s the best since John XXIII. I’d be interested in your thoughts about that Newsweek article I mentioned (and which was brought to my attention by Larry O’Toole). Thanks again, Jim for taking the time to read and engage.


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