The Mother and HeadRead Now
November 9th is a worldwide feast day celebrating the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. It may seem silly to have a feast day devoted to a church; after all, we are used to commemorating great saints, like Cecilia (November 22nd) or Andrew the Apostle (November 30th), or an aspect of Christ’s life, like the Solemnity of Christ the King (this year, November 25th). So why celebrate a building? Sure, it is a church, Mass is held there, the Eucharist is housed there – but that can be said of any other Catholic church. What makes the Lateran Basilica so special?
The full name of this particular church is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran. What a mouthful! The Lateran Basilica is one of the “major or papal basilicas,” the four highest-ranking churches in Roman Catholicism, due to their historical significance. The other three are St. Peter’s in the Vatican, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. St. John Lateran (as it is commonly known) is the oldest of the four, the oldest public church in Rome, and houses the cathedra (seat) of the pope in his capacity as the Bishop of Rome. Because it houses the cathedra, the basilica is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. It is also the sole holder of the title “archbasilica,” demonstrating its ranking above every other church in the world.
An inscription on the façade of the building says, “Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput.” Translated, it means, “The Most Holy Lateran Church, mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.” Today’s feast day celebrates not only the physical structure itself, but also what it symbolizes. As the seat of the Holy Father, it reminds our hearts and minds of the fidelity we show to the successor of St. Peter, an expression of unity that binds together all the faithful. Moreover, the physical edifice of the church calls to mind what the Catechism states, “The Church is the Body of Christ” (CCC 805). While the Lateran Basilica itself is a magnificent building, housing priceless works of art, in the end it is just a hollow shell. The faithful who enter it, pray in it, and celebrate the Eucharist inside it are what truly bring it to life and bring its purpose to fulfillment.
On this feast day, let us pray. Let us pray for the Holy Father, that he may continue to lead the faithful entrusted to his care. And let us pray for the Church, that her members may always work in unity to bring about Christ’s kingdom on earth.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Praise God in his holy sanctuary; give praise in the mighty dome of heaven.
Give praise for his mighty deeds, praise him for his great majesty.
Give praise with blasts upon the horn, praise him with harp and lyre.
Give praise with tambourines and dance, praise him with strings and pipes.
Give praise with crashing cymbals, praise him with sounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath give praise to the LORD!
- Psalm 150
Back in high school, my primary extracurricular activities were band and drama club. I’ll always remember how our band teacher, Mr. Crocken, would begin every concert by reciting Psalm 150. Before any announcements or accolades, any thanks or congratulations, he would acknowledge the one from whom all our gifts and talents flow. Before all else, he gave a gentle but profound reminder of the importance of thanking God for our blessings at all times, especially through music.
As one would expect in a Catholic school, we began every meeting, whether a class, club, or team practice, with prayer. Our after-school drama club rehearsals were no different. Concluding prayer with the school’s traditional litany to our three patrons, the drama club also always added Saints Genesius and Cecilia, the patrons of actors and musicians. I’d always wondered why Cecilia was patroness of musicians and, since her feast day is today, I finally investigated.
Saint Cecilia, one of the most venerated of the Roman martyrs, is most well known as patroness of musicians. Despite having consecrated her maidenhood to God, she married a man called Valerian. During their nuptial Mass, she sang to God in her heart, asking for an angel to protect her virginity. When Valerian asked his bride for proof that she was protected by an angel, Cecilia sent him to the Appian Way to be baptized. There, he saw the angel and quickly became an evangelist, converting many to the faith before being martyred some time later. Cecilia’s martyrdom soon followed, ministering to the poor even on her deathbed. Since her canonization, Cecilia has been very much defined by that story of her singing on her wedding day. There’s even a musical conservatory in Rome, one of the oldest in the world, named after her.
It’s always struck me how music is consistently referred to, particularly in Church circles, as a means by which to glorify and praise God. When I think of the moments when my soul has been most moved, they frequently involve music. Pieces like Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, and especially Schubert’s Ave Maria, move me even to tears more often than not. Why? They are beautiful works of art, to be sure, but the reasons they were written are far deeper. The composers used their craft to elevate the listener closer to God in a way that no other media seems able to match.
Pieces of music like those just mentioned seem to take root in people’s hearts in a very profound way. That’s why they’ve been integrated into everyday life over the ages. From the Gregorian Chant used in the Mass, to folk songs sung at table or around the fire, even to modern popular music, the common thread is that humanity is united by that universal language that speaks directly to the heart. In my own life, Handel’s Messiah is very dear to me. We sang it in choir when I was in college, I listen to it every year while trimming the Christmas Tree and “decking the halls”, and I join a group of friends every December 23rd for a sing-along performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Something about the piece moves me in a way I can’t really explain. But that’s the beauty of music!
St. Cecilia gave thanks to the Lord in her heart and with her voice. This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on the blessings God has bestowed upon us this year, let us follow the example of St. Cecilia and the Psalms and join everything that has breath and praise the Lord.
St. Cecilia, pray for us!