Most people, Catholics as well as non-Catholics, think of Saint Peter's in Rome as the principal church of Western Christendom. Just about any time we see an important liturgical function televised from Rome, it seems to originate at Saint Peter's -- canonizations, for example, or the Pope's midnight Mass at Christmas. But, actually, the Pope's cathedral, the place where he performs the episcopal functions as the bishop of Rome, is the church whose dedication we celebrate in today's Mass -- the Cathedral of our Savior; otherwise known as the Lateran Basilica; and sometimes as "Saint John Lateran" from the nearby baptistery and community of monks.
The Lateran may not have been the first church solemnly dedicated to the public worship of God, but in many ways it is considered the "first church" of Christendom. As you know, Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire until the beginning of the fourth century, when the Emperors Galerius and Constantine issued their "Edicts of Toleration." Prior to that Christians had been persecuted, first by the Jews in the Holy Lands, and later by the Romans around Rome, and still later throughout the Empire.
Although he was not baptized until the day of his death, Constantine not only permitted the practice of Christianity, but also placed a sizeable share of his own personal resources and those of the Empire at the Church's disposal. For the first time, the Pope became a dignitary of the Imperial court -- the modern papal tiara originates from the white cap granted by Constantine and his successors to the Popes as members of his court. Priests began to be salaried by the Empire, much as the pagan priests had been in earlier times. The Emperor's mother, Saint Helena, went to the Holy Land to establish various shrines commemorating the life of our Lord, and to bring back relics to Rome. Public buildings were made available or constructed for the use of the Church.
Among other properties, Constantine donated his own palace, originally belonging to the family known as the Laterani, which became the first papal palace -- parts of which were enlarged to form the cathedral. It was consecrated in 324 by Pope Sylvester, and has the unusual distinction of having a wooden altar, said to be used by Saint Peter himself, and carefully preserved through the years of persecution. Sylvester decreed that, henceforth, churches would normally be dedicated with stone altars. The Lateran's wooden altar remains today, sealed within a larger stone altar, yet visible on one side.
Over the centuries, the Lateran has been renovated a number of times. It is no longer the palace of the Popes, but the cathedral was refurbished and re-dedicated in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII. Pope Leo XIII restored the apse together with an ancient mosaic of Our Lord in 1884.
Having given this history lesson, I would like to remind you as well that the persecution of Christians did not really end with the imperial edicts of the early fourth century. Since the unification of Italy, the Lateran Basilica is still owned by the Popes, but is no longer on land controlled by the Church -- it is across the Tiber, on the other side of the city of Rome. The various shrines and churches set aside under the patronage of the Empress Helena are still there, but on land that will be controlled by the unbaptized no matter who is in charge in Palestine -- the number of Christians willing to live nearby shrinks every year due to Israeli persecution and the general danger of living in a zone of continuous war. Catholics, who make up the majority of the Christians in Iraq -- about 80% -- have been excluded from participation in the formation of the new Iraqi government, with at least the knowledge and consent of our own United States administrator. They will be "eaten alive" by the Moslems if the US military ever leaves the country.
We are starting to see a movement making it illegal to speak out against immoral behavior. Our neighbors toward the north in Canada have legislation making it a hate crime criticize anti-Christian behavior. We have much the same, if not by law then by regulation, in many of our public institutions. Don't bring a Bible to school or say grace in the cafeteria! We are coming seriously close to the day when important aspects of our religion will be illegal in our own country.
China, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, Laos and Uzbekistan are among the countries most active in persecuting their internal Christian populations. Let me give you just a few examples, written just a few years ago:
Of course, we always feel a bit powerless to deal with this sort of thing. Nothing seems more unresponsive than government, especially on issues which the news media are delighted not to present in the daily paper or the TV news. I would suggest, though that there are a few things that we can do:
First of all, stay informed. The more conservative
Catholic papers are a good source; the Internet is better if you have access.
I've updated the links page on our website to start with links to sites that
cover Christian persecution: http://bellsouthpwp.net/O/L/OLRosary/cathlinks.html
Secondly, make your opinions known. Letters to politicians and churchmen are important -- both supporting the good ones and demanding that the bad ones change their ways. Do not support anti-Christian politicians; do not settle for the "lesser of two evils." When someone calls for a donation, ask what they have already done to reduce the persecution of Christians at home and abroad -- even if you are not going to give anything, ask the question! They need to hear that the electorate is concerned. Don't forget to ask about the murder of the unborn as well.
Finally -- and appropriately since we are celebrating the first church dedicated after the long persecution of the Roman Empire -- make the deliverance of Christians around the world and at home a part of your daily prayers. Visit God regularly in His church, never forgetting to ask Him that at least in some small measure the promise we heard in today's reading from the Apocalypse be fulfilled here on earth in our time:
"Behold the dwelling of God with men.... And they shall be His people, and [He] shall be their God: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more"