Have you ever wanted to go back to see the home in which you lived as a child? Go back to the school in which you entered kindergarten or the first grade? Or maybe, with friends, go back to your old high school? Have you ever wanted to see the home you first lived in after you were married? All of us have probably taken ourselves back to those “firsts”, to significant places where we first began important phases in our lives.
Today the Roman Catholic Church takes us back to Rome, to Rome under the reign of the Emperor Constantine. On November 9, 324 A.D. Pope St. Sylvester consecrated the first public Christian church in the ancient City of Rome. It was built on property given to the Church by the Emperor Constantine and then converted into a Christian church and given the name “The Church of Saint Savior.” Centuries later, in the eleventh century, its name was changed and it became known as the Cathedral of St. John Lateran.
The Bishops of Rome lived there from the time of Constantine until the year 1377 when the central offices and the residence of the popes were moved from there over to the Vatican, [another long and interesting story in itself]. Nevertheless the Cathedral of St. John Lateran remained, and still remains until this day, the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome. The Bishop of Rome’s cathedral church is not the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican; it is the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, across town from the Vatican, over on the Lateran hill.
There is a lot of other history associated with St. John Lateran, too much to deal with here and now. The chief significance of all this is because when the Emperor Constantine came to favor Christianity he made its first public place of worship a part of the Roman Establishment, something that had huge significance not only in the City of Rome but throughout the vast Roman Empire. Its importance extends to us down through history until this very day. We are in a public place of worship right now because of those events of long ago. We are an institutional church because way back then Christianity was institutionalized in the Roman Empire.
This is a problem for many folks. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, sometimes with a bit of a hiss in their voice, “I don’t believe in institutional religion. I won’t belong to any institutionalized church.” Some who call themselves Catholics claim they want no part of what they refer to as “the institutional Church” as if it were distinct from the real Roman Catholic Church.
Why do we encounter such an attitude? What’s wrong with being socially structured? After all, we have medical institutions, educational institutions, and governmental institutions, to mention only a few. There are any number of institutes that are a part of our lives — think tanks, social policy institutes, institutes of further study, and such like.
Who would want to be under the care of a doctor who was self-educated and did not graduate from a medical institution? Or who would want to be represented by a lawyer who never graduated from a school of law? And yet when it comes to religion, many prefer to be self-taught and self-guided, free of any form of institutionalized education and formation, free of any external constraints that come from social structures.
A fundamental question is before us, one deeper than that of simply being institutionalized. Constantine’s Rome was filled with many temples honoring gods and goddesses. He recognized that what went on inside a Christian temple rendered irrelevant the many rituals found in all of Rome’s other temples. With one sweep he dethroned all of Rome’s pagan gods goddesses. It was not the building that mattered, it was what went on inside the hearts and souls of the people in the temple that mattered.
The consecration in the year 324 A.D of the Church of Saint Savior meant that Christians, once persecuted and underground were now preferred and public. Christians and Christian worship were not only publicly tolerated but placed in the heart of Rome’s Imperial Establishment. The Church of Saint Savior, now known as St. John Lateran, was erected on a site owned by Constantine’s wife at the top of the Lateran Hill, one of the seven significant hills of Rome. It’s public consecration was a towering moment, to say the least.
Why, then, are we here in this church building? What is transpiring within you? Living as we do in our day surrounded by media gods and goddesses, living amidst urban temples devoted to the principalities and powers of this world, we need to keep ever before our eyes what it is that we are doing here in this church building.
The prevailing value system that surrounds us can be succinctly described as the cult of the individual self. Moral standards are seen these days as individual opinion, a matter of private, personal preference. Instead of entering into and living in a moral universe and under a God who’s will we respect and to whom we yield our individual autonomy, we now live in a culture that results only from our bargaining power. The laws and mores of our land result from political action groups and political movements. Advocacy groups vie with each other to form public policy. Our cultural standards of behavior are governed not by God’s will and love for us but rather by what is declared by our social engineers to be politically correct. Our new priests are found in the editorial boardrooms of today’s media temples. The temple in which the New York Times newspaper is produced for public consumption has supplanted St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ink and paper have supplanted holy bread and sacred wine. God’s word for us is regarded simply a matter of private, personal preference whereas the words of the New York Times editorials and columnists are seen as “coming down from on high.”
Constantine was dealing with the question: Is my religion a “me and Jesus” religion, or is it a “we and Jesus” religion? That is the question we too, in our day, are facing. The catacombs of Rome, we must remember, were places in which the dead were buried. They were located outside Rome’s city walls. Is it far fetched to say that there are powerful forces around us which would have everyone believe that the Catholic Church is dead and should be buried apart from where we really live our lives, where we are schooled, where we work, where we talk seriously about public policy and our commonly shared standards of behavior? I don’t think it is at all farfetched to make that claim.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I value the individual person and his or her individual conscience. Each and every human being needs to be respected and recognized as one of God’s own children. If anything could sum up the major thrust of Pope Francis’ pontificate it is his absolute and resolute insistence on the sacred value of each unique human person.
Christian worship affirms that. At the same time it affirms that we all have value and worth because we belong, because we belong to Jesus Christ in His Communion of Saints. We are members of His very own family. “Who is my mother?” He once asked. “And who are my brothers and sisters?” Those, He answered, who give themselves in love to our Father in heaven, those who come to His house to give Him their lives, their hopes and their wills in order to reveal His kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.
Today we are remembering where and how Christianity first began interfacing with the dominant culture that surrounded it. Have times changed all that much? Have this world’s attitudes toward Christianity changed all that much? It’s good for us to go back to our beginnings and ask those questions of ourselves. Not to answer them is to put our souls at risk.