We walked down the wide path linking Santa Croce with St. John Lateran, passing alongside the ancient wall of Rome and a park where children played on brightly colored gyms and swing sets. Tall shade trees lined the path, and I sensed I was on an old pilgrimage route, the triangle linking the basilicas of Maria Maggiore, Santa Croce, and San Giovanni Laterano. Here, stepping between buzzing traffic and apartment houses, children playing in the sun and third-century walls staunchly watching, I prayed God would sanctify our time here in Rome, and that we would be receptive to what He wanted us to see, and, perhaps, say.
Nearing the hub of traffic in front of the Lateran, we passed the giant statue of St. Francis raising his hands into the air, arms reaching toward the white basilica set back. Francis faces the papal basilica where he met with the Pope to form his order of Friar Minors eight hundred years ago.
As we approached the church, workers were setting up or taking down stage settings and chairs with cranes and forklifts and vans, obscuring the entrance. We passed street sellers of handbags displayed on blankets and walked up the steps to the porch.
We entered the nave through the south aisle and paused to view the marble tiles swirling along the floor, the white sculpted apostles leaping from their niches along the sides, the altar and confessio and baldachino, the golden filigree reliquary with the heads of Peter and Paul higher above. Sun slanted from the south through clerestory windows, throwing squares of light onto the center aisle, and I worked my way toward the high altar, turning to photograph the twelve apostles.
We continued to the head of the aisle, where the confessio beneath the altar held the remains of Pope Martin V who built the present basilica, and looked up to the relics of Peter and Paul, enshrined in gold. To the left in the northern transept Blessed Sacrament Chapel, wood from the table of Christ’s Last Supper is kept behind a golden frieze. The chapel is anchored by two giant gilded columns, and the Sacrament is reserved in a marvelous tabernacle, a church of its own, domed and columned and porticoed, golden, bright. In this chapel, pilgrims kneel and pray. There were fresh flowers on the altar, celebrating Eastertide.
We stepped around to the apse where the cathedra, the episcopal chair, sits against a patterned marble background, but high above is the glorious apsidal dome, the risen Christ in glory, frescoed in stunning color. Here, on Maundy Thursday, in this chancel, Pope Benedict, imitating Christ, washed the feet of his priests, dipping their bare flesh into a basin and drying them with care, his eyes on theirs, signifying the moment with grace.
We continued to the Baptistery, an outer building dating to the fourth century, and entered a large octagonal rotunda. In the center a massive empty basin recalled the original pool, dry now, today containing a marble altar and Paschal candle, marking the forty days after Easter. Several ancient chapels extend from the baptistery. I gazed at the old walls, and the huge font, imagining the full immersion of the catechumens in their white robes on Easter Eve, washed clean by the Holy Spirit and made a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. I felt their joy as they took part in the Divine Liturgy for the first time, the secrets of the Church no longer secret, the mysteries revealed to those who could now understand them. I understood there was a time and place for these things, and with their acceptance and understanding of the Apostles Creed (which was largely developed through these first catechumen classes), with their instruction throughout Lent, and with their washing in the baptismal waters, they could unite with Christ in the Bread and the Wine.
St. John Lateran is a church of resurrection and rebirth, a fitting seat for the Bishop of Rome, for it unites the Eucharist (the Last Supper Table and the washing of the feet, the Reserved Sacrament, the many daily Masses) with the rebirth of baptism, the promise of resurrection through Christ’s drawing us up with Him. For it is through the Eucharist that this drawing us up and into Him is effected. This is a theme of John the Evangelist, and it is appropriate that this church is dedicated to him, the apostle who first saw the risen Lord, and the apostle who wrote God is love, explaining that it is the gift of the Spirit, of Christ, that brings us into communion and out of separation, with God and with our fellow men.
As with each visit to St. John Lateran, I left understanding better with both heart and mind the mystery of our Faith, the mystery of life, the mystery of love, the mystery of God.