Basilica of St. John Lateran

Published date: 09/07/2024
  • Location: Rome, Latronico, Basilicate, Italy
The first and oldest among the great patriarchal basilicas of Rome, St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) rests on what used to be the palace of the Laterani family, whose members served as administrators to several emperors. About 311 it came into the emperor Constantine’s hands. He then gave it to the church, and in 313 the church hosted a council of bishops who met to declare the Donatist sect as heretics. From then on, the basilica was the centre of Christian life in the city, the residence of popes, and the cathedral of Rome.

The original church was probably not very large and was dedicated to Christ the Saviour. It has been rededicated twice—once in the 10th century to St. John the Baptist and again in the 12th century to St. John the Evangelist. In popular usage, these subsequent dedications have overtaken the original, though the church remains dedicated to Christ, like all patriarchal cathedrals. In 1309, when the seat of the papacy was moved to Avignon in France, the basilica began to decline. It was ravaged by fires in 1309 and 1361, and, although the structure was rebuilt, the original splendour of the building had been destroyed. Because of this, when the papacy returned to Rome, the Palace of the Vatican was constructed as the new papal seat.

In 1585 Pope Sixtus V ordered the basilica to be torn down and a replacement built—another in a long continuing line of refurbishments and rebuildings of this most important of cathedrals. Despite being bested in architectural terms by St. Peter’s, which holds most papal ceremonies thanks to its size and location within the Vatican’s walls, St. John Lateran remains the cathedral church of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the pope, as bishop of Rome. Indeed, it is regarded by Roman Catholics as the mother church of the entire world. (Robin Elam Musumeci)

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