St. John Lateran: The Church Standing Erect

Because the media drama of the papacy often has St. Peter’s for its stage, many Catholics may not know that the Patriarchal Vatican Archbasilica isn’t the Pope’s cathedral. St. Peter’s belongs, in a sense, to the whole Church, and the Pope presides there as universal pastor of the Church. The Lateran Basilica-or, to give it its full name, the “Patriarchal Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and Evangelist”-is the Pope’s cathedral, the site of the cathedra of the Bishop of Rome.

Long styled as “mother and head of all churches in the city and the world,” the Lateran basilica was built by Constantine as a votum or thanksgiving offering for his victory over Augustus Maxentius, and consecrated by Pope St. Sylvester I in either 318 or 324. (The foundations of Constantine’s basilica were once the barracks of an elite Roman cavalry unit that had backed the wrong horse, so to speak, in Constantine’s struggle with Maxentius.) For some 900 years, the popes lived in the Lateran palace adjacent to the basilica. There, the special vocations of St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, and their followers were confirmed by Pope Innocent III; the palace now houses the Vicariate of Rome, the local diocesan administration. In the 15th century, the Lateran basilica was home to the first Jubilee “Holy Door,” symbolizing pilgrims passing from sin to grace-a tradition that has continued down to the Great Jubilee of 2000.

The most notable papal tombs in the Lateran basilica are those of Lotario de’Conti di Segni and Gioacchino Pecci, better known to history as Innocent III and Leo XIII. Thirty-seven years old when elected to the papacy in 1198, Lotario was already a noted canonist, theologian, and liturgist; during his papacy, Innocent III was Europe’s most powerful political figure, and a forceful exponent of the view that papal authority trumped that of kings and emperors. He died in Perugia a relatively young man, in 1216, on a mission that combined diplomacy with the spiritual renewal of northern Italy. Innocent’s tomb remained in Perugia until 1891 when Leo XIII (who had served as bishop of Perugia) brought it to the Lateran, where the greatest of medieval popes now rests in the arm of the basilica’s transept. Leo XIII is buried opposite, in the transept’s other arm-a papal memorial parallelism that prompts some thought.

When Pecci was elected pope in 1878, the papacy controlled no sovereign territory (the Papal States had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy); the pope was the “prisoner of the Vatican;” and many among the worldly wise imagined the Office of Peter a spent force in human affairs. (England’s Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, fearful of Italian interference in the conclave of 1878, proposed holding the papal election in Malta under the protective guns of the Royal Navy.) Yet Leo XIII’s 25-year pontificate saw the papacy begin to assert the kind of influence that would culminate in the pivotal role played by Pope John Paul II in the collapse of European communism and the liberation of central and eastern Europe. This was the power of moral argument and persuasion, and Leo XIII was its first successful modern papal exponent.
Sovereignty is important for the exercise of the papal office: in order to fulfill his mission as universal pastor of the Church, the Pope cannot be subject to any other sovereignty. So the Lateran Treaties of 1929, which created the Vatican City micro-state, were not unimportant. But just as important, and arguably more important, was Leo XIII’s assertion of the moral authority of the keys-the papal mandate to teach and persuade the nations, using the tools of both faith and reason.

In the Lateran, the statue of Innocent III lies recumbent upon his marble catafalque. The effigy of Leo XIII stands erect, boldly proclaiming the moral truths that make society possible. Leo, architect of the modern papacy, embodied the Church persuasive in life; fittingly, that is how he is sculpted in death. 

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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