Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: The Franciscan Connection

Sunday, November 9, Roman Catholics celebrate a very special solemnity: the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Actually, for Franciscans, this historical commemoration holds special significance in our history and tradition.

The Lateran, as it is referred to affectionately, is one of four major churches or basilicas in the city of Rome. It is the pope’s church as Bishop of Rome, while St. Peter’s Basilica is the pope’s see as leader of the universal Church. In addition, St. John Lateran is one of the oldest Christian churches in Rome, having been given to the Christian community by the Emperor Constantine in the year 313 CE. The Lateran has been pillaged, destroyed, and rebuilt several times throughout its long history. Yet, it has not only endured, but perdured through the centuries.

The Franciscan connection is quite direct and poignant. Sometime in the year 1209, Francis, along with his motley crew of initial followers, had traveled to Rome to petition Pope Innocent III for approval of his Rule-- i.e., permission to establish a new religious order. Innocent III was not just any church leader, by the way. He was probably the most powerful ruler, secular or religious, in all of medieval Europe. Francis, in contrast, was both an eccentric and somewhat marginal figure initially.

While Francis was in Rome awaiting the pope's decision, Innocent III had a strange experience. As St. Bonaventure recounts in his biography, The Major Life of St. Francis “He (Pope Innocent III) saw in a dream,... the Lateran basilica almost ready to fall down. A little poor man, small and scorned, was propping it up with his own back bent so that it would not fall. ‘I’m sure,’ (Innocent) said, ’he (Francis) is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.’ Because of this, filled with exceptional devotion, he bowed to the request (of Francis) in everything and always loved Christ’s servant with special love. Then he granted what was asked and promised even more. He approved the rule, gave them a mandate to preach penance, and had small tonsures given to all the lay brothers, who were accompanying the servant of God, so that they could freely preach the word of God.” ( Chapter 3).

In front of the Basilica, a contemporary statue of St. Francis, arms outstretched stands poised and ready for action. If the viewer stands directly behind the sculpture, he/she will notice that the figure of Francis appears to ‘hold’ the basilica in his hands. Elsewhere, in the Basilica of St. Franics in city of Assisi itself, , a series of extraordinary frescoes recounting scenes from the life of St. Francis include a panel depicting of “The Dream of Innocent III”, have adorned its walls since the 14th century.

It is not simply out of a sense of "family pride", sentimentality, or nostalgia that the Franciscans have cherished this account for the past eight hundred years. Rather, it is the heart of this story—our call to bear witness to the Gospel by our lives and example—that continues to challenge and inspire us even today. Especially today.

The ‘church’ which Francis was called to rebuild was not the Lateran or the little chapel of San Damiano or any other physical structure, of course. The ‘church’ was and is the People of God who emerge in every time and place to proclaim and even reclaim, where necessary, the Good News of Jesus Christ. We continue to try-- in spite of and sometimes, even in the midst of our own struggles and doubts—to be true to that founding spirit and to do our very small part.

So, we continue to join with Francis and Clare in the simple prayer which defines our hope and mission:

“We adore You, Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ
Here and in all Your churches throughout the world.
And we bless You, because by your Holy Cross,
You have redeemed the world.”//

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