Today we celebrate the dedication of the archbasilica of Our Savior, better known as St. John Lateran. As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, it ranks above all other Roman basilicas, and is the only church in the world to hold the title of archbasilica. The popes lived at St. John Lateran for over a thousand years before moving to St. Peter’s in the Vatican 400 years ago, and St. John’s remains the Pope’s official church, bearing the inscription Omnium Urbis et Orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput: “Mother and Head of all the churches of the city and of the world.”
At a priests’ meeting in Rome four years ago, some of us went to pray at St. John Lateran and found the massive bronze doors wide open. These great portals, weighing 40 tons and originally built for the Roman senate house in the 2nd century, are almost always closed (one enters the basilica through side doors). As we were wondering at this, the basilica’s pastor appeared, welcomed us to his church, and pointed to the basilica’s plaza. It was covered with rides and game booths, with Italian children running all over. “Visit our parish festival,” the pastor told us, “and spend lots of money!” I was amazed that the Lateran Basilica, the “mother and head” of all Christian churches, was not essentially different from my parish church. From the greatest Archbasilica to the humblest country chapel, every Catholic church is a house of God (the massive doors) and a home for all peoples (the parish festival).
“Terrible is this place”
Terribilis est locus iste, begins the introit for our Mass. How can we dare enter the House of God! And yet his house, His temple, is our home too, since He has made His dwelling among us. I recommend Fr. Robert Barron’s excellent homily for today, which you can find on his website, Word on Fire. He points out that Catholic churches should be built as temples, not merely as fellowship halls or comfortable meeting spaces. Every parish church should take its cue from the Lateran Basilica by inspiring awe and reverence.
Not living rooms
Parish churches should look like temples, not living rooms. A badly-mistaken document from 1978 called Environment and Art in Catholic Worship describes the church as merely a “skin” covering the congregation. This mistaken notion led diocesan officials and church architects to design banal and even ugly parish churches from the 1970s to our own day, boring buildings that fail to inspire. Thanks be to God that the beauty of our church, Star of the Sea, was never ruined, although at some point the marble sanctuary was covered in dark red carpet. Churches are not living rooms; they should communicate extraordinary wonder, not ordinary commonalities. They should speak sacrifice, not comfort.
In the readings today, God makes his dwelling among us; He sanctifies our home by making it his own. First, St. John sees the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God: “behold, God’s dwelling is with men; he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” In this city, already, the old order has passed away, because there are 52 tabernacles in San Francisco in 52 Catholic churches. These churches should look like houses of God, not houses of men. In the Gospel, Jesus call out to an old sinner: “Zaccheus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Christ transforms Zaccheus’ house into a temple simply by crossing his threshold. Do you have crucifixes and other sacred images in your Domestic Church?
Houses are important—ask anyone who mortgages his life away to buy a dream house. This building we are now in shapes the way we pray. It should afford us a sacred refuge from the stress and sadness of the world outside. We cannot ignore the world, but we do need time apart. I am so grateful for the beautiful parks of San Francisco, which afford us respite from the noise and concrete of the city. The churches of San Francisco fulfill the same need as her parks, but with the added grace of sacred sign and presence.
God has sanctified us with his presence, and our churches should reflect that holiness. For this reason, as I say in the bulletin today, I would like to remove the carpet in our sanctuary and restore its original white marble. Carpet is for living rooms and convention centers, not for sanctuaries. Catholic churches must inspire us, so that we can go out after Mass to radiate that divine spirit to the world. Let us pray to Mary, the Mother of the Church, to make our parish truly a mother ship to the Richmond district and the entire city, a place of refreshment, light, and peace, a house of God and house of prayer for all peoples.