Most Catholics think of St. Peter’s as the pope’s main church, but they are wrong. St. John Lateran is the pope’s church, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome where the Bishop of Rome presides.
The first basilica on the site was built in the fourth century when Constantine donated land he had received from the wealthy Lateran family. That structure and its successors suffered fire, earthquake, and the ravages of war, but the Lateran remained the church where popes were consecrated. In the 14th century when the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon, the church and the adjoining palace were found to be in ruins.
Pope Innocent X commissioned the present structure in 1646. One of Rome’s most imposing churches, the Lateran’s towering facade is crowned with 15 colossal statues of Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and 12 doctors of the Church. Beneath its high altar rest the remains of the small wooden table on which tradition holds Saint Peter himself celebrated Mass.
Unlike the commemorations of other Roman churches, this anniversary is a feast. The dedication of a church is a feast for all its parishioners. In a sense, St. John Lateran is the parish church of all Catholics, because it is the pope’s cathedral. This church is the spiritual home of the people who are the Church.
St. Peter Nolasco (12th c.) was inspired to establish a religious order for the ransom of Christians from Muslim captivity. On August 1, 1218 the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Peter Nolasco along with his confessor, St. Raymond of Peñafort, and to King James I of the Kingdom of Aragon to verify the Divine inspiration of this mission. Word of the Marian apparition soon spread to the entire kingdom. The new religious foundation, called the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (the Mercedarians), was established and approved by Pope Gregory IX. The order worked to raise money to ransom Christians who had been captured and enslaved by Muslims, and to offer themselves, if necessary, as payment for their release. A feast was instituted under the title of Our Lady of Ransom and observed on September 24, later extended to the entire Church.
Early in the fourth century, Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She razed the second-century Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior’s tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher on that spot. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman.
The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus’ head: Then “all the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on.”
To this day, the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica’s dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross from the Persians, who had carried it off in 614, 15 years earlier. According to the story, the emperor intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself, but was unable to move forward until he took off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim.
The cross is today the universal image of Christian belief. Countless generations of artists have turned it into a thing of beauty to be carried in procession or worn as jewelry. To the eyes of the first Christians, it had no beauty. It stood outside too many city walls, decorated only with decaying corpses, as a threat to anyone who defied Rome’s authority—including Christians who refused sacrifice to Roman gods. Although believers spoke of the cross as the instrument of salvation, it seldom appeared in Christian art unless disguised as an anchor or the Chi-Rho until after Constantine’s edict of toleration.
The Story of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Church has celebrated Mary’s birth since at least the sixth century. A September birth was chosen because the Eastern Church begins its Church year with September. The September 8 date helped determine the date for the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.
Scripture does not give an account of Mary’s birth. However, the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James fills in the gap. This work has no historical value, but it does reflect the development of Christian piety. According to this account, Anna and Joachim are infertile but pray for a child. They receive the promise of a child who will advance God’s plan of salvation for the world. Such a story, like many biblical counterparts, stresses the special presence of God in Mary’s life from the beginning.
Saint Augustine connects Mary’s birth with Jesus’ saving work. He tells the earth to rejoice and shine forth in the light of her birth. “She is the flower of the field from whom bloomed the precious lily of the valley. Through her birth the nature inherited from our first parents is changed.” The opening prayer at Mass speaks of the birth of Mary’s Son as the dawn of our salvation, and asks for an increase of peace.
We can see every human birth as a call for new hope in the world. The love of two human beings has joined with God in his creative work. The loving parents have shown hope in a world filled with travail. The new child has the potential to be a channel of God’s love and peace to the world.
This is all true in a magnificent way in Mary. If Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s love, Mary is the foreshadowing of that love. If Jesus has brought the fullness of salvation, Mary is its dawning.
Birthday celebrations bring happiness to the celebrant as well as to family and friends. Next to the birth of Jesus, Mary’s birth offers the greatest possible happiness to the world. Each time we celebrate her birth, we can confidently hope for an increase of peace in our hearts and in the world at large.
St. John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus, and his mission was to preach repentance to Israel in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. When John rebuked King Herod for his unlawful union with Herodias, his brother’s wife, Herod had John imprisoned. On his birthday, Herod celebrated with a great feast as Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced before his guests. Herod, pleased with Salome’s performance, promised to give her whatever she asked for, even up to half his kingdom. On the advice of her wicked mother, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod regretfully ordered the execution. St. John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, highly venerated by the Church. The feast of his martyrdom is August 29th.
Pope Pius XII established this feast in 1954. But Mary’s queenship has roots in Scripture. At the Annunciation, Gabriel announced that Mary’s Son would receive the throne of David and rule forever. At the Visitation, Elizabeth calls Mary “mother of my Lord.” As in all the mysteries of Mary’s life, she is closely associated with Jesus: Her queenship is a share in Jesus’ kingship. We can also recall that in the Old Testament the mother of the king has great influence in court.
In the fourth century Saint Ephrem called Mary “Lady” and “Queen.” Later Church fathers and doctors continued to use the title. Hymns of the 11th to 13th centuries address Mary as queen: “Hail, Holy Queen,” “Hail, Queen of Heaven,” “Queen of Heaven.” The Dominican rosary and the Franciscan crown as well as numerous invocations in Mary’s litany celebrate her queenship.
The feast is a logical follow-up to the Assumption, and is now celebrated on the octave day of that feast. In his 1954 encyclical To the Queen of Heaven, Pius XII points out that Mary deserves the title because she is Mother of God, because she is closely associated as the New Eve with Jesus’ redemptive work, because of her preeminent perfection, and because of her intercessory power.
As Saint Paul suggests in Romans 8:28–30, God has predestined human beings from all eternity to share the image of his Son. All the more was Mary predestined to be the mother of Jesus. As Jesus was to be king of all creation, Mary, in dependence on Jesus, was to be queen. All other titles to queenship derive from this eternal intention of God. As Jesus exercised his kingship on earth by serving his Father and his fellow human beings, so did Mary exercise her queenship. As the glorified Jesus remains with us as our king till the end of time (Matthew 28:20), so does Mary, who was assumed into heaven and crowned queen of heaven and earth.
The Story of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of faith: “We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul to heavenly glory.” The pope proclaimed this dogma only after a broad consultation of bishops, theologians and laity. There were few dissenting voices. What the pope solemnly declared was already a common belief in the Catholic Church.
We find homilies on the Assumption going back to the sixth century. In following centuries, the Eastern Churches held steadily to the doctrine, but some authors in the West were hesitant. However by the 13th century there was universal agreement. The feast was celebrated under various names—Commemoration, Dormition, Passing, Assumption—from at least the fifth or sixth century. Today it is celebrated as a solemnity.
Scripture does not give an account of Mary’s assumption into heaven. Nevertheless, Revelation 12 speaks of a woman who is caught up in the battle between good and evil. Many see this woman as God’s people. Since Mary best embodies the people of both Old and New Testaments, her assumption can be seen as an exemplification of the woman’s victory.
Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul speaks of Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Since Mary is closely associated with all the mysteries of Jesus’ life, it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit has led the Church to believe in Mary’s share in his glorification. So close was she to Jesus on earth, she must be with him body and soul in heaven.
In the light of the Assumption of Mary, it is easy to pray her Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) with new meaning. In her glory she proclaims the greatness of the Lord and finds joy in God her savior. God has done marvels to her and she leads others to recognize God’s holiness. She is the lowly handmaid who deeply reverenced her God and has been raised to the heights. From her position of strength she will help the lowly and the poor find justice on earth, and she will challenge the rich and powerful to distrust wealth and power as a source of happiness.
The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord takes place on August 6th, an event mentioned in all three synoptic Gospels. After revealing that he would be put to death in Jerusalem, Jesus took the three disciples of his inner circle to the summit of Mount Tabor in order to reveal his glory to them. Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured before them, radiant in the fullness of his glory as he truly was, the Son of God. Next to Jesus were Moses and Elijah as witnesses to Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets. St. Matthew writes of the event by saying, “He was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow.”
Our Lady of the Snows is one of the oldest devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It commemorates a miraculous event that happened during the reign of Pope Liberius. A wealthy, childless Roman couple prayed to know how their fortune should be used for God. Our Lady answered them in a dream and asked that a church be built in her honor. She also appeared in a dream to the Holy Father with the same request. On August 5, 352 A.D., a hot summer day, snow fell on Esquiline Hill. All of Rome proclaimed it a miracle, and a basilica was built on the spot according to the outline of the pattern of snow. The church, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major), is the largest church in the world, and one of the first, dedicated to Our Lady. August 5th celebrates its rebuilding and dedication in 434 A.D.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (1251 A.D.) is a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary associated with the Carmelite Order. The first Carmelites lived as hermits on Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land beginning in the 12th century. In the middle of their hermitages they built a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who became the protectress of the Carmelites under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a Carmelite hermit, St. Simon Stock, under this title and gave him a piece of cloth—the brown scapular—as a sacramental to be worn by the faithful to whom she promised her special protection. At the apparitions in Fatima, in addition to appearing as Our Lady of the Rosary, the Virgin Mary appeared as Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Her feast day is July 16th.