Today we celebrate the Feast of “the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica.” We are used to celebrating the feast of saints, martyrs, of the Feasts of Mary and the like, but why do we celebrate the Feast of the dedication of a basilica, you may ask?
St John Lateran Basilica is not just another grand church in Western Europe, it is called the mother and head of all Catholic Churches; it is the Pope’s cathedral, built by Emperor Constantine around AD 324 after he granted Christians religious freedom.
I would like to begin our reflection with a true story. In the misty highlands of north-western Guatemala, there thrives a wondrous Church. Most of its members are illiterate Indian peasants who earn a subsistence living from farming the grudging hillsides and by weaving palm hats. Once a week these Catholics and other Christians would gather to celebrate the Word of God – sometimes in hidden forest glades, depending on the extent of military persecution . . .
Every village in this region of El Quiche has a painful story to tell. During an eight-year reign of terror that did not begin to subside until a civilian president took office in 1986, thousands of Indians were killed or relocated to concentration camps . . . Persecution against the Catholic Church was so ferocious that not a single priest or nun remained in the Quiche diocese . . . In order to celebrate Holy Communion, undercover catechists travelled hours on foot, carrying consecrated Hosts hidden among ears of corn or in baskets of bean or tortillas. Anyone caught with the possession of the sacred Hosts, would undergo a slow death by torture as these sacred Hosts were classified as “subversive material.”
One day in 1982, a army took over the small market town of Santa Cruz El Quiche. The army warned the villages that they were aware that there were catechists amongst them. They gave them the ultimatum that, that very night these catechists have to be killed by their relatives, otherwise, they, (the army) would burn and kill everyone in Santa Cruz and the neighbouring villages.
When the army withdrew, the villagers discussed the brutal choice they had to make. They unanimously concluded that they would not follow the army’s command as the catechists were loved and valued for their religious work and for the instruction they were given to promote co-operatives.
However, the five catechists insisted. “. . . It is better for us to die than for thousands to die.” At 4.00 am, a weeping procession, led by the catechists, arrived at the cemetery. Graves were dug, the people formed a circle around the kneeling men, and relatives of the five drew their machetes. Many could not watch the scene; some fainted as the blades fell, and the executioners’ tears mingled with the blood of the catechists . . . they martyrs of their faith.
The next day, the army captain in charge of the area was informed that his orders had been carried out. Such brutal murder was the army’s policy of trying to eliminate catechists who were considered “subversives”. The effects of such evil failed . . . from the villagers of Santa Cruz and elsewhere in Quiche. To them they say, “We remember these catechists as martyrs and with holy reverence.” It is because of them that we are alive today.
(cf. Adpated from: Penny Lernoux, “More Quips Quotes and Anecdotes for Preachers and Teachers" by Anthony Castle.)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Basilica of St John Lateran was one of the first churches built by early Christians after the era of persecution. Even though popes no longer lives in that Basilica, it retains its distinction as the Cathedral of the Popes, and has on it’s walls engraved, “the mother and head of all churches of Rome and the world.”
Yet, we may ask, “Why are churches so important when prayers can be heard any where? Moses spoke to God in the “Tent of Meeting” as with a friend. A cloud would descend upon the tent as a special sign of God’s presence. When Solomon finished constructing the Temple, he acknowledged God’s presence everywhere, but he prayed, “Whatever people shall pray for in this place, You will hear them and show them your mercy.” (1 Kings 8:22-53). In the Jewish religion, the Feast of Hanukkah or the “Festival of Lights” celebrates the memory of the purification and re-establishment of worship in the Temple after Judas Maccabeus defeated the Greek army that had defiled the Temple. The prophet Ezekiel wrote during a period of exile, he dreamed of returning to his home in Israel and especially to the Temple. The Temple is seen as a house of God.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us remember that the physical building of a Church is more than just a building; it is set apart from all secular buildings because it is first of all a sacred place where we come to worship as a Catholic family. This is a sacred place of God; Jesus is present to us in the tabernacle; He is present to us physically in the sacred Consecrated Hosts, and that is why we genuflect each time we enter the Church. This is a house of God; not a market place. That is why, in today’s Gospel Jesus was furious at the money changers who were not only cheating the pilgrims who came from different countries, but they were cheating in God’s House; His Father’s house; and very grievously, they were cheating and exploiting the poor and the needy pilgrims.
In this context of us coming together to worship God in this sacred place, is it unreasonable if our church is to expect that we come early for Mass, dress decently and behave appropriately as believers of Christ, who is our Lord and Saviour? We all know how to dress appropriately whenever we go for a formal functions; we know very well that if we were invited to attend a function – whether a speech or a dinner by our PM, it would be ridiculous to go in our shorts and rubber shoes; we would be stopped and refused entry, even though we have the invitation card in our hands. Would anyone be dressed casually and sloppily on their first date or in their first meeting with their future in-laws? There is a story of someone who did not dress properly and when he met his future mother-in-law and said to her, “in my prayer and discernment, God told me that I should marry your daughter . . . the instant reply he got was, “My God tells me - “No way!”.
On another level of our reflection, let us remind ourselves of how St Paul in today’s Second Reading tells us, “You are God’s building. . . Did you not realise that you are God’s Temple and that the Spirit of God is living among you? If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy him, because the temple of God is sacred; and you are that temple.” (1 Cor. 3:9. 16-17). In other words, we are each “Temples of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit of Christ lives within us; in our souls.
As such, we tear down the temples of our souls and the Church each time we sin by failing to do good and by any destructive lifestyles that cause disunity, disrespect and destruction to others, whether in the family, at work, in the Church’s community or even the failure to reach out to the poor and suffering people in the world around us.
As I conclude, let us thus remind ourselves that in celebrating of the dedication of St John Lateran Basilica today, our Church want us to affirm the universality of our faith in Christ our Risen Lord, who instituted and founded the Church through Peter and the apostles and His successors. The Basilica is a symbol of the fidelity of the Church to her faith in spite of the persecutions she experienced in the early Church, and throughout the 2,000 years of her history. We know how blessed we are to have hundreds of thousands of courageous believers and martyrs of the Church, like the catechists of Guatemala who willingly paid the heavy price of their fidelity to the Gospel of Christ, as individuals and as worshipping communities.
You and I who belong to this worshipping community and family call the parish of St Ignatius. The Gospel of the Salvation of Christ can only be handed on to our future generations if you and I do our part. We need to be more fully conscious of the sacredness of the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, and rightly so, we need to come on time; dress appropriately and participate attentively in this sacred place of worship. And after the Eucharistic celebration, as we are dismissed, we need to “live the Eucharist” by being Christ-like to others in our daily living of care, compassion and love to all peoples, as Temples of the Holy Spirit.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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