Today we celebrate the dedication of the first actual Catholic church. When Emperor Constantine married in the year 310 his bride’s dowry included one of Rome’s great seven hills, the Lateran Hill. It featured a basilica, which, coming from basilous, the Greek word for a king, was constructed as a royal audience hall.
When Constantine became a Christian, he donated the Lateran basilica to Pope Sylvester, who dedicated it as the Church of the Savior. Then, a later pope changed the dedication, making it the Basilica of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
Since that was the first in a long line of Catholic church buildings, we use this day to thank God for all of our churches.
Some years ago I heard that the pastor of a parish where I had been an assistant was building a new church in the half-round. I went over there, and I treated myself to an inspection of the beautiful windows and the circling tiers of pews. Then, I met the new assistant priest, and I asked him if the parish had grown so much that the old rectangular church was too small.
For an answer the priest said something like this, “That old building was never a church, since the church is the people of God. Those attending could not function as the people of God because all they could see of each other was the backs of their necks.” That was a good explanation, but on returning to the parish where I was then serving I came on another valid explanation.
Slipping into its darkened church, I was embraced by a warmth that made me feel I was in God’s house. It had me concluding that modern churchmen should not ignore the derivation of our word “church.” It comes from the Greek kyrie-oike, meaning “lord’s house.” With people over the centuries quickly repeating the words kyrie-oike, and with the two “k” sounds softening to “ch” sounds, chirie-oiche became church.”
In that new half-round-church I hadn’t had the sense of being in God’s house, and my being there hadn’t moved me to speak with God.
Seeing a church as God’s house had me recalling how precise Exodus had been in listing the dimensions of each kind of material to be used in building Jerusalem’s temple. They had to be precise because the people thought they were constructing a copy of God’s house in heaven. (When Isaiah had a vision of God in heaven, he saw him above the altar in a temple just like Jerusalem’s.)
Once in teaching a Seventh Grade Religion class in that home parish of mine, I asked for written answers to the question: Should we keep quiet in church? A black girl who attended a Holiness Church answered, I go to a holiness church, and we don’t keep quiet there, but we should keep quiet in our Catholic Church because it is God’s house.