Emperor Constantine married one of Rome’s wealthiest women, and she brought him an immense dowry. Part of that dowry was one of Rome’s seven hills: the Lateran hill. Towering over Lateran Hill there stood a rectangular structure that was reserved as an audience hall for visiting monarchs. It was called a basilica, following on basilous, the Greek word for a king. The front wall featured a semi-circle alcove where the throne waited for its rightful occupier.
When Constantine became a Christian, he gave the Lateran Basilica to Pope Silvester as his own church, and down to the present it is seen as the pope’s personal church.
People love that reading from Ezekiel in which a stream bursts out from the temple’s east side giving life to trees and fish as it descends to where it turns the ocean into fresh water. We see that that stream as a metaphor for all the grace that people take away with them from church, carrying life out to all with whom they come in contact.
Let me relate an incident that taught me the worth of our church buildings. Twenty or thirty years ago I went over to take a look at one of those new fan-shaped churches that was going up across town. Having got in the way of the workmen as I stepped over the scaffolding, I met with the young assistant pastor of the parish, and I asked him if the parish had grown too large for it to be accommodated by the old church building.
He told me, “Vatican II has taught us that the people, not the building, are the church; and since the old rectangular structure by lining the people up toward the altar, and not allowing them to be aware of one another as the church, it really couldn’t be called a church.”
Chastened, I went and slipped into St. Paul’s in Riverside. Then, as the door swung shut behind me, I remembered how the ancient Jews had seen their temple as an exact replica of Yahweh’s own house in heaven, and I became enveloped by a like conviction. I was hushed by the silent stars on the vaulted ceiling and by the transformed light of the stained glass windows.
I like what a little Pentecostal girl said about St. Paul’s. I had asked all the sixth graders if we should be quiet in church, and that girl answered, “We don’t have to keep quiet in the church I go to, but we have to be quiet in the Catholic church because it is God’s house.”