Sunday Passiontide II: Statio ad St Ioannem Laterano

O God, whom to love above all is righteousness, multiply in us the gifts of Thine ineffable grace: and since Thou hast given us in the death of Thy Son to hope for those things which we believe, grant us by the Resurrection of the same to attain the end to which we aspire.

The Station at Rome is in the church of St. John Lateran which represents the Holy City Jerusalem which Christ and we, His disciples, have just entered. It is the first cathedral of Rome, where Emperor Constantine allowed the Pope to set up the episcopal chair after 312.

Just as Saint John Lateran was the station of the First Sunday of Lent, so it is fitting that the Cathedral Archbasilica is the station church which initiates Holy Week. It has been today’s station since the latter part of the fourth century. The blessing of the palms and the procession have always been distinct from the stational Mass. In years past, however, the two rites were held in the cathedral of Rome with all the magnificence of the pontifical court.

Historically speaking, after Vespers today the Apostolic Major Penitentiary would sit on the cathedral throne. Then, as the penitents presented themselves before him, he would gently strike their heads with the virga (reed) as a sign of repentance. Through this act of the Church’s tribunal of mercy, those who were well-disposed (i.e. in a state of grace) were granted an indulgence.

Considering the liturgical season, perhaps a visit to the Lateran Baptistery would be fitting today. This baptistery was built in the time of Constantine (fourth century) and it served as the prototype of all Christian baptisteries in the first centuries. Sixtus III (432-440) restored it and, in part, transformed it. The interior is formed by a colonnade of eight porphyry columns, taken from the imperial palace, above which a row of smaller columns of white marble is imposed. The cupola is decorated with paintings depicting the life of John the Baptist. The circular basin below was used in ancient times for baptism by immersion. Around it, under the floor, the remains of a baptismal font now stand in the basin; the deer along the sides recalls Psalm 42: “As the deer yearns for running streams…”

The baptistery received its present appearance under Urban VIII (1623-1644). Some of the decorations include the fine large frescoes along the interior walls; they represent the Apparition of the Cross to Constantine; the Battle of Ponte Milvio; and the triumph of Constantine; the burning of heretical books on the steps of the Lateran; and the destruction of the idols.

The four chapels flanking the baptistery are exceptional. The first chapel on the right is that of St. John the Baptist with its fabulous “Singing Door” (not working in the wintertime). The second is the Chapel of Sts. Secunda and Rufina, occupying the original narthex. Notice its beautiful 4th century mosaic of acanthus leaves on a brilliant blue background. Ask to go through the door to see inside the grounds. The third chapel is that of St. Venantius with its 7th century mosaic, Michelangelo’s wooden ceiling, and the remains of the Roman mosaic pavement. Finally, the fourth chapel is that of St. John the Evangelist with its exquisite 5th century vault mosaic and its 12th century bronze door which once adorned the ancient residence of the popes.