THE GREAT PLACES: St. John Lateran: The Church standing erect

ROME. Because the media drama of the papacy often has St. Peter’s for its stage, many Catholics may not know that the Patriarchal Vatican Archbasilica isn’t the Pope’s cathedral. St. Peter’s belongs, in a sense, to the whole Church, and the Pope presides there as universal pastor of the Church. The Lateran Basilica—or, to give it its full name, the “Patriarchal Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and Evangelist”—is the Pope’s cathedral, the site of the cathedra of the Bishop of Rome.

Long styled as “mother and head of all churches in the city and the world,” the Lateran basilica was built by Constantine as a votum or thanksgiving offering for his victory over Augustus Maxentius, and consecrated by Pope St. Sylvester I in either 318 or 324. (The foundations of Constantine’s basilica were once the barracks of an elite Roman cavalry unit that had backed the wrong horse, so to speak, in Constantine’s struggle with Maxentius.) For some 900 years, the popes lived in the Lateran palace adjacent to the basilica. There, the special vocations of St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, and their followers were confirmed by Pope Innocent III; the palace now houses the Vicariate of Rome, the local diocesan administration. In the 15th century, the Lateran basilica was home to the first Jubilee “Holy Door,” symbolizing pilgrims passing from sin to grace—a tradition that has continued down to the Great Jubilee of 2000.

The most notable papal tombs in the Lateran basilica are those of Lotario de’Conti di Segni and Gioacchino Pecci, better known to history as Innocent III and Leo XIII. Thirty-seven years old when elected to the papacy in 1198, Lotario was already a noted canonist, theologian, and liturgist; during his papacy, Innocent III was Europe’s most powerful political figure, and a forceful exponent of the view that papal authority trumped that of kings and emperors. He died in Perugia a relatively young man, in 1216, on a mission that combined diplomacy with the spiritual renewal of northern Italy. Innocent’s tomb remained in Perugia until 1891 when Leo XIII (who had served as bishop of Perugia) brought it to the Lateran, where the greatest of medieval popes now rests in the arm of the basilica’s transept. Leo XIII is buried opposite, in the transept’s other arm—a papal memorial parallelism that prompts some thought.

When Pecci was elected pope in 1878, the papacy controlled no sovereign territory (the Papal States had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy); the pope was the “prisoner of the Vatican;” and many among the worldly wise imagined the Office of Peter a spent force in human affairs. (England’s Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, fearful of Italian interference in the conclave of 1878, proposed holding the papal election in Malta under the protective guns of the Royal Navy.) Yet Leo XIII’s 25-year pontificate saw the papacy begin to assert the kind of influence that would culminate in the pivotal role played by Pope John Paul II in the collapse of European communism and the liberation of central and eastern Europe. This was the power of moral argument and persuasion, and Leo XIII was its first successful modern papal exponent.

Sovereignty is important for the exercise of the papal office: in order to fulfill his mission as universal pastor of the Church, the Pope cannot be subject to any other sovereignty. So the Lateran Treaties of 1929, which created the Vatican City micro-state, were not unimportant. But just as important, and arguably more important, was Leo XIII’s assertion of the moral authority of the keys—the papal mandate to teach and persuade the nations, using the tools of both faith and reason.

In the Lateran, the statue of Innocent III lies recumbent upon his marble catafalque. The effigy of Leo XIII stands erect, boldly proclaiming the moral truths that make society possible. Leo, architect of the modern papacy, embodied the Church persuasive in life; fittingly, that is how he is sculpted in death.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.