The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Even Basilicas Have a Back Pew
Last week I attended mass with the school children in a small church in suburban Baltimore. St. Augustine’s had as its pastor for two years St. John Neumann CSSR prior to his being named Bishop of Philadelphia. In the small, historical church contemporary school children gathered with grandparents, a few parents and myself filling in the last two pews.
I enjoyed a 3-year-old a few seats in front of me who knelt on the seat with her back to the altar unashamedly studying two 5th grade boys behind her. They calmly endured her gaze. Occasionally one of the boys pointed to the sanctuary, encouraging her to turn around. She didn’t and finally pointed her finger at them! The 7th grade girls who read practiced before mass. Although close to being overcome with nervousness, when the moment came they rose to the occasion and read beautifully. The pastor engaged the children during his homily with questions. Only the very little ones were up for answers. How masterful was the pastor at discovering good answers in their replies. The communion procession was lovely, as was the singing, and of all things, the leaving of church. The children left happy, some hand in hand with their older schoolmates.
What has stayed in my mind since sharing in that beautiful Eucharist is something about learning. All of the children were learning. I realized I was also, although I was at church by chance while visiting to celebrate a golden anniversary of priesthood. Yes, 50 years and still learning.
Today we are celebrating the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The baptismal font in its octagonal chapel describes the newly baptized as baby fish swimming through the waters of life. Filled with the Holy Spirit, anointed with the perfumed oil of chrism to honor their new dignity, the new little fish are entrusted with a great commission as followers of the Risen One: You are other Christs! See Christ in yourself, see Christ in others, love as Christ loves. We are learners from the beginning.
St. John Chrysostom describes the newly baptized by comparing us to the church.
Before baptism we are like a ramshackle, falling apart building, a place of chaos and danger. But after baptism we are beautiful, a place of welcome and gracious hospitality. Paul can say that our foundation is Jesus, nothing else. Each of us builds upon that foundation. “The temple of God is holy, and you are that temple”.
God loves us and wants intimacy with us. God wants to be part of our lives, share with us, come close. And we seek to fulfill the desire we have for God, as Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”.
Prayer is God’s gift to us and brings us into the presence of God. And in the center of it all there is the Table of Bounteous Blessing that groans under the weight of what God sets before us, teaching and nourishing us so we grow and learn – so ordinary, so simple, so reverent, awesome, human and hilarious. Sit in the back pew and watch. We can learn so much.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is a member of Immaculate Conception Community in Jamaica, New York.