WDTPRS: Dedication of the Lateran (1962MR)

Here is some of my article for the paper:

What Does the Prayer Really Say?   Dedication of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (1962 Missale Romanum)

This last week I had the privilege of attending the consecration of Old St. Patrick Church in Kansas City, Missouri.  The church was entrusted to the Institute of Christ the King by the bishop there His Excellency Most Reverend Robert Finn, who also performed the consecration of the church with the traditional Pontificale Romanum and then celebrated Pontifical Mass.

Never had I experienced such a rite.  The power of the rites of consecration, with its deep symbolism and appeal to all the senses was overwhelming.  I have been to consecrations of churches in the newer, post-Conciliar rites.   They are anemic in comparison.  There was for me an epiphany moment during the mysterious five-hour rite. As I watched the incense burn directly on the surface of the newly anointed altar at the five crosses symbolizing Christ’s saving wounds, the fragrant smoke curled upward and spread into a haze, as if the angel of the Apocalypse was present. The smell of the sacred chrism grew stronger with each breath and the schola began to sing “Veni Sancte Spiritus… Come Holy Spirit”.  Then there was silence until the last of the incense burned away. The flames died, growing smaller and smaller, as if sinking into the altar’s mensa.  Bishop Finn prayed:

“Almighty God, in whose honor and that of St. Patrick we do consecrate this altar, graciously and mercifully give ear to our humble prayers… that at all times, Thou mayest be moved to relieve the anxieties of Thy people who shall call on Thee in this place, to hear their prayers, to accept their vows, to strengthen their good purposes, to grant whatsoever they ask…”

I asked myself: “What have we done?”

As we saw last week, with the older, traditional Roman calendar, during this time of year we are using the texts from Sundays remaining un-prayed between Epiphany and Septuagesima, in order to complete the liturgical year.  This week we would be turning our attention to the Collect for this 26th Sunday after Pentecost, the texts for which are revived from the 5th Sunday remaining after Epiphany.  However, that Sunday is displaced by the Feast of the Dedication of the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior, which is the Cathedral of Rome, commonly called St. John Lateran.  The texts for today’s Mass are taken from the Common for the Dedication of Church. 

This is the day the Cathedral of Rome was solemnly consecrated. 

The full name of the Lateran Basilica is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior, St. John Baptist and St. John the Evangelist at the Lateran. Its titular feast is celebrated on the Transfiguration of the Lord.   But the Church also provides for the solemn celebration of the day the church was dedicated or consecrated.  Since the Lateran Basilica is “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput… the Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and the World”, its dedication is a feast everywhere, not just in Rome. 

This basilica is one of the most important churches in Christendom.  The original basilica was constructed by the Emperor Constantine.  It is the ancient place of baptism for the Church of Rome.  The Bishop of Rome’s cathedra is there.  Since the earliest times it is the station church for many important moments in the Roman calendar.  The Pope celebrates the Holy Thursday Masses here.

As mentioned, Holy Church celebrates solemnly the day when a church is “born”.  Just as every person has a “name day” and a “birthday”, so too a church. When a church is dedicated or consecrated, the bishop anoints the walls with sacred chrism – used also at ordinations and certain other consecrations – dedicating it to God and a saint or mystery of the Faith.  The celebration of the dedication recalls the sanctity of the place, which as a consecrated building has been removed from the temporal order and given entirely to God, as well as the symbolism of its material elements.  Church buildings should be rich in sacred symbols, which includes a sanctuary with its altar, the sacred space within the sacred space, mirroring the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem.  In fact, the prayers for the solemn consecration of a church, especially in the older, traditional Roman Rite, connect the earthly church building to the heavenly Jerusalem of the life to come, beautifully described in Scriptures, especially in the Book of Revelations.

The rite of consecration and the annual feast of its dedication reflect that the church building is a house of prayer and the place of sacrifice.   It is a foreshadowing of the heavenly Jerusalem.  It is the microcosm of the Church Universal, the nuptial chamber of the Spouse and the Bride, the way to Calvary, the Garden of the Tomb.  Very often on over the doors of old churches you find the phrase “House of God and Gate of Heaven”. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob awakes from his vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder betwixt heaven and earth, “And trembling he said: How terrible is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven.”  Terribilis est locus iste!”  This is the opening chant for the Mass of Dedication of a Church. 

A church must reflect its awesome purpose.  It is a place where the soul peers through the cleft in the rock at God’s back as He passes by (Exodus 33), searches for the beloved in the palace (Song of Songs), or gazes through the dark mirror (1 Cor 13).  This is where the soul simultaneously expands in worship while shrinking back in awe at mystery.  When Pope Sylvester dedicated the Basilica in 324, he called it the “House of God”.  Though it has been destroyed several times in fires and earthquakes, and rebuilt, it remains always the Domus Dei and this is its day.

The rite of consecration and texts of the dedication feast recall that, not just the building, but the Christian’s soul belongs to God and is to be holy.  The consecration of the church building is much like a baptism.  There is an exorcism with specially blessed water, called “Gregorian Water”, a mixture of ash, salt, water, wine used only is special purifications of churches and altars.  There is a clothing of the altar with its baptismal robes.  There is the anointing with chrism, as in a confirmation, which in the ancient world was connected to the baptism ceremony. There is the lighting of candles and solemn placement at the points where the walls are anointed with chrism.  At the beginning of the traditional rite of baptism, the one to be baptized is interrogated, “What do you seek?” He responds, “Faith” (not “Baptism” as in the post-Conciliar ritual).  Then, “What will Faith give you?” “Eternal life”, he says.  A church must reflect in every way not only the splendor of the faith which is God’s gift, enabling us to embrace what is mysterious, but also the goal of faith: eternal life.  A church which reflects something other than the purpose of this earthly life, salvation in the heavenly kingdom, a church which does not reflect the splendors of our Catholic Faith has essentially failed in its purpose.

Deus qui nobis per singulos annos
huius sancti templi tui consecrationis reparas diem,
et sacris semper mysteriis repraesentas incolumes:
exaudi preces populi tui, et praesta;
ut, quisquis hoc templum beneficia petiturus ingreditur,
cuncta se impetrasse laetetur.

Today’s prayer is found in the ancient Liber sacramentorum Romanae ecclesiae ordine excarpsus as well as in the 8th century Liber sacramentorum Engolismensis. The first part of this Collect survived the redactors of the Novus Ordo to live on in the Church’s prayer life in the Mass for the Dedication of a Church.  But those tailors of the Consilium stitched together the rest of it. 

Our fabulous Lewis & Short Dictionary lets us know that reparo means “to get, acquire, or procure again; to recover, retrieve; to restore, repair, renew”.  Incolumis is “unimpaired, uninjured, unharmed, safe, sound, entire, whole”.  “Impetrasse” is one of those shortened or “syncopated” forms, an abbreviation of impetravisse, the perfect infinitive of impetro, “to accomplish, effect, bring to pass; to get, obtain, procure, esp. by exertion, request, entreaty”.  One the other hand “petiturus” is the future participle of peto, “to beg, beseech, ask, request, desire, entreat” or “to endeavor to obtain or pursue, to seek, strive after any thing”.  Although peto and impetro look from that –pet– to be related etymologically, impetro is from the root patro, an ancient term in Roman ritual texts, related to pater, “father”.  Repraesento is “to bring before one, to bring back; to show, exhibit, display, manifest, represent”.  A beneficium is “a benefaction, kindness, favor, benefit, service”.  In this context we might want to translate a beneficium as “a grace”, because our divine benefactor freely gives them to us without merits of our own.

O God, who each year renew for us
the day of the consecration of this Your holy temple,
and return us unharmed to it again by means of always sacred mysteries:
graciously hear the prayers of Your people, and grant;
that, whosoever enters this temple seeking graces,
will enjoy all the things he sought.

Trying to figure out the function of incolumes gives us the key to how to interpret representas.  I take incolumes as referring to a nos which isn’t there, thus making it the object of representas.  Pairing it with annos doesn’t make sense to me.  Thus, in the first part God is renew a historic day present to us (nobis) but then He returns us, “safe” ([nos] incolumes),  to it.

This prayer gives us the impression of time in a sacramental or liturgical sense. 

In the material world time is the measure of change.  Our perception of it shifts.  Time flows along inexorably, one second, minute, day, year after another, now slower now faster.  In sacramental terms, however, time is mysterious.  The sacred mysteries make events far away, long ago in historical terms, truly present here and now.  Sacramental expressions of saving mysteries make us present to them, though they happened long ago, and them to us, though we are here and not where they occurred. 

Ironically, this coming Sunday as I write is in the USA the date arbitrarily set for us to our turn clocks back an hour, move from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time.  This doesn’t jar us at all these days, unless we forget and wind up at church at the wrong hour on Sunday.  But in the prayer today, the priest is acknowledging that something tremendous, in the sense of awesome and frightening, is just at perception’s edge.  The priest acknowledges that we (a nos which isn’t there) are incolumes: “safe and sound” as the French dictionary of liturgical Latin Blaise/Dumas puts it.  In science fiction shows we often watch the protagonist prevent the villain, sometimes a nameless force, from doing naughty things to the flow of time, or tear the universe apart.  Characters who go back in time avoid wiping everything they know out of existence because they pick the wrong flower or influence a person who would change history, or the future as the case may be.

Today’s prayer describes how God makes the past and the present merge.  But our mysterious prayer also describes how, even now, we are present to the realities awaiting us at the end of time.  The historic dedication day of a particular church is made present, as if we in this sacred place have been transported back to it or it has been moved up to us, but we also taste the fruits of the heavenly Jerusalem to come.

No wonder the priest marvels in the prayer that we are “safe” even though we are in the midst of this mysterious tornado of time and space called Holy Mass in the consecrated Holy of Holies, one of God’s churches.

Anyone who enters this sacramental time bender, this sacred space called a church, may pray with terrified confidence that his petitions, foreseen by God from before the creation of the cosmos, will in the hereafter be granted because the fruits once won for us by Christ, the true Actor in the liturgy, which will be brought to fruition only at the end of time. 

Does walking into your church give you a sense of the sacred?  Does it bring you closer to an encounter with the author of time and space?

Please share!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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13 Responses to WDTPRS: Dedication of the Lateran (1962MR)

  1. John Enright says:

    Outstanding article, Fr. Z!

  2. David says:

    WOW! Thank you, Father!

  3. Andreas says:

    If I may add something to this, tua pace, Pater:

    One might even consider the “incolumis” being aptly used on this day since the origin of that word (incolumis) is said to be connected with “columen” (roof, support, etc.) so that “aedes incolumes” are buildings well supported that do not totter.

  4. Father Z: Thanks especially for that interesting unpacking of the third line of this collect. Each of my several old and new hand missals at hand renders it like

    “and continuest to bring us in safely to Thy sacred mysteries”

    rather than to it by means of those sacred mysteries.

  5. Reminder: I don’t permit “anonymous” comments.

  6. Henry: Thanks. There are various ways we can render these prayers. I am picking up on what I hear in repraesento with an invisible nos with incolumes as the object.

  7. Reginald Pole says:

    Father, could the missing understood word be nobis instead of nos “and return it to us unharmed again”?

  8. Andreas: Interesting. Your thinking falls along the lines of St. Isidore, who makes a connection of incolumis with columna, -ae, f.   However, it seems that incolumis probably goes back to a form which we have to theorize from an accusative used by Plautus in Tri. 743, that is *columis = saluus.  (For those who don’t hang out with dictionaries very often, the “*” in a dictionary usually indicates a theoretical form, one which the experts posit must have existed, but for which we have no concrete attestation).  So, I don’t think that incolumis really connects to columen, -inis n.  But what you proposes is agile!

  9. David Andrew says:

    Once again, Fr. Z, I received my intellectual and spiritual edification not from my own pastor (or in my case this weekend, the deacon, whose turn it was to preach) but from you.

    Our weak soup was a 15-minute description of us, we ourselves, as living stones that make up the physical church. I know that this is certainly a part of the theology, but why is it that time and again we hear preaching that talks not about God and the mysteries of the Faith, but rather we’re subjected to a tortured exercise in syllopsism?

    God bless you, Fr. Z, and all you do!

  10. Maureen says:

    The 1st reading today, from Ezekiel, was a really favorite one with the early Christians. They felt that we Christians are the “all kinds of fish” swimming in the water that flows from the Temple, the water that makes the saltwater of the world fresh.

    Our priest talked about the water of baptism and sprinkled us, but no little fishies!

  11. Grettelyn says:

    I only wish I could have grown up with this knowledge! If only all Catholics knew what a church aught to be. We continue to pray for that day… In the meantime, thank you, Father.

  12. Andreas says:

    Fr. Z:

    I got the idea (and it is pushing it, for sure, well beyond what’s explicitly stated in the said prayer) from “incolumis” here:


    Specifically the first sentence that reads: “videtur aedium epitheton primum fuisse, quatenus COLUMINE (my caps) suo continentur.”

  13. Charivari Rob says:

    “Does walking into your church give you a sense of the sacred? Does it bring you closer to an encounter with the author of time and space?”


    At least to a certain extent.

    I’ve been fortunate that in the two places I’ve lived most of my life, there have been beautiful (IMO) parish churches that contribute to the sense of the sacred, especially when one takes the time to contemplate what they represent.

    My hometown parish had (and has) a simple country church building with beautiful stained glass windows depicting the saints and/or gospel scenes. In the church at my current parish, the nave is lined with windows depicting saints, the massive east window above the old altar has many smaller panels depicting the Passion and the large windows at the ends of the transcepts similarly have small panels of scriptural themes/scenes.

    Obviously, stained glass doesn’t make the place sacred in and of itself. I simply find that it can contribute to recognizing the sacred. Stained glass that portrays something fairly explicit, that is. Personally, I don’t have the same experience with windows that are more subtle representations of themes (or are simply stained glass for the sake of having ‘stained glass’). In that last case, it contributes by letting in light and screening out distractions – a particular benefit in urban settings. I’ve been in several rural churches that give a sense of the sacred by use of clear glass – allowing one to see the beauty of God’s Creation all around.

    At the same time, there is a risk, a lure of complacency in considering only the place that can dull the sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred is (in part) what you bring with you.

    I’m thinking mostly (but not exclusively) of the Mass, at this point. I’ve had a sense of the sacred in some of the most informal, improvised, unadorned settings (carnival tents, the living room of my college’s Newmann House, my high school’s modest chapel – to name a few) that I’ve never had in the grandest or most beautiful churches. I think it comes from resisting the tempation to see the Mass as (merely) routine, appointment, obligation, etc… to be relegated to a certain time and place in our week. In those other settings and circumstances, the sense of the sacred was something we sought out to find, create, recognize and enshrine at the particular place and moment.