Why Do Catholics Have Feast Days for Churches?
When you think of feast days throughout the liturgical year you probably often think of two different events, either a certain saint or an important moment in Jesus’ life, right? While that’s correct, you may have forgotten about another type of feast day Catholics celebrate, namely that of the dedication of a particular church.
The most common type of feast day you’re hopefully familiar with is for the saints, or the holy men and women who have preceded us in death and are now in heaven with God. St. Therese of Lisieux (Oct. 3), St. Patrick (March 17) and St. Cecilia (Nov. 22), are just a couple out of more than 10,000 officially canonized saints who the Church celebrates throughout the year. We have feasts like this all the time. The second type of feast day that you have heard of is the special life events of Jesus or saints such as the Virgin Mary. Christmas and Easter are some that immediately come to mind, when we celebrate the birth and resurrection of our Lord, respectively. Along those same lines are the Epiphany of the Wise Men (Jan.6) and the Baptism of the Lord (the first Sunday after the Epiphany). The Church also celebrates the Immaculate Conception of Mary (Dec. 8) and the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8).
However, there is another category of feast days that you don’t see very often and it the feast of buildings and chairs (yes, we have a feast celebrating the Chair of St. Peter February 22!). What I want to focus on are the feasts that celebrate buildings, like the Feast of the Dedication of John Lateran on November 9th. Why does the Church afford a feast day to a building? Let’s take a closer look.
First off, we are not actually having a feast day for the physical church building itself. Although we often simply refer to the feast as the Feast of the Basilica of John Lateran the actual name of the feast is the Dedication of the Basilica of John Lateran, which makes a difference. We are celebrating the event in Church history when this church was dedicated. Why is this particular church building so important in the life of the Church that we give it a feast?
The answer is quite simple: this ancient church is the cathedral for the Diocese of Rome. Many of us would think, quite naturally, that the cathedral of Rome is St. Peter’s Basilica. It certainly receives more visitors than St. John Lateran and the pope celebrates more masses there, including ones for the “big” occasions such as Christmas and Easter. If you were looking for a postcard featuring a Roman church, you’d likely seek out one featuring St. Peter’s. However, it remains that St. John Lateran is the cathedral of Rome. Along with St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls, it is also one of the four major basilicas of Rome
A cathedral is the church where the chair, or cathedra, of the bishop is located. Since the Pope is the Bishop of Rome, tracing all the way back to the first bishop, St. Peter, the Basilica of St. John Lateran is the “home parish” of all Roman Catholics. As such, the anniversary of its dedication is a feast day for the universal Church rather than just a commemoration for a local diocese.
So, what we are actually celebrating with the feast of the dedication of a particular building, in this case the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, isn’t the building itself (although it is very impressive), but rather our union with the bishop of Rome, the Holy Father.
Notably, Catholics also celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of our own cathedrals in our local dioceses. Just as the Pope is a sign of Catholic unity for the world, our local bishops are a sign of Catholic unity for the diocese. This is also why, in the Eucharistic prayer, we pray for the pope and for our local bishop.
So, as we go through the liturgical calendar, remember that we celebrate not only saints and life events of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, but also the physical Body of Christ on earth- the Church. We celebrate our unity through celebrating the dedication of our cathedrals- both the head cathedral in the world, St. John Lateran, and the cathedrals in our own dioceses.
Do some research of your own and find out what the anniversary of the dedication of your diocesan cathedral and home parish is. And don’t forget to mark the occasion by going to mass there -- or at least stopping by for a prayer of thanksgiving to God for our churches and our universal Church.