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Saint John Lateran, “mater et caput” (Mother and Head) of all the Churches in the world?

Published: November 12 Tue, 2019

Saint John Lateran, “mater et caput” (Mother and Head) of all the Churches in the world? Available in the following languages:

JERUSALEM – Last November 9, in accordance with the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar, the celebration of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome and the oldest basilica of the West, was celebrated. This church has a striking Latin inscription on its facade where it is called “Mater et Caput” of all the churches in the world. But is it so?

The Latin inscription carved on a marble plaque of the facade of the Lateran Basilica “Omnium Urbis and Orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput” should not make room for too many doubts. Indeed, so says this writing that defines the Church of Saint Giovanni in Lateran “mother and head of all the churches of Rome and the rest of the world.” And yet, in Jerusalem, one might take exception. If, in fact, the title of “Head” of all the churches does not seem questionable to the Roman Basilica, on the contrary it is something unconvincing to Church of Jerusalem regarding the title “Mother”.

The title of “Caput”

The expression “Caput” would designate the guiding role of the Lateran Basilica which, being the Cathedral of Rome, the Pope’s diocese, plays an apical function among the Churches of the rest of the world. In fact, in St. John Lateran there is the Papal Chair, from the Greek “καθέδρα” (kathedra), which means a “place where one sits”, a material symbol of the teaching and magisterium of the Bishop of Rome.

Recognizing the role of “leader” in this Church is therefore a question logically connected to the particular pre-eminence that the Pope has in the Catholic Church, a prerogative that derives from being the successor of the apostle Peter, on whom Christ conferred the task of Pastor of the Universal Church (Mt 16:18). According to tradition, Peter in the last years of his life would have supported the community of Rome, becoming, as is known, the first bishop.

The title of “Mater”

Less clear, or at least an object of historical-ecclesiological question, is the role of the designation “mater”. In what sense is a church “mother”? And why should St. John Lateran consider itself to be such with respect to, for example, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem?

“Mother Church” commonly means a Church on which other Churches depend, or even a church that has a hierarchical superiority over the others. Furthermore, according to various sources, for the “mother” or “matrix” church, it could mean the Church at the center of a civil and religious territorial district to which, at the time of the High Middle Ages, some liturgical functions were reserved, such as the possibility of officiating at baptisms.

However, there is another more semantically precise meaning of “mother”, which seems to prevail over the others and whose adoption would do justice to the Basilica of the Resurrection of Christ in relation to the recognition of its role as Mater Ecclesiarum. The Christian community of Jerusalem, in fact, has always believed that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is “Mother” of all the churches of the world because it generates all the others. Given that the apostles began the evangelization of the Earth from here, the Church of Jerusalem (in the sense of community) could not but be a Mother. Ultimately, therefore, it is the generating function that, in this sense, clears the field of any misunderstanding:

The Omnium Orbis Ecclesiarum Mater is the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem!

Filippo De Grazia