The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the official seat of the papacy, the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, the highest ranking church in all of Catholicism. Yet it takes a back seat to the far more famous St. Peter’s Basilica some four kilometers away in Vatican City, a strange fate considering both its historical significance and status as top dog on the ecclesiastical pecking order. Perhaps this is a reflection of the evolution of the papacy over the centuries or of changing artistic taste. St. Peter’s reflect the glories of the Italian Renaissance and peak of papal influence in European affairs, while St. John Lateran speaks to an earlier medieval time when a nascent Europe was still emerging from the ruins of ancient Rome.
The archbasilica is built over the ancient stables of the imperial cavalry bodyguard of the Roman Empire, whereas St. Peter’s stands upon the tomb of the great saint himself. There is no “St. John Lateran,” the named derived from the two Johns of the New Testament (the Baptist and the Evangelist, neither of whom ever visited the site), while the Laterani were the family that once owned the land and served as consuls to several emperors.
The original church dates to the fourth century when Constantine donated the Laterani estate to the papacy and served as the home of the popes well into the Middle Ages. The church fell into disrepair while the pre-Reformation papacy set up shop in Avignon and has never really regained its former glory. When the Renaissance popes returned to Rome, it was decided to build a grand new church over the old St. Peter’s on Vatican Hill for their use.
Despite the loss in prestige, St. John Lateran remains one of the most stunning churches in the Catholic world. Extensive renovations over the centuries beginning in the Baroque era have restored the magnificence of its earlier incarnation, even if the modern popes prefer to walk over to St. Peter’s rather than ride over to St. John’s. The church also sits outside of Vatican City, which really doesn’t mean much except for the novelty of standing in the world’s smallest state. Yet there is a surprise here that nothing in Vatican City can match.
On the grounds of St. John Lateran sits a small building that holds the Scala Sancta, the Sacred Steps. These were the stairs that led to the praetorian of Pontius Pilate in ancient Jerusalem, the stairs that Jesus Christ ascended when he was brought before Pilate in the Passion narrative of the Gospels. The stairs were brought to Rome by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, during his reign and have been a haven for pilgrims ever since. These are not steps to walk on, but rather to kneel on in devout prayer as one slowly climbs them knee-by-knee in imitation of the journey of Christ. Don’t worry, there are stairwells on either side for weary-kneed visitors who prefer an alternative means of ascent. St. Peter’s may be more famous today, but St. John’s remains a place of awe and reverence for pilgrim and traveler alike.