Last Sunday, November 9 we celebrated the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran as well as the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since then I have been pondering the meaning of these two celebrations happening on the same day. Their coinciding seemed fortuitous the more I thought about it.
The Lateran Basilica was built after the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early 4th C. It was dedicated as the Cathedral Church of Rome by Pope Sylvester I on November 9, 324. As such it is the mother church not only of all Catholics in Rome but even of all Catholics throughout the world. A small Latin inscription on the Lateran’s façade affirms that the “Most Holy Lateran Church, is mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.” The world-wide observance of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica is a celebration of our unity as Catholics gathered around the successor of Peter, Pope Francis. Thus the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s Cathedral stands as a permanent reminder of our unity.
By contrast, the Berlin Wall represented division. After World War II Germany was divided between the former Soviet Union on the one hand and Great Britain, France and The United States on the other hand. This division between West Germany and East Germany became starker as time passed. On August 12, 1961 the East German Communist leadership ordered that a barrier be built in order to prevent Berliners to cross between East Berlin and West Berlin. For almost three decades this wall symbolized the divisions between the West and the East Block countries. On June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan famously challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" On November 9, 1989 Berliners from both sides took matters in their own hands and started tearing down the wall with their bare hands, in effect re-uniting Germany.
Since that great day on which unity triumphed many new walls, either physical or figurative have been erected throughout the world. The human race seems more divided than ever as race, creed, economics, education, gender, sexuality, and so much more sets us apart from one another. Even within the Catholic Church we have managed to build walls and depending on whether you pass one litmus test or another you are either in or you are out.
I am reminded of a recent photo someone took of my siblings and myself. Though there is a striking resemblance between all of us, there are also great differences. Like most families we are bound together by blood but are very diverse in most everything we do, we believe, we hope and strive for. Never-the-less, we stick together, if not celebrating, at least appreciating or sometimes just tolerating one another’s difference. Our families are a micro-cosmos of the macro-cosmos which is the human race. There are many similarities between all of us and there are many differences, yet we stick together and learn how to celebrate not only our similarities but also our differences.
Thus, taking President Regan’s words to a new level let’s tear down the walls that separate us on so many levels. And let’s imitate Pope Francis, our Pontifex Maximus or Great Bridge Builder and start building bridges from person to person, from community to community until one day all of us, no matter who we are will feel welcomed by everyone else so Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” finally come true.
A fortuitous coincidence of celebrations, indeed.