The Bishop of Rome and the river of life

By: By Father Douglas Grandon

Feast of the Dedication of the
Lateran Basilica in Rome, Nov. 9

Ezekiel 47:1-2,8-9,12; Psalm 46:2-3,5-6,8-9; 1 Corinthians 3:9c-11,16-17; John 2:13-22

In the year 311, the Edict of Toleration decriminalized Christianity, bringing an end to the long, bloody era of anti-Christian persecution. In 313, the Edict of Milan further secured Christian freedom and mandated the return of meeting places and other properties earlier confiscated from Christians.

Soon after, Emperor Constantine commissioned the construction of the world’s first Christian basilica on property formerly owned by the Laterani family. (A basilica is a building shaped like our cathedral in Peoria.) In 324, Pope Sylvester dedicated the Lateran Basilica, the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome and the ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome. Inscribed in the basilica’s door are the words “Most Holy Lateran Church, the mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.”

In this week’s first reading the prophet Ezekiel describes a vision in which he saw the Jerusalem temple rebuilt according to divine specifications. (The first temple had been destroyed by invaders from Babylon, where Ezekiel was then living as a slave in exile.)

An angel led the prophet on a tour of the sacred enclosure. At the entrance to the temple, Ezekiel noticed a trickle of water. Flowing eastward, the water grew steadily deeper — rising first to the ankles, then to the knees and waist. Finally achieving the depth and force of a river, it irrigated the desert before enlivening the Dead Sea. The angel informed Ezekiel, “Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live. . . . Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade nor their fruit fail . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.”

I treasure those holy moments each morning when, celebrating Mass, I withdraw from the hustle and bustle, the pressures and anxieties, the comings and goings of my mundane existence. It is there, in the sanctuaries of our churches, where the life-transforming water of life flows. As Ezekiel’s tiny stream flowed from the threshold of the temple and become a great river, so the grace of the Eucharist multiplies exponentially as it reverberates from our sanctuaries.

Father Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was a Catholic convert (the son of an Anglican bishop!) and one of the most eloquent English priests of his time. His insightful application of Ezekiel 47 is worth quoting at length:

“The Mass is not just that shallow trickle . . . of your pious thoughts, your own aspirations to be made one with Christ. It is already a mountain torrent, swirling round your knees and bidding you be careful not to lose your footing.

“But is that all? No absent friends come into the picture too. The priest is not allowed to offer the sacrifices merely for himself and for the congregation. He tells God that he is offering it for the bystanders themselves and also for their intentions on behalf of other people. The people who were too old or to ill to go to Mass, the people who were too busy to go to Mass, even the people who could go to Mass but for some reason didn’t go to Mass, all form part of the shadow family that is gathered around the Lord’s table.

“When you begin to remember that . . . you find that the stream is flowing waist high, breast high. . . . The Mass is no longer your Mass, as you fondly thought of it; the church is crowded to suffocation with all the people who might be there, you and they are struggling to get to heaven together, helping one another on . . .

“The priest doesn’t simply recall before God the needs of the people who are there in church, and the needs of the people they are interested in; you suddenly find that this Mass, your Mass, is being offered for all faithful people, all over the world. . . . The walls of the church seem to enlarge, the altar, instead of being a few feet away, becomes a mere speck in the distance; it isn’t a church any longer, it’s the Church that bounds your horizon, and what is happening is not a Mass, it’s the Mass, the one sacrifice that is going on all over the world. . . . Your family worship is not merely that of the parish; it’s the worship of the whole Christian family. . . .”

And who is the father of that common family? We pray for him during the Mass — “Benedict, our pope.” This Sunday, as we celebrate the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, we celebrate our communion with the Bishop of Rome and the great river flowing from his altar. As the psalmist observed, “The waters of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High.”

Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline and assistant director of catechetics for the Diocese of Peoria.

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