Of Rome's great papal basilicas, the Vatican Basilica, St. Peter's, gets the most tourist attention. Among Romans, the "Liberian" Basilica of Saint Mary Major on the Esquiline Hill is said to be the most locally popular. Yet primary among them in rank, and senior to them all in age, is the Lateran Basillica, the Archbasilica of Our Savior, more commonly called St. John Lateran, which enjoys the status of Rome's "cathedral" church and hence has inscribed on its facade Omnium Urbis et Orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput ("Mother and head of all the Churches of the City and the World").
Accordingly, tomorrow, the new Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis will formally "take possession" of his cathedral church. Actually, as Bishop Luca Brandolini, Vicar Capitular of the Lateran Basilica, pointed out in a recent interview, tomorrow’s celebration is really not so much about "taking possession" but is rather better (and more traditionally) understood in terms of the ancient rite of "enthronement on the Roman Chair." The Bishop’s Chair (cathedra) is the sign of a Bishop’s teaching office and ministry as pastor of a particular church and is what specifies a cathedral as opposed to any other church (e.g., your ordinary parish church). Accordingly, the Cathedral Chair of Rome represents the Bishop of Rome’s teaching office and ministry as pastor – first of all, of course, in Rome itself, but also (as a consequence of the unique relationship between Rome and the Apostle Peter and the Bishop of Rome’s role as Successor of Peter) the Pope's unique and necessary teaching office and ministry as universal pastor for the whole Church. As Bishop Brandolini noted, tomorrow’s celebration “spotlights the exquisitely ecclesiological root, placed by the providence of God, in the Church of Rome, from which springs, in fact, the Petrine ministry.” In short, it expresses ritually the unity of the Church across time and space through the Bishop of Rome's unique connection with Saint Peter and the communion of all the local Churches with each other through their common connection with the Church of Rome.
Across the piazza from the Lateran is a modern statue of St. Francis of Assisi and his companions, representing their joy as they caught sight of that venerable church - the same church which Pope Innocent III in his dream supposedly saw Francis holding up to prevent its collapse - another obvious symbolic identification of the Church of Rome with the Universal Church.
The Lateran ceremony will be shown on TV tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. EDT.