The sovereign state of Vatican City is not completely contained within its walls. There are a few buildings scattered around Rome, and just outside, which were given extraterritorial status in the Lateran Treaty of 1927. It's basically the same as a foreign embassy- it is under the jurisdiction of its sovereign state(Vatican City) within the territory of another (Italy). Among these are three basilicas: St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls. They, along with St. Peter's, make up the four 'major basilicas' - the highest church status possible.
As you can probably tell by the name, St. Paul Outside the Walls was a little ways away from us, so we only ventured to the other two, starting with St. Mary Major. This is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary - hence the "major." Its construction began back in the 420s, which is even more amazing because it is the only one of the four basilica maior that retains its original structure. Sure, there have been many renovations and much rebuilding over time - most notably after the great earthquake of 1348 - but its core remains unaltered.
Walking in was such a different experience than Saint Peter's. For starters, there was no line. People observed the request for silence and no flash photography. It was quite big and really beautiful, but I think it struck us as especially lovely because of the serenity. It felt holier, somehow and more ancient. A single stained glass circular window shone sunlight into the long, rectangular space. In one of the side chapels, a man in a Lenten-purple robe presided over a hushed mass to a handful of worshipers.
Don't get me wrong, though. The basilica was definitely not quaint. In fact, to call it palatial would be particularly fitting, as it was actually the Palace of Popes for a short time after the papacy returned to Rome (from Avignon). A large canopy structure stood at the front altar, similar to the one at Saint Peter's and the wall behind it was covered in an enormous golden mosaic. The details were all amazing and even without having to shuffle behind a tour group or wait our turn to take a peek at certain things, we found ourselves moving around slowly, attempting to take it all in.In another side chapel was the oldest image of Mary in Rome, which we were not allowed to photograph. Legend has it that Luke the Evangelist painted it himself out of wood from a table from the Nazareth family home. (Which I'd assume would have been built by Joseph. He was a carpenter, right?) Part of what makes a basilica 'major' is its status as a pilgrimage site for Catholics, specifically during a Jubilee year. That means, every 25 years pilgrims from all around the world flock to Rome to visit the four major basilica. After walking through the Holy Door of each (sealed shut any time other than a jubilee year) all their sins are forgiven. I can imagine that Luke's image of Mary is a particularly amazing sight for each visitor.
Then, we walked over to Saint John Lateran - the single most important church in the Roman Catholic faith, the "ecumenical mother church" or "mother church of the whole inhabited world." The only person who is allowed to conduct mass here is the pope himself, or someone specifically chosen by him. One priest who almost certainly cannot is Nicolas Sarkozy. The French president holds honorary priest status at this basilica, a tradition which started with King Henry IV and has survived longer than the monarchy itself.
I'm not sure the average Christian knows that Saint John Lateran is actually more important than Saint Peter's because, again, it was stunningly empty. Also like Saint Mary Major, those inside remained quiet and reverent. This was the first basilica to be deemed 'major,' so in that sense, it is the oldest. However, not much of the original structure or its original treasures remain. Most of the current basilica, including its facade are relatively new. Of course, I'm speaking in Rome terms here, so by 'new' I mean the 1700s.
The first version of Saint John was so splendid that it garnered the nickname "The Golden Basilica." That was just asking for trouble, and in the 5th century, it was heavily looted. I can say that it is quite golden once more. We couldn't help but notice that five different organs were present. Each one of them was gorgeous, but this was our favorite. I'm not sure why there is such a collection, but in my current state of church-fatigue, it made Saint John Lateran stand out.
It felt especially nice, on our final day in Vatican City, to feel like we had space to move around. We felt like we had both basilicas almost to ourselves. Another jubilee year occurs in 2025 and part of me is curious how transformed the spaces become when filled to the brim.
Fun fact: Saint John Lateran actually honors both John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. In case you were wondering.