Part of an ongoing series on canonical life.
When Constantine the Great had brought peace to the Church and she began to enjoy the liberty after which she had yearned for three centuries, the Emperor had many churches built in diverse locations, principally at Rome. Among these churches, the one that not only holds the first rank in the City but is also recognized as the mother of all the churches of the world, is the one he built on the Palace of the Empress Fausta, his wife, previously named the House of the Lateran, from the name of the Roman Senator Plautius Lateranus, whom the Emperor Nero had killed as one of the leaders of the conspiracy formed against him in the year 65. Constantine gave this Palace to St. Sylvester and had a church built there that was called from his name Constantinianum, otherwise known as the Church of the Savior, because while St. Sylvester was in the midst of dedicating it, the image of the Savior of the world appeared over the wall: and since the Emperor caused a Baptistry to be built close to this church where he placed the image of St. John, the name of St. John Lateran was also given to it, which has remained, though that of St. Savior is the true name. The popes have always recognized it as their cathedral and after St. Sylvester they all made their residence at the Palace of the Lateran, with the exception of two or three, until the time when the Holy See was transferred to Avignon: Gregory XI having returned to Rome as, since after seventy years of absence this palace had fallen nearly into ruin, the Sovereign Pontiffs made their residence thenceforth at the Vatican.
Some hold that St. Sylvester established in the Church of the Lateran a community of clerics living in common, but there is no evidence that any such community existed before St. Leo I. He, around the year 440, appointed Gelasius, who was later one of his successors and had been a disciple of St. Augustine, to reform the clerics of this Church and make them live according to the Rules that this great Doctor of the Church prescribed for his church at Hippo and which contain nothing different from what the Apostles and first faithful in Jerusalem had practiced.
The Canons of the Lateran lived for many years under the observance of the Apostolic Canons; but since laxity had been introduced little by little among them, Alexander II, who had been a canon of St. Fridianus of Lucca, brought in Canons of this Congregation in the year 1061 to reform the church of the Lateran, and having assembled a council at Rome in the year 1063, where the matter of the reform of canons was treated, he bound the canons of the Lateran to everything that had been ordained by this council. He also named this church the head of many houses of canons who depended upon it, and which together formed a Congregation that henceforth took the name of Lateran and were separated from that of St. Fridianus of Lucca.
Boniface VIII, having been elevated to the Chair of St. Peter in 1294, obliged them to cede their place to Seculars. This Congregation died out some time later, having lost all the monasteries it possessed, some being secularized and others having been given to other orders. The Canons Regular were re-established 150 years later in the Church of the Lateran by Eugene IV, who brought in some canons of the Fridinian Congregation or that of Santa Maria Forisportam , and desired that it be called thenceforth St. Savior of the Lateran.
The Church of Santa Maria Forisportam was built by St. Fridianus, bishop of Lucca, three miles from the City. It had always been served by the Canons, who were once commendable for their sanctity of life: but they had become entirely corrupt by the 13th century and one could scarcely find a trace of the Regular Discipline in the monastery, when Bartholomew Colonna of the ancient family of Colonna in Italy, laid the foundations of a new reform under the Pontificate of Boniface IX in the year 1401. In a short time this Congregation became considerable, and Dom Bartholomew, before his death, had the consolation of seeing already 15 monasteries in union with it.
The establishment of Canons Regular of the Congregation of Santa Maria Forisportam in the Church of the Lateran met with great obstacles. In 1442 when Pope Eugene IV requested the General Chapter meeting at Ferrara, to send 32 canons for the reform of the Church of the Lateran, a mere five were sent, all of whom fell sick, gave up the project, and left. The following year the Pope made new overtures and obtained thirty canons whom he lodged at the Palace of the Lateran until the Monastery was finished. The Secular Canons who served this Church, and who numbered no more than 12, profited from the absence of the pope. Gathering a band of peasants and some of the people, they ill-intentionedly broke down the doors of the Lateran Palace, forced several of the religious to throw themselves out by the windows, and seized others upon whom they visited a thousand outrages. The pope, angered by this conduct, named, at a consistory he had assembled, two cardinals to make a visit of the Church. They found among the canons more disorders than it is possible to imagine, and for their part the canons could advance nothing in their defence, when they were in the presence of the pope, they voluntarily gave up their benefices. The canons of Santa Maria Forisportam were then given possession of the Church of the Lateran in 1445. They were not long masters of it. When the Holy See fell vacant, those who had been expelled demanded to be re-established. Nicholas V, who was elected, returned them to possession conjointly with the Regulars; but they being unable to come to agreement he was obliged to remove them. Things did not long remain in this state; for Nicholas V having died in 1455, his successor Calixtus III sent the Canons Regular back to their monasteries and undid everything that Eugene IV had done. Paul II reestablished them and evicted the Seculars, but immediately after the death of Paul II these entered by force into the monastery with a great number of armed men, and chased them out for the last time in 1471. Sixtus IV, successor of Paul II, seeing that there was no reason to re-establish them, contented himself by giving them a Bull in the month of May 1471, by which he confirmed their title of Canons Regular of St. Savior at the Lateran, with the privileges accorded to them by his predecessors. Finally the year 1483 seeing all Italy in peace, he ordered a church built in the middle of Rome under the name of Notre Dame of the Peace, and gave this church to the Canons Regular, who have remained there to the present day. Cardinal Oliviero Carafa had a monastery built for them and left them his library in his will, along with a vacation home outside Rome.
The Secular Canons have remained since then the peaceful possessors of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and the Regulars have never been able to return to it, whatever pleas and protests they might have made. At one time they held 45 abbeys, 56 priories, 21 provostships and 2 archpriestries, besides the monasteries of canonesses under their dependence. They are the Lords of the Isles of Tremiti in the Adriatic Sea, and of dependencies in the Kingdom of Naples, where they have a beautiful monastery with a church dedicated to Our Lady.
Several cardinals have come from this Congregation, and it has furnished the Church with archbishops, bishops, and many other persons illustrious for their learning and their piety.
The Canons of this Congregation fast during Advent and every Friday of the year except in Paschal time. They observe abstinence every Wednesday and, after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross until Easter, they also fast on all Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. They make a fourth vow not to receive any benefice without the permission of the General Chapter.
Their habit consists of a soutan of white serge with a very pleated rochet on top and a square biretta when they are inside the house. They add a surplice over the rochet without an almuce when they go to choir, both in summer and winter; and when they go out they wear a black cloak in the manner of ecclesiastics. Their arms are azure: an image of the Holy Virgin holding the Infant Jesus in her arms, having to her right St. John the Evangelist, and on her left St. Augustine, and at her feet an eagle sable, and above her head the holy face of Our Savior, the escutcheon decorated with a mitre and a crosier, which is the Abbots of this Congregation, who on days of ceremony vest themselves in pontifical vestments.
The Congregation of the Lateran, which was in former times called of Santa Maria Forisportam, has become larger by the addition of many other Congregations. That of Santa Maria in Portu is of this number, those of Cella Volana, of Mortara, of Crescenzago and of St. Fridianus of Lucca.