If we understand the word church to mean a place where the faithful gather to celebrate divine worship, the oldest church in the world is the Cenacle. It was there that Our Lord Jesus Christ celebrated the first Mass and where the Apostles “devoted themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14), together with the Virgin Mary, some disciples and the holy women.
The residences in which the first Christians congregated for the Eucharistic Supper were also churches. In his epistles, St. Paul mentions the couple Aquila and Priscilla, “together with the church in their house” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19). With all the more reason the catacombs – during the period of persecutions – can be called churches. In several of them the adornments, paintings and statues foretold the splendorous churches built in subsequent ages.
The construction of buildings specifically designated for acts of worship began soon after the Edict of Milan, promulgated in 313 by the Emperor Constantine. Two of the world’s most important Christian churches are attributed to him: the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, inaugurated around the year 320, and St. Peter’s Basilica, consecrated in 329.
Through the efforts of the emperor and his mother, St. Helena, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was also erected at the site of the birth of the Infant God. It was completed in 333. Two years later, in 335, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was inaugurated in Jerusalem, the construction of which was personally overseen by St. Helena.
Were churches built at sites prior to these? It seems highly unlikely, and if they did actually exist no trace of them remains. Therefore, it can be affirmed that the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, also known as “Mother and head of all the churches of Rome and the world,” is the oldest Christian church.◊