June 12, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Constantine brings it out of the catacombs

John F. Fink(Tenth in a series of columns)

Things changed drastically for the Catholic Church during the fourth century. When the century began, the Roman Emperor Diocletian was persecuting the Church. When it ended, the Catholic Church was the religion of the Roman upper class and most Roman citizens were Christians.

This was due mainly to Emperor Constantine, whose mother Helena was a Christian. Something happened to Constantine on Oct. 28, 312, at the Milvian Bridge that spanned the Tiber River south of Rome. He was about to attack a rival for the throne, Maxentius, and accounts written shortly afterward told about a vision that Constantine had of a cross of light in the heavens bearing the inscription, “In this sign conquer.”

Constantine wanted to conquer, so he went into battle with banners carrying a cross. He defeated Maxentius and then, in 324, defeated Licinius to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He promptly declared religious freedom in the East as he earlier had done for the West in 313. He also moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium (modern Istanbul), changing its name to Constantinople.

Constantine did a lot for Christianity, but he was hardly what we’d call a model Christian. Indeed, he didn’t become a Christian until he was on his deathbed in 337. Before that, he ordered the deaths of his father-in-law, three brothers-in-law, a son and his wife.

Living in Constantinople, he turned his attention to the Holy Land, which had been ravaged by his predecessor-emperors. Jerusalem had been destroyed first by Titus in 70 and then by Hadrian in 135, and renamed Aelia Capitolina. Constantine intended to change that.

Under the supervision of his mother, a magnificent basilica was built over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The site wasn’t hard to find; Hadrian had built a temple to Jupiter over it. The grandiose church was more magnificent than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today. It was destroyed by the Persians in 614.

Helena also built the Church of the Nativity over the site of Jesus’ birth. Hadrian had also built a temple over it. That church survives today. The Persians didn’t destroy it because one of the mosaics in it shows the Magi at Jesus’ birth wearing ancient Persian robes similar to those worn by the conquering Muslims.

Helena built a third basilica at the top of the Mount of Olives, but it, too, was destroyed by the Persians, as well as many other churches in the Holy Land that trace their origin to the time of Constantine.

He also built the first great basilicas in Rome, including St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, and the first St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, built over their burial sites. The first St. Peter’s was opened on Nov. 18, 326, with the main altar directly over the first pope’s tomb. It would survive for 1,100 years.

Constantine can be credited with bringing Christianity out of the catacombs. He can also receive credit for saving the Church from destruction from heresy. I’ll write about that next week. †

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