“We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which He created heaven and earth.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #314)
As much as possible, Catholics ought to keep learning about our Catholic Faith. Increasingly, false statements are made about Holy Mother Church, even from Catholics whose understanding of the Church is inaccurate. The mainstream media continues to misquote, misrepresent and misunderstand Pope Francis’ and previous popes’ words. Unfortunately, most Catholics don’t know enough about Catholic teachings and we become confused by the media’s strange interpretations. Having a solid understanding of what the Catholic Church believes will help us sift through the rubbish and defend Holy Mother Church.
For the next ten weeks I’m taking a seminar course called Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know, from the book of the same name. The author, Diane Moczar, gives a succinct reason for why we should know the history of our Catholic Church: “…every Catholic should know something of the Catholic past, because that is what created the present of the Church and of Western Civilization. It is not enough to know our catechism, the lives of a few saints, and some Bible stories.” The priest who is presenting the seminar adds a truth expressed by St. Augustine: “… all history is a struggle between two loves: love of self to the point of despising God; and love of God to the point of despising oneself in martyrdom. We are caught up in this struggle….”
313 A.D. The Edict of Milan and the Liberation of the Church
Before the year 313 AD, persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was rampant and horrific. The mentally unstable emperor Nero first had the idea of using Christians as gruesome entertainment. In 64 AD he held a garden party in which the torches that lit up the paths were living Christians who were set on fire. From then on, Christians were subjected to increasingly horrible methods of torture to entertain the masses. By the early fourth century, the time of Diocletian persecution, methods were so gruesome that historians would not describe them in detail. Women suffered the worst torture, especially in Egypt, and some Christian women committed suicide to escape the sadism of their persecutors.
In 305 AD, the emperor Diocletian retired. He felt that the Roman Empire was too big for one man to control so he divided it into two empires with two emperors. Constantine, son of St. Helena, became the ruler of the Western Empire. He was a colourful character, a great ruler but with a personal life that resembled a soap opera. He married Fausta, daughter of the Eastern emperor, Maximian, who tried to have Constantine killed. Constantine managed to have him imprisoned and killed by hanging. Then he had to face Fausta’s brother Maxentius and his army at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.
During this battle Constantine is said to have had a supernatural vision. He saw a cross or a chi rho “a Christian symbol made by combining the first two Greek letters for the name Christus.” The words “in this sign conquer” accompanied the vision. The historian Eusebius claims that “Christ, the Son of God, appeared to him with the same sign that he had seen blazing in the sky and commanded him to make of it a military insignia and place it on his banners, as a pledge of victory.” This vision influenced him to become a catechumen of the Church.
Constantine won a decisive victory against Maxentius whose poor strategy trapped his entire army between Constantine’s forces and the Tiber River. When they retreated they drowned in the river, including Maxentius. Now Constantine was the undisputed emperor of the west along with his partner Lucinius who ruled the Eastern Empire.
One of Constantine’s first edicts was drawn up in Milan – the Edict of Milan – in 313 AD. It granted “free and absolute permission to practice their religion to the Christians…and to every man….free opportunity to worship according to his own wish.” It included the order to restore confiscated Christian property. The Edict of Milan changed the lives of Christians in the west but persecution continued in Asia Minor and Egypt, Lucinius’ part of the empire.
The Christians in the Western Empire came out of hiding. Pope Miltiades was given the former palace of Constantine’s wife, Fausta. The emperor built impressive Christian churches and declared many pro-Christian measures including making Sunday a day of rest. He outlawed some of the immoral practices common in depraved Roman society. He did away with crucifixions but stopped short of abolishing the violent entertainment that was so popular to the citizens. Christian names, feasts and customs helped to spread Christian teachings.
325AD marked the historic Council of Nicea, held with the support of Constantine. It condemned the Arian heresy (the notion that Christ is not fully God). It proclaimed the Creed that is the “prototype for all later Christian creeds” that Christ is “the only-begotten Son of God…..consubstantial with the Father.”
Constantine’s person life, however, didn’t reflect Christian ideals. He had Lucinius killed because he was still persecuting Christians. He had his wife, Fausta, killed because he suspected that she was having an affair with his son, Crispus (from a previous marriage). Then he had Crispus killed. Prisoners of war were tortured to death and political enemies were thrown to the lions.
His spiritual life was mixed-up, combining pagan and Christian elements. Eusebius the historian states that he remained a catechumen until just before his death. It was a common practice to delay baptism until death was upon a person so that they would die before committing any sins after baptism.
Meanwhile, Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she excavated holy sites such as Calvary, the True Cross and the Holy Sepulcher. She built churches above these sacred places.
Constantine distrusted Rome’s loyalty so for strategic reasons he established New Rome or Constantinople in the east, known as Byzantium. This area was Greek in language, thought and worship and resented submission to the Roman pontiff, causing the schism which continues today.
By 337AD, Constantine’s death was imminent due to a contracted illness. There is a story that he was baptized by an Arian bishop but this may have been an Arian lie. On the other hand, the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, along with other scholars such as St. Bede, claim that he was baptized in the Lateran Basilica by Pope St. Sylvester I. An inscription in the Lateran Basilica supports this line of thinking.
The Roman Empire continued to decline. “The native Roman reverence for marriage, motherhood, and family had nearly disappeared in the Late Empire, while homosexuality and pornographic ‘entertainment’ had become prevalent, along with abortion and divorce.”
Many people became Christian – just in case – but continued their immoral lifestyles. The widespread immorality and lukewarmness of new Christians who continued to hold fast to pagan practices was a huge problem for the Church. There were new heresies to combat and converts who tried to change doctrine. There was also the problem of barbarian invaders.
Historically, this is the era that began the Church and She has been standing against attacks, schisms and lukewarmness every since. The problems of today aren’t so different from 313. Despite every crisis, the Church of Rome stays strong and continues to provide men and women, saints and sinners, who willingly proclaim and defend Her.