chapter thirteen

The Fourth Century: "In Hoc Signo Vincis" - freedom at last!

    Over the last several installments we have been treating the Roman persecutions of the Christians in the Second and Third Centuries, the latter being one of the worst. As the the Fourth Century dawned, Roman-born Pope Saint Marcellinus, who had been elected on June 30th 296 AD, was the 29th pontiff having succeeded Pope Saint Caius. Marcellinus' greatest sadness was witnessing the climax of the horrendous persecutions of the vile Roman Emperor Diocletian which claimed the lives of many saints such as Saints Agnes, Lucy, Bibiana, Sebastian and Lucian and finally his own life on October 25, 304.

    So fierce were the persecutions which were to be the Romans' "last hurrah" that the papal throne was left vacant until May 27, 308 when the electorate selected another Roman Pope Saint Marcellus I as the 30th successor to the Chair of Peter. Thus in 305 the bishops met at the Synod of Elvira, declaring as a fixed law the celibacy of the clergy and praying for the end of the persecutions. Their prayers would be answered within ten years. Because of the four year papal vacancy, it was necessary for Marcellus to pardon many who had abjured during the persecutions because there was no Pope to follow. Yet, guided by the Holy Spirit, he pardoned those who deserved such and declined to pardon others who secretly railed against the Church. This ultimately led to his own persecution and martyrdom less than a year later on January 16, 309. During this short span Marcellus decreed that a Council could not be held without the authorization of the Pope.

    He was succeeded by Pope Saint Eusebius on April 18, 309 and he, too, was martyred a few months later in Sicily on August 17, 309. During his even shorter term, Eusebius succeeded in maintaining a position of firmness and pardon in respect to the polemics about the apostates which brought the Church to the brink of schism.

    It was left to his successor and Diocletian's successor to right the ship. The first step was the election of African-born Pope Saint Miltiades on July 2, 311. Again, the papacy had been vacant, this time for two years. Six years earlier Diocletian had abdicated his throne in the East while in the West Maximian had also given up his rule. Diocletian was succeeded by Emperor Galerius while in the west Constantius Chlorus replaced Maximian. A year later Chlorus was succeeded by his 32 year-old son Constantine who was a Serb. Constantine set his sights on overthrowing Maxentius, son of Maximian in Italy and Africa. Constantine was victorious in Africa and as he moved up the boot of Italy Maxentius retreated to Rome. The night before the showdown outside the city, Constantine beheld in the sky a lighted cross surrounded by the Latin words, "In Hoc Signo Vincis" which means "In This Sign You shall Conquer." Then, through private revelation, a voice spoke to Constantine advising him to adopt the cross as a standard bearer instead of the Roman eagle which had been the standard. He took it to heart because his own mother Saint Helena was a Christian and it was she who had unearthed the true cross in Jerusalem. Meanwhile Maxentius had also consulted his gods and confidently was assured of victory over Constantine, announcing to all and even letting it reach the ears of Constantine. Unabashedly Maxentius led his troops out from Rome to attack by way of the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber where, despite greatly outnumbered, Constantine's men soundly defeated them in a great battle that numbered thousands of fatalities including Maxentius. Constantine knew then and there that the sign he had been given was not another superstition but one of substance. He marched triumphantly into Rome carrying the cross as his standard and the people received him with great pomp, erecting an arch and statue of him in memory of his great triumph. Shortly after this Constantine sought out the new emperor of the East Licinius whose soldiers had called upon Jesus' protection before their victory over Galerius' son Maximian Daia. Both Constantine and Licinius had seen first hand the Hand of God in their victories and were moved to accept the Christians and their faith. Thus, in 312 the two signed a pact of toleration toward the Christians called the Edict of Milan giving all people the freedom to worship as they wished.

    On January 2nd, 314 Miltiades, having just completed construction of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, died peacefully. A few weeks later on January 31, the 33rd successor to Peter was elected. He was Pope Saint Sylvester I who would enjoy a reign of 21 years as Pope. He became the first to wear the tiara and instituted Sunday as a holyday in memory of the Resurrection. Sylvester also created the "Iron Crown" with a nail from the Holy Cross which had been presented to him by Helena. Through her influence and his own experience, her son Constantine, who would eventually convert just before his death, erected many churches throughout the Roman Empire including a basilica over the tomb of Saint Peter which was the beginning of St. Peter's as well as a church over the tomb of Saint Paul and oversaw the completion of St. John Lateran plus building an imperial palace for the Pope nearby. He also built churches in Nicomedia, Antioch and Tyre plus a church dedicated to the Holy Spirit known as St. Sophia in Constantinople and in Jerusalem -the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Calvary , the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Ascension on Mt. Olivet. He decided Rome was not the center but rather farther east in the ancient Grecian port of Byzantium which he renamed Constantinople, moving the cultural and civilized center of the Empire east to this city. As we shall see in future installments this had pro and con effects, the pro being that civilization was saved from the barbarian hordes who would attack Rome in the next century and that, with the government farther away from the seat of Catholicism the Church was free to spread spirituality more readily without interference from the State as was the case in the East and which led to the ultimate split of the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church. The latter split was a definite con because of the tragic results and because the State in the East eventually interfered too closely with the Church and continues to do so today in places such as Russia where the Orthodox Church is the State religion.

The First Ecumenical Council

    In 325 the First Ecumenical Council was convened in Nice or Nicaea for the prime purpose of condemning Arianism, which had arisen in 318 by Arius a priest in Libya who was preaching falsely that the Son of God was not "consubstantial" with the Father. Though his bishop condemned him, excommunicating Arius and his followers, his heresy spread like a forest fire throughout the Empire which greatly troubled Constantine. Thus, with permission of Pope Sylvester, Constantine summoned all 318 of the Church's bishops to a meeting in Nicaea. There the Council Fathers pronounced the true and principle doctrines, composing the Nicene Creed as a profession of faith for all to follow. Though Arius was banished, he returned to the Church repentant just before his death. Yet his heresy continued in many forms for many centuries as a source of problems to Holy Mother Church.

    The first problem occurred with Constantine's sister. Enamored with Arius, she falsely produced a statement by Arius that claimed he had denounced all Arian teaching and wished to be reinstated. Constantine thus ordered the Bishop of Alexandria to restore Arius to his former position in Egypt. But the wise bishop, Saint Athanasius declined. His refusal solidified him as an eternal enemy of Arianism and Arius' followers did all in their power to discredit Athanasius including accusing him of murder, treason, and magic as well as abuse of the Holy Eucharist. He was brought to trial and there in a "kangaroo court" realized he could not receive a fair hearing. Thus Athanasius fled to Constantinople where he threw himself on the mercy of Constantine imploring a fair trial. At first Constantine refused because he believed the Bishop was guilty and had him sent to Treves. Constantine was totally baffled by the Arians who were clever and insidious in their ways, guided by the prince of darkness. We shall see in the next installment when we cover the second half of the Fourth Century how Arianism infiltrated the highest courts and how St. Athanasius was finally absolved.

    On December 31, 335 Pope Sylvester I passed on to his Heavenly reward and was succeeded a few weeks later by Pope Saint Marcus who ruled only until October 7, 336. During these nine months Marcus decreed that the Pope should be consecrated by the Bishop of Ostia and he instituted the "Pallium" which bishops still wear around their shoulders, a narrow circular band of white wool from a previously blessed lamb with two 12 inch pendants hanging down in front and back. It is decorated with black crosses. Marcus also established a Church calendar for approved feastdays.

    Upon his death there was a five month vacancy until Pope Saint Julius I was elected as the 35th in the line of Peter on February 6, 337. He is known for ordering the Church in the Orient to celebrate Christmas on December 25th with the rest of the Universal Church instead of combining it with the Epiphany on January 6th. He is also the founder of the Archives of the Holy See, ordering that all official Acts be preserved. The same year as Julius' election signaled the end of a great emperor for the ideals and fairness of Constantine died with him in 337 when, on his deathbed he requested to be baptized. It was the ultimate reward of the countless prayers by his mother St. Helena and his influence in granting freedom to Christians and establishing Christianity as the national religion would have far-reaching effects for centuries to come. With Constantine's passing, the great Byzantine and Roman empire was left to his three sons to split up. They, however, could not agree on anything and finally, after bitter battles, Constantius became the sole ruler. While his father had been fair to all, his son was so pro-Christian that he went the other way, persecuting the pagans in an effort to eradicate it. He became a self-made inquisition in an attempt to stamp out paganism everywhere yet, strangely, forgot about the philosophy teachers in the schools, many of whom were spreading pagan philosophy and waging their own clandestine ideological warfare against the Christians. We shall see in the next installment how the intellectual influence affected the second half of the Fourth Century in both a bad way with Julian the Apostate and, in a good way, the teachings of the great doctors Saint Ambrose and later, Saint Augustine.