Martin of Tours is a saint worth reflecting on. Saints are the antidotes to the poison of their times, Chesterton said, so what poison did Martin confront?
One was the poison of militarism. Martin was born into a military family in 316, his father a Roman officer who arose through the ranks and commanded the legions on the Roman frontier along the Rhine and Danube rivers. When his son was born his father saw him as a soldier like himself. He named him Martin, after Mars, the god of war.
Rome was mobilizing then to stop invading barbarian tribes, and soldiers, like the emperors Constantine and Diocletian, were its heroes. But Martin wanted nothing to do with war. As a young boy he heard a message of peace and non-violence from Christians he knew. Instead of a soldier, he became a Christian catechumen, over his father’s strong objections.
Martin was a lifelong peacemaker. He died on his way as a bishop to settle a dispute among his priests.
Another poison Martin confronted was the poison of careerism. Elected bishop of Tours by the people, Martin adopted a lifestyle unlike that of other bishops of Gaul, who were increasingly involved in imperial administration and adopting the privileged style that came with it.
Bishops set themselves up in the cities; Martin preferred to minister in the country, to the “pagani”, the uneducated poor.
Are the poisons of militarism and careerism around today? We remember our war veterans today.So many died in terrible wars these 100 years and many bear the scars of war. Militarism, the glamorizing of war, is still around. So is careerism .
The story that epitomizes Martin, of course, is his meeting with a beggar in a cold winter as he was coming through the gate in the town of Amiens, still a soldier but also a Christian catechumen. He stopped and cut his military cloak in two and gave one to the poor man. That night, the story goes, Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing the beggar’s cloak. “Martin gave me this,” he said.
Pope Benedict XVI commented on this event.
“ Martin’s gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist… It’s the logic of sharing.
May St Martin help us to understand that only by a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if an authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.”
In medieval Europe farmers, getting ready for winter at this time, put aside food and meat for the cold days ahead. Martin’s feast day was a reminder to them to put aside something for the poor. The poor are always with us; are we remembering them?
Today Veterans’ Day in the USA honors those who fought in our country’s wars. It was originally called Armistice Day celebrating the end of fighting between the Allies and Germany on November 11, 1918. The United States lost 116,516 troops in the 1st World War; other countries lost millions more. The wars that followed added to that count.
Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
This ancient ecumenical feast, celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, commemorates the dedication of a great church in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. Called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was built by the Emperor Constantine and was dedicated on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.
Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.
Tomb of Jesus
Pilgrims still visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated , after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.
Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”
Egyptian Coptic Christians
Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.
August 10th is the Feast of St. Lawrence, the deacon, a saint who ranks after Peter and Paul as patrons of the Church of Rome. In the 4th century the Emperor Constantine built a church honoring him on the Via Tiburtina, near one of the major gateways to the city. Lawrence was a Christian martyr, but he was something more.
Lawrence was a deacon of the Roman church in the middle of the 3rd century, when Rome began to experience wars and political instability. Gothic tribes breached the Roman lines along the Rhine River and the Persians were invading in the east.
The only thing to do was expand the army, and that’s what the Emperor Valerian did. It was time to build walls and expand armies. That cost money, of course, and in Rome the burden fell heavily on the poor. Famine and plague only worsened their situation.
That’s when the Christian church stepped in to help. Christians were still relatively few in numbers then, not wealthy, but they gave generously to the poor, and the Roman people admired what they saw.
Lawrence, the deacon, was behind this extraordinary Christian effort. After all, Jesus said: “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, you gave me to drink; I was sick and you visited me.”
Rome’s leaders became upset by the church’s growng popularity. They also wondered if the church’s money couldn’t be channeled towards their war effort. And so, in 257 an edict was published to imprison church leaders and confiscate church money. A second edict in 258 caused blood to flow. Pope Sixtus II and four deacons were seized in the catacombs of St. Callistus and executed on August 6th. Lawrence, the deacon, was seized and executed on August 10th. That’s why his feast day is today.
Popular stories later offered a colorful account of Lawrence’s martyrdom shaping his story and the way artists pictured him:
The Roman prefect, anxious for the church’s money, promised Lawrence freedom if he would transfer it over to him. Lawrence asked for three days to get the church’s treasures together for delivery to the prefect’s house. Then, after distributing the church’s monies to the poor, he gathered them and brought them to the prefect’s door. “Here are the church’s treasures,” he told the official, “ – the blind, the lame, the orphans and the old.”
The prefect ordered Lawrence burned alive on a gridiron. Those witnessing his execution said the saint went to his death cheerfully, even joking with his executioners. “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”
After these events the Roman church gained a flood of converts. Respect for Christianity grew, not just because of its brave martyrs, but because of its outreach to the poor.
Constantine honored Lawrence, not just because he died for his faith, but because of his care of the poor. He would rely on the church, not just for its political support, but for its care of the poor.
Wherever you go in Rome, you are going to find Lawrence. There are other churches honoring him; he’s often pictured with Peter and Paul, the founders of the Roman church; Michelangelo has him among the blessed at the last judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Lawrence represents something important in the church.
A large fresco of the saint stands at the entrance to the Vatican Museum’s Chapel of Nicholas V with its priceless works of art. Lawrence seems blind to the riches all around him as he boldly proclaims the message inscribed beneath his feet: The Poor are the Treasures of the Church.
They should always be the treasures of the church.
A few days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Jerome, the great 4th century scripture scholar and controversialist. I’ll be staying through October in a place well known to him in Rome– the Caelian Hill and the church of Saints John and Paul.
In Jerome’s day Rome’s rich and powerful lived on the Caelian Hill, across from the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum. Jerome had prominent friends among them. Pammachius, the ex- Roman senator who built Saints John and Paul, the noblewoman Paula and her daughter Eutochium, who later joined Jerome in his venture in Bethlehem to study the scriptures, her other daughter Blaesilla and others.
Interest in the scriptures ran high among well-off Caelian Christians then, but they also were keen for gossip and religious controversies. Jerome loved the scriptures, but he also loved the fight. His relationship with Paula and her family was part of the gossip that probably figured among the reasons he left Rome for the Holy Land. Following him there, Paula created a monastic community in Bethlehem and she and her daughter undoubtedly played a bigger part in Jerome’s scriptural achievements than they’re credited for.
Jerome’s a saint, but I appreciate why so many artists picture him doing penance for his sins. He needed God’s mercy.
Excavations, Saints John and Paul
Underneath Pammachius’ Church of Saints John and Paul are remains of Roman apartments going back to the 2nd-4th centuries, probably the best preserved of their kind in the city and a favorite for tourists.
Years ago, when I studied here, one of the rooms in the excavations was pointed out as part of a house church with Christian inscriptions , now archeologists are not so sure.. That doesn’t mean Christians didn’t meet or worship in these buildings, only they didn’t create a special liturgical space for meeting or worship. Christian evidence, however, says a “house church” was here early on.
Why then did Pammachius in the fourth century build the imposing basilica of Saints John and Paul here on the edge of the Coelian Hill facing the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum ? Many retired soldiers settled on the Caelian Hill then. Did he wish to win them to Christianity through the example of two soldier saints, John and Paul, who were honored in this church? Their remains are still found under the church’s main altar today.
Is there another reason? According to Richard Krautheimer, an expert on Rome’s early Christian churches, the emperor Constantine built St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lawrence, the first Christian churches, on the edge of the city most likely in deference to the sensibilities of the followers of Rome’s traditional religions. He didn’t want any Christian church in the “show areas” of the city, near the Roman forum or the Palatine hill.
Saints John and Paul, Interior
By Pammachius’ time Christianity was more assertive. Was Pammachius’ church a statement to the city that Christianity had arrived and wished to speak its wisdom here at the heart of traditional Roman religion, near the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum? Jerome’s new translations and commentaries, along with the works of St. Augustine and others, gave them something to say.
So was this a church with a mission? A lesson for the church of today? Speak to the world of your time.
To listen to the audio of today’s homily please select file below:
Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.
Churches have stories, which is especially true of St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built. At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.
The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around 320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.
Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum, because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the traditional religions. Still, the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.
Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes where they met and worshipped.
That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)
So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.
That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)
An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery, a large building connected to the church itself, worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.
Those bound for heaven are born here,
born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.
Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.
No differences among those born here,
they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.
The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.
So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.
Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.
Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.
One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.
Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.
Paul the Apostle is buried in the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. His sarcophagus lies under the church’s main altar. Until 2008, when archeologists uncovered it, it was concealed underground in the same spot.
After their execution in the mid 60s, Peter was buried on the Vatican Hill and Paul was buried along the Via Ostia. Churches honoring the two apostles were built in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine over their graves. Constantine didn’t initiate devotion to the apostles, though. Christians from Rome and elsewhere came in great numbers from earliest times to these places to honor these great heroes.
A statue of St. Paul welcomes us outside the church’s entrance. He’s an old man, clothed in a heavy traveler’s cloak, bent and tired from years on the road. Yet, the apostle holds a sword firmly in hand, not a military sword, but a symbol of a faith that won hearts and banished the powers of darkness. He has “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith,” and here in Rome his earthly journey ended. Pictures on the church doors recall Paul’s final hours, when he died decapitated by an executioner’s sword not far from this spot.
Lifting our eyes to the façade of the church, we see his dramatic journey in outline, from Jerusalem to Rome, as Paul carried the gospel of Jesus Christ announced beforehand by prophets of the Old Testament. A more detailed description of his mission appears in the paintings around the church walls inside, from his conversion on the way to Damascus, to his death here in the capitol of the Roman world.
If we look higher before we go in, Paul appears on the church’s façade in the light of glory, his traveling days done. With Peter, a fellow disciple, he sits at the feet of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord who taught him so well. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul once cried, thrown to the ground. Now he sees Jesus face to face.
This same scene of glory is repeated within the church itself where columns in procession lead our eyes to a triumphal arch defining the apostle’s grave below and the altar above it. On the dome of the apse, Jesus sits in triumph, surrounded by Paul and his companion apostles and evangelists. “Come, blessed of my father, receive the kingdom prepared for you,” Jesus proclaims in the book of life he holds up to them.
Today, we can see the apostle’s tomb, recently uncovered by archeologists, under the main altar.
Outside the Walls
The description “Outside the Walls” is a reminder that this church, now in a crowded city suburb, was once outside Rome’s city walls on a desolate stretch of the Via Ostia, part of a little cemetery where the apostle was first buried. As they did over St.Peter’s grave, early Christians built a modest memorial immediately after Paul’s death to mark his grave; then in the early 4th century the Emperor Constantine erected a small church facing the Via Ostia honoring the apostle.
It did not end there, however. Later that same century, a larger church replaced the small church, as large as that of St.Peter on the Vatican. Why build an immense building like this in an out-of-the-way place, we may ask? Was it devotion or Christian pride?
Perhaps. Yet, some speculate other reasons were behind it. In the late 4th century, hordes of “barbarians” were pouring through the frontiers of the empire, and the Romans–most likely Christians among them– saw the newcomers as pesky strangers: violent, crude and uncultured. The latin word they used for them, “barbari,” dismisses them as little less than savages, unwelcome intruders to an orderly Roman world.
St. Paul once scolded the proud Corinthians for looking down on others and forgetting how God raised them up from nothing by his grace. “The door to faith has opened to the nations,” he said; God welcomes all, no matter who they are. Wouldn’t God welcome these new immigrants?
Did the new church call Roman Christians to open their hearts to these new gentiles as the apostles Peter and Paul had done before? Early popes like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great promoted this new church. Gregory not only welcomed newcomers to the Italian peninsula but inspired by Paul reached out to peoples beyond the borders of the empire, to the misty shores of England and the dark forests of Northern Europe.
To be catholic the church had to reach out to the world.
Peter and Paul complement each other. Paul, a complex intellectual, forged beyond the boundaries of Judaism to address the whole world. Peter, the Galilean fisherman, was a cautious captain for the ship of the church. Their gifts are different, but we gain from both of them. Paul’s sword points to an unknown future and tells us not to be afraid to embrace it. Peter, holding firmly the keys given him by Jesus, calls us to stay close to the Good Shepherd, whose wisdom and love supports us.
The ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, constructed over the places where Jesus was crucified and buried, has been the focus of Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land since the 4th century. Built by the Emperor Constantine at the urging of Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, the church has suffered earthquakes, fires, and devastation; it’s authenticity has been questioned, especially since the Enlightenment; it has been fought over by competing Christian churches, yet it still has the best claim to be the place where the greatest of all Christian mysteries happened.
The church received its worst blow when the calif Hakim began demolishing the church in 1009, an action leading to the Crusades. Once Jerusalem was conquered, the crusaders rebuilt the church, but only to half its former proportions.
Reliable historians weigh in positively today on the claims of the Church of the Holy Sepucher “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers.
The Finding of the Cross
When Constantine in the 4th century looked for Calvary and Jesus’ tomb, he had no difficulty finding their location. They were buried beneath a Roman temple built in 138 AD by the Emperor Hadrian, in the new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, which he erected over the ruins of devastated Jewish Jerusalem. Christians since the time of Jesus knew the place and could point it out to Constantine’s builders.
Early witnesses report that, which tearing down the Roman temple and digging the foundations for the new church, the emperor’s workmen came upon an ancient cistern filled with debris from the old Roman execution site, including three upright beams and the title that Pontius Pilate had attached to the Cross of Jesus. The discovery caused a sensation in the Christian world.
Constantine’s 80 year old mother, Helena, had come the Holy Land as a devout pilgrim, “old in years, but young in spirit. She wanted to know this land… and walk in the footsteps of the Savior….”(Eusebius)
She took the precious remains from Calvary and distributed them, one part to the new church on Golgotha, another part to her son, Constantine, in Constantinople; the rest she placed in the chapel of her private residence at the Sessorian Palace in Rome, where they remain till this day, in the Church of the Holy Cross. She covered the floor of her Roman chapel with soil from the Jerusalem excavations.
Christians rejoiced at the discovery. Less than 25 years before, they had experienced the worst of all persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, who tortured and killed great numbers, confiscating Christian homes and property. Their religion was on the verge of extermination. Now a new day had dawned; Christianity was triumphant.
The pieces of scarred wood buried in the earth for so long, became reflections of God’s triumphant power. They were placed in settings of gold and precious stones; signs that, like Jesus, the church also had tasted death but was now raised up.
Besides wood from Calvary, Constantine’s builders made another great discovery as they dug the foundations for the new basilica. They discovered the tomb of Jesus, and immediately constructed a splendid rotunda around it. The tomb survives today in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. Nearby one can still see and touch the rock of Calvary.
These early discoveries inspired a powerful movement of Christian devotion. Crowds of pilgrims made their way to the holy places. “The whole world is making its way to an empty tomb,” St. John Chrysostom said. Pilgrims returned home with reminders of their visit: small vials of oil from lamps at the tomb of Jesus, small handfuls of soil. Some even carried back tiny precious portions of the Cross itself.
A feast to celebrate the dedication of this church in 325 AD is found in various church calendars for September 14.
The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran this Sunday, November 9th. Seems strange to celebrate the dedication of a church, doesn’t it? Yet, the readings remind us that churches, like the Jewish temple before them, figure in God’s plan. They’re signs that God is with us.
But why should we celebrate the dedication of a church in Rome that most of us have never seen, or perhaps even heard of?
Because this church is special, it’s called “the mother of all churches.” Let me tell you why.
Saint John Lateran, originally called the Basilica of the Savior, was the first prominent Christian church built in the Roman empire after centuries of intermittent persecution. The Emperor Constantine built it in Rome in the early 4th century after he conquered the city and gave the Christian Church its freedom.
The reason he built this church, which held 10,000 people, was to make clear that Christians had the right to worship publicly, to meet publicly, and to express their faith publicly in the society around them. They weren’t second-class citizens or enemies of the state or people to be looked down on.
That was a major step in our Church’s history. We have a right to worship and to be recognized for what we believe and to express what we believe. Before this, Christians met in private homes or small meeting halls to keep out of the public eye.
Constantine gave this church to the bishop of Rome, and so it was the church of the popes from the 4th to the 14th century, when they moved to the Vatican across the city. It was the center of western Christianity for most of our history. Papal elections, ecumenical councils, imperial coronations took place here. Emissaries from the nations and ordinary Christian pilgrims came here to visit the pope, the bishop of Rome. So the Lateran is like an archive of our church’s past.
Next week, on Friday, a number of us from Saint Mary’s will be going to visit this historic church. I’ll put some entries from our visit on my blog from there.
For me this church is special because it seems to represent so well the human side of the church to which I belong. Like the temple in Jerusalem it has had its ups and downs. The Lateran church suffered from earthquakes, fires, natural disasters of every kind. It’s been battered by invading armies and robbers. In some sketches of it that I could show you, especially from the early middle ages, it looks like an abandoned barn. Indeed, one reason the popes abandoned it in the 14th century was because the area around it had become too dangerous to live in.
It’s true, too, that not all the leaders of the church who lived there were saints either. It’s had its share of thieves and robbers.
That’s always going to be true for our church. This parish of ours is like it. Who knows what’s going to happen to this building through the years, whether from natural disasters or social catastrophes, or just the passage of time.
Like the Lateran church, we are a church of saints and sinners. Sometime, each of us goes from one or to the other. We have saints and sinners here.
Yet, as we will see next week when we visit–that old church is still there. Like it, our church too is gladdened by God’s waters of grace ever nourishing it. We are God’s temple, and the Sprit of God is given to us, ever nourishing us.
That ancient church is a sign that the Lord is with us and will remain with us till the end of time. The mysteries celebrated there, we celebrate here. So today we celebrate its beginning–our mother– and hope to be its faithful child.
Atop the gleaming white façade of this fascinating church is the figure of a woman holding a cross. She is Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.
We don’t know much about Helena. She is said to have been a waitress in a tavern, a pretty young woman who caught the eye of a Roman soldier and future emperor, Constantius Chlorus.
Chlorus aspired to be a member of Rome’s ruling class, and so he kept Helena as his concubine, since she came from the lower class. They had a son–Constantine. Mother and son would play a major role in shaping the empire and Christian church.
There are memories of Helena in the German city of Trier on the Moselle River, in her day a great Roman outpost on the empire’s western borders. Its vineyards and farmlands made it a favorite of soldiers and their families. She probably raised her son there, while Chlorus led Rome’s legions guarding the Rhine River border and then in Britain.
We don’t know when Helena became Christian, but even then Trier had a fervent Christian community. Did she belong to it? Later, she gave her palace to the city’s Christians for their cathedral.
The ambitious Chlorus eventually married Flavia Theodora, stepdaughter of Maximian, emperor of the west, and he put aside Helena, the former waitress, who stood in the way of his career. In 292 Chlorus became Caesar of the western part of the Roman Empire and eventually succeeded Maximian as emperor.
All the while, Helena’s son stayed loyal to his mother. Constantine became a soldier, Caesar– finally, emperor of Rome–Constantine the Great.
Constantine’s rise to power
Constantine rose to power in 312, while he was commander of the army in Britain. Rome’s leaders were fighting among themselves then–a situation ripe for an imperial coup– and Constantine’s soldiers proclaimed him emperor. He and his legions marched into Italy to take possession of Rome; Helena must have followed him.
By October Constantine’s legions reached the city, where his rival Maxentius had drawn up his army at the Milvian Bridge. Before their battle he saw the sign of the Christian Cross. The historian Eusebius described it:
“He said that about noon, when the day was beginning to decline, he saw with his eyes the trophy of a Cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, ‘Conquer by this sign.”
Constantine ordered the sign placed on the standards of his army. The next day he won a decisive victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge and became emperor of the west.
Constantine and the Christians
A year later in Milan, the new emperor ended the persecution of Christians and began to embrace their cause. We don’t know when Constantine himself became Christian, but he waited until he was dying to be baptized. His mother Helena surely played a role in his religious development.
On the extensive Lateran property on the eastern side of Rome, which he confiscated from his enemies, Constantine began a massive building program for the once-persecuted Christian church. He ordered a large Christian basilica and baptistery built there, where the present basilica and baptistery of St. John Lateran now stand, and built a residence for the Christian bishop of Rome.
He gave the Sessorian Palace, close by, to Helena as her official residence. She converted a room of the palace into a chapel, where she later placed the relics of the Cross she brought from Jerusalem. The room and the relics still remain in what is now called the Church of the Holy Cross.
At the same time the new emperor honored some of Rome’s great Christian martyrs by building churches next to their tombs – the church of St. Sebastian, St. Lawrence the deacon, Saints Peter and Marcellinus. The largest of the new Christian basilicas he built over the tomb of Peter the Apostle, on the shoulder of the Vatican Hill.
Helena, a convinced Christian, must have inspired some of her son’s plans.
Builder of an empire: Constantine the Great
Twelve years after conquering the city, Constantine left Rome to secure the empire’s borders along the Danube River, where barbarian tribes were breaching the frontiers. He also moved to defeat his rival in the east, the Emperor Licinius. By 324 he was sole ruler of the entire Roman empire.
To unify his large domains, Constantine built a new imperial city where the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea meet. The city was called Constantinople–today Istanbul, Turkey.
Constantine sought to advance his plan for a unified empire to strengthen the position of the Christian church by making the Holy Land, where Jesus had lived and died, its religious center. He chose his mother Helena to oversee his plan,
Helena visits the Holy Land
Helena left Constantinople very likely in the winter of 325 and reached Jerusalem the following spring. She was almost 80 years old; it was a hard trip of over 1500 miles, even for a woman of privilege.
Yet, according to the Christian historian Eusebius:
“She came, old in years, but young in spirit. She wanted to know this land… and walk in the footsteps of the Savior…. “
So Helena visited the places where Jesus had been. She supervised a massive program for building churches over these places. Above all, she wanted to honor the place of Jesus’ death.
It was not hard for her to find. The location of Calvary and the tomb–beneath a Roman temple built by the Emperor Hadrian in 138–was well known to Jerusalem’s Christians since the time of Jesus. The bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, who probably suggested the plan for enhancing the Holy Land to Constantine in the first place, pointed the places out to her.
The Finding of the Cross
By the emperor’s order the Roman temple on the site was torn down and workmen began digging the foundations for a new church. While they were digging, it is said, they discovered an ancient cistern filled with debris from the old Roman execution site, including three upright beams and the title that Pontius Pilate had attached to the Cross of Jesus. It was an amazing discovery.
According to the oldest accounts, Helena determined the Cross of Jesus by touching each of the three wood pieces to a woman who was deathly sick. At the touch of one the woman was healed.
She concluded that this was the Cross on which Jesus died.
Helena enshrined a large part of that healing Cross in the newly built Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Leaving Jerusalem, she took with her two other portions of the Cross, a part of the Cross’ title and some nails that were found in the cistern.
One part of the Cross she gave to her son, Constantine, in Constantinople. The rest she placed in the chapel of her private residence at the Sessorian Palace in Rome, where they remain till this day. She covered the floor of her chapel with soil from the Jerusalem excavations.
Christians rejoiced at the discovery. Less than 25 years before, they experienced the worst of all persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, who tortured and killed great numbers, confiscating Christian homes and property. Their religion was on the verge of extermination. Now a new day had dawned; Christianity was triumphant.
The pieces of scarred wood buried in the earth for so long, seemed a reflection of God’s triumphant power. Now placed in settings of gold and precious stones, were they not a sign that, like Jesus, the church also had tasted death but was now raised up? Helena must have seen her own life reflected in this sign too.
The discovery of the tomb
Besides the relics of the Cross, there was another great discovery. Digging the foundations for the new basilica to honor the Cross, Constantine’s builders discovered the tomb of Jesus and immediately constructed a splendid rotunda around it. The tomb survives today in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Helena’s extraordinary visit to Jerusalem inspired a powerful movement of Christian devotion. After her, crowds of pilgrims made their way to the holy places. Like Helena, they returned home with reminders of their visit: small vials of oil from lamps at the tomb of Jesus, small handfuls of soil. Some even carried back tiny precious portions of the Cross itself.
She died a few years after her Holy Land visit. Her son brought her remains back to Rome from Trier, and today they rest in the center of imperial Rome in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.
She was Helena, a former tavern waitress, cast aside by a powerful, ambitious man with whom she had a child. Her great achievement was her search for the Cross of Jesus, a mystery she treasured.
After her death, she was revered as a model Christian, a model especially for women of the imperial court. The church honors her as a saint.
Did Helena find Calvary and the tomb?
But did Helena really find Calvary and the tomb of Jesus?
For almost twelve hundred years Christians believed that she did; they revered the holy places of Jerusalem and made them part of their devotional life. Artists were inspired by her story.
Then in the 16th century, doubts arose about Helena’s story. Historians scrutinized it for scientific proof and questioned its reliability.
Now, in recent times, archeologists and historians studying these ancient traditions less skeptically are examining the story again.
There is a new appreciation today for ancient traditions about tombs and places where famous figures lived and died. Certainly people at the time of Jesus remembered the tombs of notables from centuries before, such as David and Solomon. They were etched in their memories. Would not the earliest followers of Jesus– eyewitnesses– remember the places where he died and was buried?
Memories of Calvary
They were easily remembered in the years following his death, because executions still took place there. The uprights of the crosses remained standing on Calvary and crucifixions continued. His tomb lay empty nearby.
Then, about the year 41, when Herod Agrippa ruled Judea, the walls of Jerusalem were extended and the site of Calvary enclosed within its walls. Executions and burials ended because they were forbidden within the city. The bloodied uprights of Crosses were pulled up and thrown into a nearby cistern.
In the decades following Jesus’ death, the Christian community– a minority sect then– probably honored the places of Calvary discreetly. But Christians and others must have remembered the sites and told their children where they were.
After the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in 62, the situation changed. Refusing to join the revolt, Jewish Christians in Jerusalem moved to the city of Pella in Transjordan. When the rebellion was crushed in the year 70, Jews were banished from Jerusalem. However, Jewish-Christians–not complicit in the revolt– had some access to the city and their holy places.
Veneration of Jesus’ tomb must have continued; Christians must have come and prayed, even marking the site with graffiti as they customarily did elsewhere. In the 2nd century, the Emperor Hadrian– wishing to eradicate Jerusalem’s Jewish past– rebuilt it as a Roman city. Over the place of Calvary and the tomb of Jesus, he built a splendid temple to Venus. Was he hoping also to eradicate a Jewish-Christian shrine?
If he did, he only ensured an opposite effect. The temple became a marker for local Christians, who knew what lie underneath and told the next generation where it was, waiting for a better time. That time came less than two hundred years later, when Helena arrived.
Today, there is a growing acknowledgment among archeologists and historians that Calvary and the tomb of Jesus are indeed where Christian tradition always claimed them to be– at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where once Hadrian’s temple stood.
What about the relics of the Cross?
Yet, what about the relics of the Cross? What can we say about them? Here the ground is less certain.
An early legend says that Helena’s workers discovered remains of crosses in the debris thrown into a cistern near Calvary. The empress used an unscientific method to decide which piece of wood was the Cross of Jesus. She asked for a sign from God– a healing– and a healing took place. It was the way of her time, but a way a scientist cannot accept.
Other details may help to explain Helena’s choice. Some think that after Jesus’ death, the title on his Cross and other relics of Calvary were kept in his tomb or perhaps kept by disciples or members of his family. Indeed, some relatives of Jesus– like Simeon bar Cleopas, the son of his uncle– who led the Jerusalem community during its exile at Pella and after its return to Jerusalem in 73 or 74– were prominent Jerusalem Christians. Did they and their descendants keep the relics from Calvary? Did they hand them over to Helena–perhaps under coercion, as some of the legends suggest? We will never know for sure.
However Helena’s relics originated, it safe to say that they were not lightly chosen or late fabrications. Slight as it is, the evidence seems to indicate that the relics she introduced to the Christian world, relics revered in countless Christian churches, came from the debris uncovered near the execution place, the Place of the Skull – Calvary.
And so the mystery remains– which may be the very nature of the Cross of Jesus. It will always be a mystery to be discovered.
On Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, Christians honor his Cross. In Roman Catholic churches throughout the world, the faithful approach this image and reverence it during the solemn liturgy of the day.
Where did the practice come from? It can be traced back sixteen hundred years to the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, spreading from there to Rome, where the Good Friday liturgy is officially celebrated by the Roman church, and to other parts of the Christian world. A woman named Helena set the practice in motion.
Tradition says that Peter, whom Jesus made the rock on whom he built his church, came to Rome and died there during a persecution by the Emperor Nero about 64 AD. He was buried in a cemetery on Vatican Hill after being crucified nearby. Tradition also says the apostle was crucified with his head to the ground, because he saw himself unworthy of dying like Jesus.
The Emperor Constantine built a majestic church over the apostle’s grave in the 4th century, one of the first he built for the Christians of the city.
From the beginning Christians honored the apostle’s grave and esteem for him grew as Christianity grew. He was an apostle of Jesus, along with Paul who also died in the same persecution. Like Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city, they are considered twin founders of the Roman church.
Besides being honored at the Vatican, Peter is honored elsewhere in the city. His seizure and imprisonment are recalled at the Church of St.Peter in Chains near the Coliseum and at the Mamertime Prison in the Roman Forum. The small Quo Vadis chapel along the Via Antica recalls the poignant legend of the apostle fleeing from prison, only to meet Jesus going into the city to join his followers condemned by Nero. Turning back, Peter followed his Lord to martyrdom on Vatican Hill.
Christians cherish his memory. The popes resided at the Lateran from the 4th to the 14th century but moved to the Vatican, not only because the Lateran area had become unsafe, but also to be near Peter’s grave on Vatican hill, where great numbers of Christian pilgrims congregated.
What draws so many to Peter?
He was ordinary enough. Paul boasted that he was a citizen of Tarsus, no mean city. Peter came from Capernaum, an unimportant fishing village along the Sea of Galilee.
Paul had a fine educational and religious training. A fluent teacher and trained scholar, he dealt with the religious establishment of his day and spoke its language. Peter was unpolished, with little formal education; he spoke like a Galilean peasant. Whatever religious knowledge he had before he met Jesus came from the local rabbis in his synagogue. He was a fisherman at home on the sea.
Why did Jesus make him first among his followers? It wasn’t brains or talents that won him the place. Nor his loyalty. The simple explanation may be that God chooses the weak things of this world.
We know more about Peter than about any of the other early disciples of Jesus. He was a Jew who moved to Capernaum from Bethsaida, another village along the Sea of Galilee, where he fished with others. Historians say that fishing then offered a good enough living. Archeologists today think they can point out in Capernaum’s ancient ruins the house where Peter lived, along with his wife, his mother-in-law and whoever else belonged to his family.
He was forthright, direct and practical, not afraid to speak up or tell you what was on his mind. He wasn’t afraid to draw a sword or face prison. He saw his own faults and acknowledged them. An observant Jew, but not a professional religious man.
He met Jesus on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, when he stopped at the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preaching. His brother Andrew brought him to Jesus, after John had pointed him out.
The gospels say that he was a friend of Jesus as well as a disciple. Peter welcomed him to his house in Capernaum. He became Jesus’ companion as he preached in Galilee and journeyed to Jerusalem. He witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching and was intimately involved in the events of his death and resurrection. When Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times that he knew him and fled into the night.
Peter saw and heard what Jesus did. He was an eyewitness. After he rose from the dead, Jesus chose him again to shepherd his flock, even though Peter had denied him.
As an eyewitness, he was the first to testify at Pentecost that Jesus had risen from the dead and was indeed the promised Messiah. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem dismissed him and the rest of the disciples as unlearned men. From Jerusalem, Peter went to the coastal cities of Joffa and Caesarea, then to the main Syrian city of Antioch, and finally to Rome with his message.
When he reached the capital of the empire, he was probably in his 60s. Scientists who examined bones found at his gravesite underneath St. Peter’s in the late 1940s said they belonged to a man of rugged build about that age.
We don’t know what precisely brought Peter to Rome sometime in the 60s AD. Probably it had something to do with the Jewish-Christian controversies going on at the time in the city. Some twenty years earlier, the Emperor Claudius expelled Jewish dissidents–likely Jewish Christians– because of bitter disturbances in the synagogues of the city. Paul’s letters tell of similar disputes in places where he traveled.
There were about 60,000 Jews in Rome then, among a population of almost one million. Did Peter come to mediate between various Jewish factions? Was he invited as a peacemaker who valued his Jewish roots, yet saw that God had revealed something new in Jesus of Nazareth? Did some who heard him speak in Jerusalem at Pentecost while on pilgrimage from Rome persuade him to come to his people here and tell them what he saw and heard?
From what we know of Peter it was not an easy mission. Not only was he older now, but he was always more at home in his own land, among his own people, than he was in gentile cities. He was limited in his ability to speak their language and understand their customs. He would always be a simple man.
Most likely, he planned to return home before too long, or go to another place where he was needed. We don’t know how long he was there. But he was an apostle, one sent by Jesus to the whole world, and so he would speak of what he had seen and heard, as he had done many times before.
In Rome his memoirs were gathered by Mark and later formalized in one of the gospels. He also wrote a letter from here to other churches he had known, urging them in the face of persecution and alienation to hold fast to the hope they had as God’s people. (1 Peter)
But then, a fire swept through Rome in the early morning of July 19, 64 AD. Peter was among those identified as Christians caught in Nero’s dragnet and blamed for starting it. Probably his executioners never knew or cared who he was when they brought him to the Vatican hill and crucified him– one of the ways the Romans executed foreigners.
Some Christian women possibly arranged to bury him in a shallow grave in a cemetery nearby. Women often made sure even those condemned as criminals were buried. As time passed they put up a simple monument to mark the place and Christians came to honor him there. Around the year 200, a Roman priest named Gaius, writes that he has seen the gravesite and can take others to it.
A little over a hundred years later, the Emperor Constantine ordered a massive church built over the apostle’s grave; its main altar situated exactly above the grave itself. The emperor, they say, carried twelve loads of dirt to the building site to honor the twelve apostles.
By the 15th century, Constantine’s church was near collapse, so the popes of the time began building another in its place, which took over a hundred years to build. This is the church we enter today, honoring Peter, the fisherman from Galilee and a disciple of Jesus.