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How great was Saint Constantine?

Peter Fleming  |  18 February 2020

The debate around the legacy of St Constantine highlights the difficulty of judging someone’s motivations from afar. 

Seventeen hundred years after he lived on Earth, the influence of Saint Constantine, 4th century ruler of the Roman Empire, remains as close as your parish church.

When we go to Mass on Sunday without fear of arrest, we have Constantine to thank. When we say the Nicene Creed together, we speak words which he recommended to bishops gathered at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

It was Constantine who made Sunday the universal day of rest for all citizens of the empire, an innovation which lasted in Western culture until about 40 years ago.

Constantine provided tax relief for clergy, which in turn led to a tradition of tax relief for the Church, enabling great works of charity vital to the well-being of society from then until now.

By legalising Christian worship, by ending the persecution of Christians, by restoring their property confiscated during the persecutions, by beginning a widespread programme to construct church buildings, and by his tireless work to harmonise variations of Christian belief across his realm, Constantine was unquestionably the third most influential person – after Jesus Christ Himself and St Paul – in the history of Christianity.

That he was able to do these things in a world deeply embedded in its paganism, and surrounded by pagan government officials, not to mention lethally ambitious pagan rivals, was miraculous in itself. That he also managed to do them without fracturing an empire given to violent over-reaction to change, speaks volumes about his patience and wisdom.

Before his conversion, Constantine seems to have done deep soul-searching as to which God or gods to follow. He was clearly drawn to divinities associated with light, at first physical, then metaphorical and moral – Apollo, the Mens Divina (Divine Mind), and Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) – before he centred his faith in Christ.

Once he did this, he increasingly sought advice from Christian bishops and realised that his vast power could and should be used to promote Christianity.

If there were ever a Christian who needed the gift of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom, and the fruit of patience, it was Saint Constantine. Even as he held a deep desire to accelerate God’s kingdom in this world, he knew that, as secular ruler of diverse peoples, he needed to hasten slowly. Roman emperors relied on pagan support for the continuity and stability of society itself. Pagan temples were not just religious buildings – they were the hubs of urban economies, places where the people socialised, and where, often, schooling of one type or another took place.

Constantine managed to reduce (not eliminate) the backlash against Christians by tolerating all the religions of the empire, while progressively replacing the pagan traditions of worship with Christian ones.

Yet, because he was a political leader, and a supposedly all-powerful one, Saint Constantine is alternatively criticised for his sometimes violent behaviour as emperor, and for not bringing about even more change, in a sort of damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t way.

Specifically, Constantine’s late, death-bed baptism is used to suggest his life was insincere, but I would argue it points to the reverse: Constantine knew that his imperial position in an imperfect world meant he would sin; and his sins, unlike ours, had to be public and of a magnitude not permitted to many. His worst behaviour was truly terrible. In the light – or perhaps shadow – of this, his holiness was truly miraculous.

As a political leader, Saint Constantine knew well the power of the words, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ He knew the darkness, true, but did he not also seek ‘light from light, True God from True God?’

 

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