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St. Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles

Updated on July 10, 2012

A Holy Icon of St. Constantine

Constantine, Catholic Saint

Constantine the Great is quite well known to anybody who has taken a High School World History class. He is known to history as the first Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Constantine is famous among secular historians for creating the city of Constantinople on the site of the former Greek town of Byzantium, moving the capital of his empire from Rome to the new city.

A good history class would be remiss if they also do not mention Constantine's Edict of Milan. Issued in 313, Constantine's Edict extended religious tolerance throughout his empire; the immediate effect of this was to end major persecutions of Christians.

A bit less widely known but still frequently taught in school is Constantine's supposed conversion to Christianity. According to legend, Before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 against the rebel Maxentius Constantine either saw an omen in the sky before the battle (a Chi-Ro, the famous PX symbol of Christianity), or otherwise saw a vision of Christ in a dream the night before the battle. In any case, he told his soldiers to mark their labarums (military standards) with the Chi-Ro. His men won the battle, and Constantine became a Christian (he did not get baptized quite that quickly, however).

This is all well known. But there is a reason that Constantine is revered as a Saint by both Byzantine Rite Catholics (who are in communion with the Pope and just as fully Catholic as Latin Rite Catholics) and the Orthodox Church. Besides the Edict of Milan, which ended Christian persecutions throughout the Empire, Constantine also called for and presided over the famous First Council of Nicaea.

In the early 300s the first of many prominent schisms was cracking at the foundations of the Church-the Arian Heresy. This heresy, started by a bishop named Arius, questioned the divinity of Christ. Arius claimed that Jesus was a created being who was not equal to the Father in divinity; he was a god, but not the one true God like the Father. He wanted Jesus's Mother Mary to be named not Theotokos, the God-bearer, but Christotokos, the Christ-bearer. The heresy was extremely divisive, and Constantine called for a council to resolve the issue in 325, as it was dividing the Empire. He presided over the Council; it is still, however, considered valid amongst Catholics, as it was ratified by the Pope.

The Council ruled in favor of St. Athanasius the Great, Arius's opponent, and the Arian heresy was declared heretical; Constantine himself, however, appeared undecided on the issue and never came down hard on the Arians, allowing them to survive for several more years under his reign. Nevertheless, the First Council of Nicaea was considered a valid council by the Emperor and was instrumental in the establishment of orthodox Christianity.

Constantine also gave extensive grants of land and property to the Church, including the building of the famed Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Christian Bishops were allowed to take aggressive stances that other cult leaders did not dare to make, even the famously rebellious Jews; clearly the Christians were confident that they had Constantine's favor.

Despite all of his apparently pro-Christian leanings, Constantine was not baptised until he was on his death bed. His baptism was done by the Arian Bishop Eusebius of Nicodemia; despite being taken in by the Arian heresy, the Bishop had the ability to administer a valid baptism, as does even an atheist in the worst of circumstances, and his baptism is considered to be valid by the Church.

Some Christian historians question Constantine's faith in light of his reputation for great cruelty; specifically, he had his wife and eldest son executed, and his opponent in battle was strangled to death despite Constantine's public promises to the contrary. However, the execution of his wife and son was in fact not an extreme action; his wife tried to seduce his eldest son (he was her stepson) and when he resisted, accused him of rape; Constantine had the son executed for the rape and, when he learned the truth, executed his wife for treason. As for Licinius, his opponent in battle, he was also the Emperor of the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire. For awhile he ruled with Constantine, but after some time his cruelty became too extreme for Constantine to handle, and so he had him deposed through battle. His execution may have been necessary to maintain order.

In the end, though, it must be remembered that a proclamation of Sainthood only designates, ultimately, that it can be said with assurance that a particular person is experiencing the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven; since Constantine was baptised on his deathbed, it can be reasonably assumed due to that simple fact alone that Constantine the Great is also a Saint. He made many contributions to the Church thanks to his generous property and land grants and his huge role in settling the Arian heresy has earned him the title of Equal to the Apostles. His feast day is on May 21, the day before his death.


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