Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 16, 2005
St. Constantine defended Christ
This emperor of the Western Roman Empire proclaimed freedom of religion throughout the empire
St. Constantine — Feast Day May 21
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
He sprawls in his chair, inscrutable, preoccupied, contemplating the hilt of his broken sword. What is on his mind and why is this Roman officer lounging in the churchyard of famous York Minster?
The northern English city of York seems an unlikely place to find mementos of an early Roman saint. It is known for its enormous Anglican cathedral (minster) and for a long history of Vikings, Saxon and Norman occupants.
But here is a larger-than-life sculpture of future Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, whose personality dramatically rescued the besieged fourth century Christian Church.
It was the year 306 AD, and Constantine's pensive pose comes from his experiencing the death of his father, Emperor Constantius Chlorus at York and then being nominated by the army to be emperor of the Western Roman Empire, a claim that he knew would be immediately challenged.
Despite the immobile figure's concern with political/military affairs, his future would take directions he could never have foreseen.
From York, Constantine marched south towards Rome and six years later was inspired to adopt a Christian symbol as his standard before defeating an opponent at the battle of the Milvian Bridge.
He attributed this victory to Christ's intervention and, by way of his Edict of Milan in 313, proclaimed freedom of religion (including Christianity) throughout the empire, effectively ending long periods of persecution under his predecessors.
That same year, Constantine's mother Helena became a Christian and he began to call himself a follower of Christ. In 325, he convened the Council of Nicea.
The results became official Church doctrine in the form of the Nicene Creed, still used at times in today's liturgy.
The emperor supported his mother's search for the True Cross in Jerusalem, then in 330, established Constantinople (Byzantium) as his capital.
Baptized on his deathbed
Constantine was baptized on his deathbed in 337 and although the depth of his conversion has been disputed, he is recognized, particularly in the East, where he is considered Equal to the Apostles, as one of the Church's great defenders.
Visitors to the huge church behind his York statue are told of the long and complex history of the site. The original Roman headquarters in the centre of the walled city of Eboracum was succeeded by a series of churches. Norman Bishop Thomas of Bayeux then built a cathedral which, much modified over 300 years, became the present structure in 1472.
Impressive as the church is now, it must have astounded its neighbours struggling to eke out a living in their low-rise hovels. The interior of York Minster, largest medieval Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, is overwhelming and it's almost impossible to even list the major highlights of the building.
There are chapels dedicated to various saints, an elaborate quire, a circular chapter house, the great transept crossing, and sculptures and windows in vast numbers.
Fortunately, the cathedral survived the suppression and destruction of area monasteries and abbeys by Henry VIII in 1539 and, although no longer subject to Rome, remains much as it was then.
Despite persecution during the Reformation, including the martyrdom of St. Margaret Clitherow here in 1586, Catholics remained a force in York.
With relaxation of the penal laws, the underground Church was able to slowly emerge. St. Wilfred's mission, established in 1742, eventually became downtown York's parish church, built in 1864.
Mass at St. Wilfred's
Today, Catholic visitors can attend daily Mass and visit here at St. Wilfred's, conveniently situated just a city block from the minster, and savour the knowledge that right here, in the centre of York, one of the Church's great movers began his influential journey for Christianity.
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