Constantine the Great? We know for certain that Constantine’s mother was a Christian. The Catholic Church still invokes her as Saint Helena. While the Eastern Orthodox Church also invokes Constantine as Saint Constantine, the Roman Catholic Church has a rather less optimistic appreciation for Constantine and has never granted him the honor of sainthood. The uneasiness of the Catholic Church in this regard is due to the fact that Constantine did not formally identify himself as “Christian” until he was at least forty years of age. Moreover, he received baptism just prior to his death.
For better or for worse, his reluctance to embrace Christ publicly in baptism was likely based on his deference to the Roman political agenda. He was baptized only before his imminent death. However, if we judge Constantine by his deeds, he seems to have been a great advocate of Christianity. He inaugurated construction on Rome’s holy sites by building the original Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, and the Basilica of Christ the Savior or Saint John Lateran. He not only exempted the Church from taxes, but even subsidized it with state funds. With the help of his mother he also commissioned the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to house the tomb of Christ. It seems that Daniel’s prophecy was becoming realized. Through the sacrifice of Christ and the suffering of the Church, the majesty of Rome had been transformed into an instrument of the Gospel. The Roman Empire became a tool in the hand of the Church.
Constantine wisely perceived that the emerging Catholic Faith would glue together his fragile Empire. However, he knew that the adhesive nature of the Faith would only hold if that faith remained one. Two heresies threatened the unity of the Church: Donatism and Arianism. Donatism was a rigorist movement that held that the sacraments administered by a lapsed cleric were invalid and that the Catholic Church in union with the Bishop of Rome was lax and corrupt. The Arian heresy taught that God the Son was not fully divine like God the Father but that the Son was merely the first and highest creature of the Father.
Constantine did not sit back and let these heretical movements jeopardize the unity of the Church or the unity of the Empire. In 316, Constantine settled a North African dispute concerning the Donatists. He ruled in favor of the Catholics. More significantly, in 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, remembered as the first Ecumenical or Universal Council of the Catholic Church. This council stood down the Arians and issued the Nicene Creed. Although modified in 381, the Nicene Creed is still recited every Sunday in every Catholic cathedral and parish in the world.
Five years later in 330, Constantine did the unthinkable. He moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from Rome to the rebuilt city of Byzantium. He renamed this city Roma Nova or “New Rome” and established it with a Senate and imperial hierarchy corresponding to the glories of Rome. It was a Christian city, and Constantine consecrated the new capital with the true cross of Christ found in Jerusalem by his mother Helena along other sacred relics. Constantine erected the extravagant Church of the Holy Apostles over the site of the temple of Venus. Statues of the Greek and Roman gods were modified to conform to angels, saints, or Christian virtues. After his death, this city of Byzantium that Constantine had renamed Nova Roma became known simply as Constantinople or “Constantine’s City”.
Only seven years after Constantine the Great had founded his Eastern capital at Byzantium he fell sick on Easter day in 337. Seeking healing, Constantine left Constantinople for the hot springs near the city of Helenopolis, a place Constantine named after his mother Helena. It was here that Constantine realized that he was dying, and so he attempted to return to Constantinople and ready himself for death. He never made it. Coming as far as Nicomedia, Constantine begged to be baptized and received the sacrament from the bishop of Nicomedia, a certain Eusebius. He had delayed baptism, claiming that he hoped to be baptized in the Jordan River like Christ. Constantine died on May 22, 337. He was sixty-five years of age. His body was transferred to Constantinople and interred in the Church of the Holy Apostles. There he was hailed as “Equal to the Apostles.”
As stated above, the Catholic Church never canonized Constantine as a saint. Even granting Constantine’s role in the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the Roman Church was not ready to canonize a man who was baptized on his deathbed. Was he truly great? It seems that his character is ambiguous. He is either a hero or a villain depending on how you read subsequent history.