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59. Helena, apostle of tolerance

The virtues we try to practice and live in our own small world, as educators and bearers of a new civilization, are the same qualities that have guided some very important moments in the history of Christianity and of our civilization. Hence the sense of history presented here, which relates to the facts linked to Constantine and his mother Helena. Welcoming, tolerance, search for identity, these are messages we can now make our own.

María Lara Martínez


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         (María Lara Martínez)

At the beginning of the year 313, the Roman Empire made a choice worthy to be written in gold letters for posterity: the end of religious persecutions. At that time, there were about 1,500 bishoprics and an estimated 5 to 7 million, of the 50 millions that made up its population, professing Christianity.

In the journey of faith, from the catacombs to the basilica, Flavia Iulia Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, was instrumental: a humble and rejected woman not only succeeded in spreading tolerance in the empire, but also broke new ground in the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She never dreamed of becoming Christian, she did not want to be empress and yearned to get married as any maiden.

She achieved the first two goals properly but she failed on the apparently simplest one, the third one, however, not even the repudiation managed to remove from her countenance the traits of joy.

She was the first archaeologist, the relics of the Passion discovered on Golgotha are today scattered across the planet; a shroud that witnessed the Resurrection is kept in Turin near the Josephites of Murialdo’s mother house, the Holy Shroud.

Helena really experienced the feeling of being loved, an emotion that fifteen centuries later, would lead Murialdo to utter “God loves me. It’s true! God loves me. What a joy! “And, in short, it exemplifies the founder’s advice to not act as a philanthropist” but as an apostle by spreading the kingdom of Christ on earth … in unity of action and friendship. “


  1. In hoc signo vinces

In the transition from the III to the IV century Christianity had grown in numbers and strength and Rome needed to take a decision: to exterminate such a cult or to accept it. Emperor Diocletian attempted to eliminate the new creed, but failed and we can say that such a system, the Tetrarchy, designed as an administrative formula of government of the Low Empire, succumbed in the attempt.

The association between the Caesars and the Augusti with Roman deities like Jupiter and Mars, fictitious linkages in seeking to emphasize a charismatic legitimacy, turned obsolete , but Diocletian persisted in emulating the lethal Nero, unleashing along with Galerius in 303 the “great persecution” with the desire to restore political unity, “threatened” by the relentless rise of Christianity. Among other atrocities, he ordered to demolish churches, to burn copies of the Bible, to deliver to death the ecclesiastical authorities, to deprive Christians of public office and civil rights , forcing them to make sacrifices to the gods under death penalty.

In 306 a group of officers of the garrison of Rome offered the title to Maxentius, son of the powerful Maximinian. The intriguing young prince called himself “the undefeated prince” and in consulting the Sibylline books on the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he was informed that the enemy of Rome would perish, an omen that instilled optimism in entering combat. The emperors were believers in magic. What better to accurately prepare the strategy, than consulting soothsayers and augurs so that through the flight of birds or the entrails of mammals, give to the legions the verdict of fate?

They say that in 312 Constantine, brother in law and rival of Maxentius, saw in the sky a shining symbol with the motto “In hoc signo vinces” (“in this sign you will conquer”), and thus the battle of Milvian Bridge opened the doors of the City. Maxentius drowned in the Tiber, Constantine’s mother, Helena, who had recently become a disciple of the Galilean, went to meet him in Rome, and she will reach in a few decades the peak to the early Christian iconography.

In 313, despite the rivalry between Licinius and Constantine, visible heads of the East and the West respectively, an irenic pact was signed that came to join the edict issued in Nicomedia two years earlier, under which the legal existence of the Christians was recognized. About the sincerity of the covenant of Galerius we can always have doubts considering that the fresh escaped from the catacombs would pray to their God so that the “Republic” would continue intact, so that they could meet and build temples. However, we must recognize that, in so far as the bloodshed was reduced, it was a milestone in an Empire where the gladiators of Christ were devoured by wild beasts.

But Constantine, away from attributing to Christianity a prominent place, it seems like he would get the benevolence of the divine in all its forms and, therefore, despite favoring the Church he continued to worship the Unconquered Sun. In any case, in 313 paganism ceased to be the official creed of the Empire and Christianity received legal recognition, boosting its flourishing not only through the blood of the martyrs, seed of new vocations, as Tertullian recognized, but also through legislature.

  1. The Edict

The Roman Pantheon had reached completion over several centuries, with deities and domestic divinities, with the worship of one’s ancestors and with the indigenous deities assimilated after the Romanization process in many parts of the Empire. But Christianity sparked a revolution of conscience, demolishing dams of hypocrisy and convention surrounding the Roman cult.

The Christian does admit neither ambiguity nor attitudes politically correct. He will respect Caesar but he will never venerate him because a Christian worships only one God. Such exclusivity would endanger the life of the followers of Christ, while Jews and the followers of Oriental mysteries (Mithras, Cybele, etc.) had a less risky position in combining eclecticism and syncretism, by putting a candle to their divinity and another to Caesar.

The fourth century was not over yet when, with the Edict of Thessalonica (380), Theodosius made Catholicism the official religion. It was a difficult period in which the rules were changed. There’s the legend of excommunication decreed by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, on the Spanish emperor after the revolt and subsequent massacre in Thessalonica. The Council of Nicaea (325) had tried to stop the bitter disputes with the Arians, but Theodosius inherited an Empire mired in a deep crisis. Towards 395 it will be divided, and in 476, the western half would fall under the pressure of the Germanic peoples, with only Byzantium surviving in the East

The steps taken in recent centuries for pluralism (democracy, constitutionalism, above nation organizations, etc.) are outstanding but the Edict of Milan has not been equaled, considering that, in the twenty-first century, 350 million Christians suffer religious persecution and attacks have increased 309% in the last decade. Would hopefully the ecumenical colors that rose the decree coined by the son of Helen, the inn keeper of Drepanum above all the other imperial provisions , shine on the planet today

  1. Helena, the pilgrim Empress

The conversion of the Empire is preceded by the shift from paganism to Christianity experienced personally by a humble woman, whom the Church celebrates every August 18 in the name of Santa Elena.

In 250 AD, Flavia Iulia Helena was born in a humble home in Bithynia. Working as innkeeper in the family tavern, she met Constantius, a young Illyrian who progressed rapidly in the cursus honorum. The result of this union would be the birth at Naissus, in 272, of her son Constantine.

But soon, ambition led Constantius to repudiate Helena and marry Theodora, stepdaughter of Emperor Maximian. He will father six children from Theodora : Flavio Dalmatius, Julius Constantius, Hannibalianus, Constanza, Anastasia and Eutropia, even though he continued to be concerned about the military career of his eldest son particularly when he would be hailed as Caesar by the father’s troops. Since then, Helena’s life was spent in the palaces of Rome and Trier (Trèves) . Her conversion to Christianity will occur much later when she was around 76 years of age and had started the adventure of taking the road to Jerusalem. Her purpose was to find the Cross of Jesus, a decision taken after revelations in a dream, according to historical sources of late Antiquity. The constructions, among others, of the basilicas of the Holy Sepulchre on Golgotha and of the Nativity in Bethlehem are due to Helena. In the fourth century, other travellers, as the pilgrim of Bordeaux, the nun Egeria, will follow in her footsteps for Palestine and in the Middle Ages, through the expeditions launched by the crusaders, there would be many fights for the recovery of the Holy Places.

Helena died in Rome In 330 and was buried in the imperial villa near the church of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, in the mausoleum at duas laurels, built immediately after the victory over Maxentius. The porphyry urn that housed her body went to the cloister of Saint John Lateran in 1627, at the time of Urban VIII, in the late eighteenth century to the Vatican Museums, under the pontificate of Pius VI. In 1821 the remains of Helena would be entrusted to the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre in Paris, being deposited as a relic in the church of Saint Leu. Her head rests in the crypt of the cathedral of Trier , which also houses the Holy Tunic .

The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, where parts of the True Cross, several nails, the sponge soaked in vinegar, the crown of thorns, the inscription (commonly known as INRI) and the cross of the good thief are guarded, is erected above the palace where she lived in Rome, Domus Sessoriana, Fragments of the Cross are venerated in churches scattered worldwide . The twenty steps of the pretorium are preserved in the Scala Santa, the former papal chapel of San Lorenzo in front of St. John Lateran in Rome. Constantine named in 327 Drepanum, hometown of his mother, Helenopolis and erected statues in her honor in the mythical Rome and in Constantinople, the new capital of the Bosphorus.

  1. The Gospel of Helena

Helena staged great lessons and are all contained in the Gospel, because God dwells in the Word, and the Word brought joy to a world living in darkness waiting for the Messiah. Because every life is God’s work and the creature was made in His image and likeness, Jesus spoke in parables unfolding, through comparison and metaphor, the scene of Creation and the interiority of the self. In his preaching he shows us that nothing is impossible for the Father and that the last will be first (Matthew 20, 16).

At Bethlehem the good news came through a star ratifying the prophecy : “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel” (Miqueas, 5, 2).

The prophet contemporary of Isaiah (the two lived around the eighth century BC) opposed the momentary crisis of Judah to the lasting deliverance. Also in the life of Helena sadness was fleeting compared to the length of salvation.

The shepherds, besides the magi with the herd of camels, worshiped Jesus but his own did not recognize him: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53: 3). They were waiting for a prince entering on a chariot of fire, slaying with the sword all opponents; instead he got onto a boat in Genezareth wearing a tunic and sandals. He hated the revenge, after the Last Supper he stopped Peter and scolded him for cutting, in his defence, the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18, 11). And “to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1, 12).

The protagonist of our research was not a doctor, she just had basic schooling. Nor had she the power to lay hands or perform miracles. She spoke Latin and Greek not as a sign of erudition, but because these were the native and international languages in the West. The prophecy caught her frightened, for her vision of Golgotha was not a foretaste of what was going to happen but a reminder of the suffering of the King of the Jews. Unknowingly she felt the presence of God as the sages of the Acropolis, who placed the greatest good in virtue, reflection of an Idea that later came to match the features of the Father.

She intended to be a wife, she stayed with the desire to have a betrothal on Earth that turned her into a covered, legitimate wife, but she could not contain her excitement when she realized, after baptism, the prophecy of Isaiah:

“For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name, and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God.

For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.(Isaiah 54,5-8)

“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise] your foundations with lapis lazuli. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. .(Isaiah 54,11-14)

She aspired to God, as the First Letter to the Corinthians incited us to do (Chapter 12) regarding the sharing of gifts: “Perchance, are all apostles? Or are all prophets? Or all teachers ? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. “

Helena had to drink a bitter bloody chalice when she learned of the death of her grandson Crispus, by order of Constantine, who, in a fit of anger had him executed behind the slanders of his wife, the evil Fausta. But she never got tired of making friends along the way. Thanks to her mediation in 313 the freedom of worship in the empire was reached, and again, without trying to get a label, Helena became an apostle of tolerance. Christianity had its dignity restored and she helped to expand the right to freedom in a time of slaves.

As an old woman she arrived in Jerusalem. Like Mary Magdalene she saw the cross and the nails but the slab of the tomb lay empty. The Gospel can be preached only by the language of joy and Helena was also the architect of the good news archeology will announce, too.

“Woman, why are you crying?, Who is it you looking for?” Asks Jesus to Mary Magdalene (John 20, 15). An Issue that still today the Christians try to answer through the Eucharist with the promise of meeting: “I stand at the door, and knock: if anyone hears my voice and opens the door ,I will come in and eat with that person and they with me” (Revelation 3: 20 ).

Apostolate and tolerance are two concepts, which Murialdo Family locates as the forerunners of action: educating to interiority and gratuity with a welcoming attitude and optimism, educating to freedom and responsibility through a climate of dialogue, educating to peace and coexistence generating patterns of tolerance and peaceful ways, and educating for an healthy living through respect for the body and sensitivity to nature.

María Lara Martínez


– LARA MARTÍNEZ, Laura y María LARA MARTÍNEZ: “Santa Helena y el hallazgo de la Cruz de Cristo”, Comunicación y Hombre (revista interdisciplinar de Ciencias de la Comunicación y Humanidades), número 3 (2007), pp. 38-50.

– LARA MARTÍNEZ, María: El velo de la promesa, 8ª edición, Madrid, Alfonsípolis, 2013.

– LARA MARTÍNEZ, María: Memorias de Helena, Madrid, Alderabán, 2014.

María Lara Martínez, historian and writer, European Doctor in Philosophy and Professor at the University of Madrid -UDIMA-, is the author of “The veil of promise”, a work that won the Historical Novel Prize “City of Valeria” and that is now in the 8ª edition, and Memoirs of Helena, the continuing saga of Constantine, the Cross and the Empire.

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