On October 28, 312 the Roman emperor Constantine, 32, faced a challenge to his rulership of the Empire. His father, Caesar Constantius had died and Constantine had been proclaimed Caesar Augustus by the armies he was leading. But he was not in Rome at the time and back in the Eternal City Maxentius, was declaring for the title. To make matter worse, Maxentius had at his command a far greater force than the legions loyal to Constantine.
The challenge, then, was to defeat the contender to the throne and get into the city of Rome.
Meanwhile the Christians throughout the empire had to be wondering about the fate of their persecuted community now that Constantius had died. He had been a protector of Christians, whose personal fortunes seemed to have been tied to the whims of a succession of fickle and even insane Emperors since the very beginning of the Church.
What our early Christian brothers and sisters wanted from their government was first of all the freedom to worship and to proclaim the gospel to their neighbors without fear of losing their livelihood — or their very lives. But optimally, they hoped for more.
They hoped for what we American Catholics hope: for the chance to bring to bear upon the decisions of government the values of our faith – the upholding of human dignity and the sanctity of human life. We would like for our country to be the holy land that we pray for it to be:
America, America, God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.
And our early Christian friends were no different. What they wanted was for the Roman Empire to be holy. They wanted the emperor to acknowledge the sovereignty of God, to recognize as Lord the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. For this very thing, generations of Christians had prayed while others, equally devout, concluded that such a thing was a sheer impossibility.
The night before he faced the army of Maxentius at Milvian Bridge, Constantine saw a vision of a Cross in the sky, inscribed with the words, “In this sign conquer.” Trusting in the vision, he had his soldiers paint the sign of the Cross on their shields. The much greater force was defeated and Constantine became the first Roman emperor to embrace the Christian faith.
Directly after his victory Constantine granted tolerance to Christians and next year he issued at Milan the famous edict of tolerance granting Christians and all others freedom in the exercise of religion.
One of our dear Christian brothers of the time, Lactantius, expressed the feeling of emancipation and gratitude they all felt: “We should now give thanks to the Lord, Who has gathered together the flock that was devastated by ravening wolves, Who has exterminated the wild beasts which drove it from the pasture. Where is now the swarming multitude of our enemies, where the hangmen…? [G]od has swept them from the earth; let us therefore celebrate His triumph with joy; let us observe the victory of the Lord with songs of praise, and honor Him with prayer day and night.”
Christians were released from the prisons and mines, and greeted with great shouts of joy by their brethren; the churches were overflowing; and those who had fallen away under the pressures of the persecutions sought forgiveness and were restored to communion.
But the Roman Empire would not last. Constantine had been fighting Germanic barbarians before he became emperor and the struggle to defend the long borders of the empire would finally be lost about 150 years later. And in contemplating this event, St. Augustine would pen The City of God, a monumental treatise on the relationship between worldly power and the Kingdom of Christ.
Ever since an emperor became Catholic, Christians have had to grapple with the proper balance between holding and exercising political authority and submission to the apostolic authority of Christ. It has been a struggle, and from the beginning of it, Catholics have erred in sins of commission and sins of omission — both in using power illegitimately and in failing to use what power they had to do the good they could have done.
Since Constantine, we have conquered many times under the sign of the cross, but conquered best perhaps, as Our Lord did, not merely under, but on the cross.