|In hoc signo . .|
Christopher Dawson also weighed in on the importance of this day. The Second Age of the Church, he said, "begins with the most spectacular of all the external victories which Christendom has known -- the conversion of Constantine and the foundation of the new Christian capital of the Christian Empire. This marks the beginning of Christendom in the sense of a political society or group of societies which find their principle of unity in the public profession of the Christian faith, and also of the Byzantine culture as the translation into Christian terms of the Hellenistic culture of the late Roman empire. Both of them were to endure, for good or ill, for more than a thousand years." (The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, pp. 49-50) The great age of the Fathers flourished under the new arrangement. Councils were convened and creeds formulated and deepened. The true faith spread far and wide. Dawson said it was "the classical age of Christian thought and the fountainhead of theological wisdom." But this great event and this great man did more than allow the theologians to probe more deeply the truth of the faith. The Constantinian "arrangement" allowed the faith to become available to the people across the empire: Jean Daniélou, "Prayer as a Political Problem," (1965) said that "This extension of Christianity to an immense populace, which belongs to its very essence, was hindered during the earliest centuries by the fact that it developed within a society [...] that was hostile. Belonging to Christianity thus required a strength of character of which the majority of men are incapable. The conversion of Constantine, by eliminating these obstacles, made the Gospel accessible to the poor; that is, to those not part of the élite, to the average man. Far from falsifying Christianity, this permitted it to perfect itself in its nature as being of the people." (I acknowledge the blog of Sandro Magister for this quote)
We should commemorate this day and the victory at Milvian Bridge with gratitude for the providential plan of God. Throughout the years, and especially in recent years, there have been those who lament the influence of Constantine. Jacques Maritain chides such critics as shameful for failing to understand the blessings and the limits of each age. He wrote -- "every vestige of the Holy Empire is today liquidated; we have definitely emerged from the sacral age and the baroque age. After sixteen centuries which it would be shameful to slander or repudiate, but which have completed their death agony and whose grave defects were incontestable, a new age begins." (Peasant of the Garonne, p. 4) Better still, Dawson wisely wrote: "there may be sixty [ages] before the universal mission of the Church is completed. But each age has its own peculiar vocation which can never be replaced, and each . . . stands in a direct relation to God and answers to Him alone for its achievements and its failures. Each too bears its own irreplaceable witness to the faith of all." (Historic Reality, pp. 58-59) In our age we have the witness given by Blessed John Paul II to the sign of divine mercy and to the task of the universal call to holiness.
It is a new age -- the age of democracy, freedom, globalism. For the Church it is the age of the laity. The Church neither seeks the patronage of the powerful, not to be the patron of a political party. As Maritain said after Vatican II, all the Church asks is freedom. Freedom to preach, freedom to form families and communities of faith, freedom to educate and maintain institutions of learning, freedom to heal and to maintain hospitals, freedom to speak out on matters of faith and morals, freedom to follow conscience in grave matters of life and death. But the enlightened despots of our age betray the cause of freedom as they seek to strip the Christians of their freedom, to muzzle them in the public square, to humiliate them in the courts and ridicule them through the media, and to thwart and to force the closing of their institutions. Yes, the new age is the age of freedom, but is also to be a new age of martyrs. So we swing full circle after 1700 years. First, we must insist that in this age of freedom, we have every right to go into the voting booth, "in hoc signo"; indeed, we must vote under the sign of the cross, in conscience. But second, we must also prepare for the consequences looming on the not so distant horizon. John Paul II saw it emerging under his watch. "The Church of the first millennium was born of the blood of the martyrs: 'Sanguis martyrum - semen christianorum'. The historical events linked to the figure of Constantine the Great could never have ensured the development of the Church as it occurred during the first millennium if it had not been for the seeds sown by the martyrs and the heritage of sanctity which marked the first Christian generations. At the end of the second millennium, the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs." John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente §37 Will the circle be unbroken? The plaintive hymn made popular by the Carter family rings out from my memory:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky