BY JEAN-MARIE BRALLEY
Emperor Constantine should be understood not just for novelty but also for his enduring influence, even beyond the Edict of Milan, said the Rev. David Meconi, SJ, in his talk “Constantine, Christ, and the Cross: The Edict of Milan 1,700 Years Later.”
Speaking to a sizeable audience in the seminar room of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s St. Joseph Center, Meconi said that Constantine’s Edict of Milan, issued in A.D. 313, did have some precedence. He explained that the Edict of Toleration, issued in A.D. 311 by Galerius, a Roman ruler in the East, had allowed Christians to practice their religion. Moreover, the Edict of Milan was jointly written by Constantine, Roman Augustus of the West, and Licinius, Roman Augustus of the East. It actually was a letter, not an edict, and was composed primarily for the good and unity of the empire, said Meconi. He said Milan was the place that the two emperors met, not the place of writing or issuance.
The Edict expanded the previous allowances for Christianity both in “topographical scope” and in intent, Meconi said. Christianity was granted the same rights as the Roman pagan religions, he explained.
“(The Edict) didn’t force Christianity on anyone,” Meconi said. “What (Constantine) did in 313 with the Edict of Milan was to allow the beauty of Christianity to shine unfettered. … The playing field had been leveled. Christianity was now able to evangelize without the bloody deaths of the martyrs but through the everyday lives of the baptized.”
Franciscan history major, Anthony Spadafora, who attended the talk, said the Edict is important for Christianity today because it was the catalyst for Christianity’s growth.
“I think the Edict was one of the biggest, the most crucial things in the growth of our faith,” Spadafora said.
An important event in Constantine’s life preceding the Edict of Milan was a vision which stories say Constantine received the night before an important battle. In this vision, Meconi said, Constantine saw Christ carrying His cross and heard a voice indicating that Constantine would conquer. In fact, Constantine was victorious the next day, said Meconi.
In addition to the Edict, Meconi described the Oratio, which is attributed to Constantine and is also known as the Oratio ad Santos, the Oration to the Saints. Meconi said this document is theological in nature as opposed to the Edict of Milan’s political tone. Meconi summed up the Oratio’s three main parts as Constantine’s defense of monotheism, the “fittingness of the Incarnation,” and a personal testimony to Christianity.
Meconi provided the audience with the historical lead-up to Constantine, including the brutal tortures and martyrdoms to which early Christians were subjected under the reigns of Roman emperors Nero, Decius and Diocletian, among others.
Meconi described Constantine as “one who knew the persecution of Christians but one who saw the integrity and the long-suffering of Christ’s faithful as victorious.”
He also listed some of Constantine’s other significant contributions to Christianity, including calling the Council of Nicaea and being the first imperial patron of the church.
Meconi holds a doctorate of philosophy in ecclesiastical history from Oxford University and a pontifical license in patrology from the University of Innsbruck. He is a professor in the department of theological studies at St. Louis University and the author of several books on patristic thought, especially Augustine’s theology and philosophy. His speech at Franciscan was part of the fall 2013 Distinguished Speakers Series, sponsored by Academic Affairs, Student Life and Advancement.