Since today, August 18, is the feast of St Helena, we are privileged to have the chance to chat with her.
JF: Hello St Helena, the Empress and a holy woman, walked with us in this world in the year 249 until 330 A.D. The lovely Mother of Emperor Constantine. I wonder what a beautiful experience it would be when you have somebody who is so close to your heart, that is instrumental in changing the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Do you mind telling us about yourself?
SH: First of all I have to make it clear that I am not the daughter of “Old King Cole” of Caercolvin in Britain, as I was once thought to be. In fact I am just a daughter of an innkeeper in Drepanum in Bithynia (i.e. modern Turkey).
JF: Oh thanks for clarifying that first. And where were you born exactly?
SH: As I said above, I was born in this remote place in Drepanum Bithynia, in 249. But I left that place twenty years later.
JF: Is there any particular reason why you left your birthplace?
SH: Well, one day, a certain Roman General was passing by our place. His name is Constantius Chlorus. He caught sight of me and so he asked for my hand in marriage.
JF: And did you accept his proposal?
SH: Oh well, he confessed that he fell in love with me, so I accepted him.
JF: And it was then that you have to leave your birthplace and go with him?
SH: Yes. I went with him, and then later on I gave birth to a son, whom we called Constantine.
JF: Oh it should have been a joyful moment for both you and your husband to have your first born son.
SH: Indeed. At first he acted as a good husband to me and as a father to my son.
JF: Why? Did he change?
SH: Absolutely! It was in 293, he was made “Caesar”, you know a ruler of Gaul, Spain and Britain. When he was elevated into that office, he began to feel embarrassed of me being a woman of humble birth as his wife.
JF: Oh, that’s bad. What did he do?
SH: Obviously, he divorced me, and then married to the step- daughter of Emperor Maximian, Theodora.
JF: Did he take your son Constantine, with him?
SH: Fortunately, no.
JF: So you were left behind raising your only son on your own?
SH: Yes. For the next few years after that, I was really struggling to raise him as a good boy. What I focused more on then, was to cultivate patience and hope for the good fortune of my lovely son.
JF: You’re an amazing mother Saint Helen!
SH: Well, after sometimes I learned to cope up with the hardness of being alone raising my only son. In fact, I learned not to worry much. And it did help for the somehow fortunate life of my own son.
JF: How can you say your son has a fortunate life? Can you please tell me more about him?
SH: In 306, Constantius died so Constantine became the successor of his father as “Caesar”. He was doing well. In fact not long after, he was established as the emperor of the Western Roman Empire.
JF: Oh, that’s great. And did he do well as an emperor?
SH: As far as I know yes. But at that same year, he had to engage in battle against Maxentius.
JF: And did he end up triumphant after that battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28,312?
SH: Yes, because he said that before that climactic battle, he saw a vision of a cross in the sky, saying to him that through that sign he will defeat and conquer the enemies.
JF: Wow! That’s incredible!
SH: It was. And to even more acknowledge his respect of the Cross, he made an edict, commonly known as the Edict of Milan; he made Christianity the official religion of the whole Empire. He went on to inaugurate a policy of official toleration toward Christianity.
JF: Thanks be to him. But did it not trouble you then, being his mother, but yet not a Christian yourself, in a Christian empire?
SH: No, not at all, because my son did not really force me to embrace Christianity as well. He brought me to Rome and made me live in his palace, and made me an empress shortly later. It was in Rome, when even at the quite late age of 63, I embraced Christianity as my own religion.
JF: Did your son get himself baptized into the Catholic faith while he was reigning as emperor?
SH: No, he delayed his own baptism until his deathbed.
JF: That’s quite distressing, but anyhow, as long as he embraced the faith at the end. That would have given him much consolation as he left this world. And how about you, as an empress, what did you do?
SH: In 324, when Constantine defeated Licinius and conquered the Eastern Empire, I seized the opportunity to leave for Palestine to venerate the places made sacred by the bodily presence of our Lord. I travelled slowly yet gladly to be out of Rome’s poisonous atmosphere of scandal and intrigue. On the way, I used my power as an empress to give money to the poor, to free the slaves in the imperial mines, to give special privileges for cities and private citizens.
JF: That’s a courageous and daring act of you! And did you get to Palestine at last?
SH: Yes, definitely. When I arrived in Palestine, I assisted Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem who had been authorized by Constantine to clear the sites of the Holy Places and to build churches on them to commemorate the events in the life of Christ.
JF: I heard that the two large basilicas – one at Bethlehem and the other on the Mount of Olives – were erected at your direction.
SH: I helped. I was also at the same time hoping to find the real cross of our Lord in Mount Calvary, but only God knows if I’ve really found the real one.
JF: Okey thanks so much St Helen for being with us today for this wonderful chat. Thanks for your example and for your great contribution to the development of Christianity in your time which we are benefitting now.
SH: Glory be to God.
It is difficult if not impossible to establish the fact if she had actually found the true cross of which Jesus was hung. The tradition of belief that she found it has become popular only sixty years after her death. What can be a probable is that there might be someone in her own time who had discovered the cross, or she might have really found it. Who knows?
She stayed in Palestine for the rest of her life and never returned to the imperial court. She became a familiar figure in the churches and Holy Places. She was seen plainly dressed and praying with devotion. She died roundabout 330. She was upheld for her charity, her prudence, and her piety. The Christian world owes much to her imperial power and her beneficent influence over her son.