St. Helen

(Fourth Century)

Helena, Empress, was not to the manner born. A native of Drepanum. in Asia Minor (it is said) and perhaps the daughter of an innkeeper, Helen nevertheless caught the eye of a rising Roman general, Constantius Chlorus. They entered a true marriage around 270 A.D. When they were living at Nish, in the present Yugoslavia, she bore him a son whom they named Constantine (Constantinus, i.e., “little Constantius”).

Constantius gradually became so influential and powerful that in 292 Maximian Herculius, Roman emperor of the West, named him coemperor, with the title of “Caesar”. Because he was now of imperial rank, Constantius decided to break off with the lowborn Helena. He then married Theodora, stepdaughter of Emperor Maximian. (Marrying the boss’s daughter is an old ploy!)

Constantine, nevertheless, kept very close to his mother, whom he dearly loved. When his father died in 306 and he was proclaimed emperor to succeed him, Constantine raised Helena, now about 63, to full imperial status. He gave her the name “Flavia Julia Helena”, assigned to her the imperial title “Augusta”, and issued a series of coins bearing her image.

Emperor Diocletian had divided the rule of the Roman empire among four “coemperors”. Constantine was to bring it back under the rule of a single emperor. In 312 he conquered his western co-emperor, Maxentius, on the outskirts of Rome. Up to then, the emperors had been waging war on Christianity, but the Christian faith attracted Constantine. In 313 he issued a decree ending the persecutions and granting Christians equal right to exist. He even enrolled as a Christian catechumen, although he received baptism only on his deathbed. But Helena at once became a full-fledged Christian, and devoted the rest of her life to the good works of serving the poor and building and adorning Christian churches. Constantine gave her all the encouragement and aid she needed in these tasks.

Having built several churches in the West, Helen made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 324. Although now 80 years old, the Empress continued to assist the needy and build churches. The pagan emperors had sought to obliterate Christianity by building temples over Mount Calvary at the Holy Sepulchre. Constantine, Helena and Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem saw to it that these temples were razed and Christian basilicas erected on the holy sites. In the process, the very instruments of Christ’s passion – the three crosses, the nails, the crown of thorns, and the inscription were found near Mt. Calvary, buried very deep. The story has it that Helen tested which of the three crosses was that of Christ by touching each to a dying woman. When one of the crosses brought about the woman’s cure, it was concluded that one was the true cross. The discovery of the crosses was indeed a fact, and segments of Christ’s cross were soon sent to principal churches throughout the world. But the account of Helen’s role and the miracle is possibly only legendary.

St. Helena spent her last years in the East, where her son now lived. She supervised the erection of churches not only in Jerusalem, but on other Bible sites, especially the Mount of Olives and Bethlehem. Although a woman of supreme prestige in the Christianized Roman Empire, Helen made little of her status. She dressed simply and refused to stand on ceremony. It was her preference to attend church as a member of the crowd of “praying women”. The historian Eusebius admiringly said of her, “though empress of the world and mistress of the empire, she looked upon herself as servant of the handmaids of Christ.” She died in the East around 330 A.D. Her body was brought to Rome for burial and her splendid porphyry sarcophagus is now in the Vatican. All women named Helen, Helena, Helene, Ellen, Elaine, Eileen, Ella or Nell can claim as their patron this devout and humble queen.

Helen, though born a pagan, was a “natural Christian”. As such she recognized the cross of Christ as the symbol of the most important fact of the world, that through it Christ saved mankind. She might well have expressed this faith in the words of a later Latin hymnodist: “O Crux, ave, spes unica”: “All hail, O Cross, our only hope!”

--Father Robert E McNamara