Unless you were in Milan or the Serbian city of Niš, chances are you probably missed celebrations to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan.
Yet this commemoration, which fell Feb. 3, is one of the most important events in Church history, marking the date when Christians were set free from three centuries of persecution. For the first time, the faithful had the same religious liberties that other religious groups enjoyed: They gained legal protections that allowed them to build places of worship, and had their confiscated possessions restored.
In essence, the Edict of Milan that was signed by Emperor Constantine in 313 heralded the official birth of Western Christian civilization and the free societies so many enjoy today.
The extent of the persecution Christians had hitherto suffered is almost incomprehensible to the modern mind. Countless Christians were tortured and killed under the emperors Nero (who notoriously had St. Peter crucified in 64 AD), Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus. They then abated under Severus Alexander (208-235) who was sympathetic to Christians, only to flare up again under Emperors Maximus Thracian, Decius, and Valerian (253-260).
The persecutions culminated with Emperor Diocletian (299-311) and his contemporaries, Galerius and Maximian. Under Diocletian alone, an estimated half a million Christians were killed. The last persecution was organized during the reign of Emperor Licinius (308–324) but by that time, a push for greater tolerance had begun. An Edict of Tolerance was issued in 311, and although property continued to be confiscated, this was soon corrected by Licinius and Constantine, then respective Roman Emperors of East and West, when they issued the Edict of Milan in 313.
Seventeen hundred years on, the extent of the persecution facing Christians is not anything like the tribulations of the early Church. Yet if one compares then and now, disturbing parallels do emerge.
Edmund Mazza, a respected professor of history and political science at Azusa Pacific University, notes that the persecutions “started out innocently enough”: Diocletian wanted to “fundamentally transform” his society “following years of ineffective leaders, wars, foreign attacks, and deep-seated economic problems.” But he was criticized by the Christian author Lactantius for “acquiring monarchical powers not granted him by the Roman Constitution.”
Speaking to ZENIT, Mazza argues that a similar trend can be witnessed today, as Republicans and conservatives make the same criticism of the Obama administration. Critics cite the administration’s “legalization of indefinite detention and suspension of trial by jury against American citizens on US soil simply by categorizing them as ‘terrorists’; its threatening to fine and imprison citizens whose only crime is to fail to purchase government-mandated health insurance; deciding for itself what constitutes a ‘religious organization’; and forcing Christian (and other) employers to give money to insurance companies who will then turn around and cover employee birth control.”
He further argues that since birth control has a .5% to 5% failure rate, and since tens of millions of women are taking them, “we’re talking roughly 10 million abortions a year, or 10 times the number of surgical abortions, millions of early deaths these employers will now be morally complicit in.”
Diocletian’s persecution of Christians is said to have begun after his pagan priests blamed Christian court officials for making the Sign of the Cross, thus spoiling a court ceremony that predicted the future (during an animal sacrifice).The emperor then ordered all Christians in government and the military to sacrifice to pagan gods or be dismissed, but he left civilians alone.
“As the years went by, however, the death penalty was inflicted against Christian bishops and priests, and churches and Bibles were confiscated and burned,” Mazza explains. “Later decrees forced even ordinary citizens to violate their Christian beliefs or suffer martyrdom.”
Mazza says that likewise, the US administration’s actions against religious liberty “have only begun to be felt by military chaplains and Church institutions (and lay business-owners), not the man in the street.”
He adds: “Is it only a matter of time before it proceeds apace to a full escalation? We must pray for God’s mercy and support our bishops.”
Like many others in the Church, Mazza believes that until Russia is consecrated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart by bishops united with the Pope, then “persecutions against the Church” and the “martyrdom of the good” will increase. Such a prediction, he stresses, was made in 1917 when the Virgin Mary appeared at Fatima.
“Every Catholic in America should contact his or her bishop and respectfully request their participation in this act of entrustment, for freedom’s sake,” Mazza says.
* * *
Life for the post-Constantine Church wasn’t of course plain sailing, but it was not subject to the corruption myths that emerged during the Renaissance and the Reformation, and spread by Enlightenment historians such as Edward Gibbon and Jacob Burckhardt.
Questions over whether the Roman Empire surrendered to Christianity, or Christianity prostituted itself to the empire have long been disregarded in modern times, except in the fictitious works of authors such as Dan Brown and his potboiler, the Da Vinci Code.
“Constantine was far from perfect, but he was neither a corruptor of the Church, nor an intolerant zealot who destroyed all worship that was not Catholic,” Mazza says.
His view is echoed by other scholars such as the sociologist and historian Rodney Stark who has shown that, contrary to the thesis of Gibbon and others, paganism was not rapidly stamped out by state repression following Constantine’s vision and conversion, but gradually disappeared as people abandoned the temples in response to the superior appeal of Christianity.
Mazza concedes that Constantine conferred secular powers and privileges on bishops, but this was in the interests of justice and charity. “Since the bishops had reputations for honesty and resistance to bribery, the emperor, for a time, allowed secular cases to be appealed to Church courts,” he says. In another law, Constantine allowed slaves to be made free, “if the ceremony was witnessed by Christian bishops in churches,” he adds.
Historians have pointed out that in later decades and centuries, close involvement between the State and senior Church officials led to abuses, “but Constantine can hardly be blamed,” Mazza says.
Instead, he is to be remembered for being the protagonist in fostering the advent of Christian civilization in the West. The path for Christians thereafter was never smooth (persecutions would continue, most notably in Persia), but the liberty that Constantine had won allowed the Church to flourish for centuries to come. Furthermore, Mazza stresses, it is a little-known fact that it was actually Christians who were the ones to first develop the notion of religious liberty.
The Serbian city of Niš where Constantine was born is dedicating the whole of 2013 to celebrating the Edict of Milan, hosting concerts and other events. And on Sept. 21, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, will take part in other events in Niš, including celebrating a commemorative Mass.
As it will be a celebration that unites both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox, it is hoped Pope Benedict XVI may also take part. Niš may even prove to be a suitable venue for the Holy Father to finally meet Patriarch Kirill of Russia, but so far the Vatican has yet to confirm such a visit. The city’s celebrations end on Oct. 28.
Milan itself is currently staging an exhibition on the Edict of Milan at the Palazzo Reale until March 17, but strangely, the Feb. 3 anniversary passed without a mention in the Vatican and in Rome.
It will be interesting to see if, as society becomes increasingly secular, future anniversaries of the Edict may not be so blithely overlooked.