On Sunday August 18 the Church celebrated the feast of St. Helen, Empress Augusta. Hers was certainly a life that went far beyond the royal titles and power that were justly showered on her by her son, Emperor Constantine the Great.
As I let the Holy Spirit lead me through her holy and heroic life, I became more and more fascinated by the way the Spirit of God acted in and through her. To begin with, Helen came from humble origins. As her life story tells us, little is, in fact, known concerning her early life. Helen came from Drepanum, later known as Helenopolis, today’s modern village of Hersek in the vilayet of Broussa in Turkey. As the 4th century bishop of Milan and one of the most influential ecclesial figures of the time, St. Ambrose (c. 340-397), relates to us about her, Helen was a “good stable-maid”.
Her gentle heart attracted the great Constantius Chlorus (250-306), who later became both a Caesar from 293 to 305 as well as a Roman Emperor from 305 to 306. Out of her marital relationship with him Helen gave birth to her only son, Constantine, around the year 274. Due to his newly appointed post as co-Regent of the West Constantius had to divorce Helen so as to marry Theodora, who was the step-daughter of Emperor Maximinianus Herculius.
This painful experience must have pierced Helen’s loving heart. However things took a decisive turn when, after the death of her husband Constantius in 308, her son Constantine, who was always loyal to his beloved mother, as soon as he ascended the throne as Emperor, called his mother Helen back at the imperial court and bestowed on her the title of Augusta. Constantine’s great love for his mother Helen was displayed in the honor he gave her. In fact, he even had coins minted that bore her image. Thanks to her son’s political influence, Helen was introduced to Christianity and finally embraced it. Now, with her imperial title of Augusta Imperatrix, the kind-hearted Helen was given free reign over the imperial treasury.
What really strikes in Helen’s life is the fact that when she was entrusted with the immense imperial power she immediately started to help not simply individuals but whole communities, thanks to her great works of charity. Her amazing life story portrays her as the one who searched for the poor and the neglected to support them. Helen did so because she made her own Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, and, as a Christian, she must have read them and heard them proclaimed to her in every Eucharistic celebration she devoutly participated in: `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’…`Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’… (Matt 25:34-36. 40).
Furthermore, Helen was humble enough not to forget her humble origins of being a stable-maid. Personally speaking, Helen’s humble and persuasive example of being close to people in need, powerfully reminded me and helped me understand the words addressed to me and my brother priests in the letter Pope Francis wrote to us on the 160th anniversary of the death of the Holy Curè of Ars, St. John Vianney, of August 4 2019:
“Nothing is more necessary than this: accessibility, closeness, readiness to draw near to the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters. How powerful is the example of a priest who makes himself present and does not flee the wounds of his brothers and sisters! It mirrors the heart of a shepherd who has developed a spiritual taste for being one with his people, a pastor who never forgets that he has come from them and that by serving them he will find and express his most pure and complete identity. This in turn will lead to adopting a simple and austere way of life, rejecting privileges that have nothing to do with the Gospel. ‘For his mercy endures forever.’”
Helen’s openness to Christ in the suffering ones of her time led her to care to preserve the Christian relics too. In fact, during the years 326-328, she went for a trip to the Holy Places in the Middle East. In her journey, Helen constructed many churches, especially the Church of the Nativity, Betlehem as well as another Church at the site of the ascension, the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives. Under her command the pagan temple dedicated to Venus, which was built over the site of Jesus’ death, was destroyed and excavations immediately commenced so as Christ’s cross be found. As a result of these excavations pieces of the holy cross, the nails of the crucifixion, Jesus’ tunic and pieces of the ropes that were used to tie Jesus’ cross were also discovered.
Helen’s love for the places of Christian worship makes me appreciate the comment Pope Francis made in an address he gave to a gathering of the pontifical academies in the Vatican on December 6 2016: “It is necessary that sacred buildings, starting with new parish churches,” he said, should offer “an oasis of beauty, peace and acceptance, favoring an encounter with God and communion with our brothers and sisters.” For the Holy Father, places of worship offer an experience of beauty that can “restore enthusiasm and confidence” and “encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path and raise its eyes above the horizon to dream of a life worthy of its vocation.” When transformed by God’s beauty Church buildings can become pivotal in “our search for meaning and happiness.” They can “liberate our daily lives … from darkness, transfiguring them, making them radiant and beautiful.”
Finally, St. Helen’s life story is for me an ongoing faithful living of Psalm 131 to which she faithfully witnessed by her holy life and the Church rightly proclaims as the responsorial psalm on her feast day, on August 18.
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and for evermore (Ps 131:1-3).
May you and me hope in the Lord each day of our lives as St. Helen humbly and magnificently did throughout her challenging and fruitful life journey!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap