“Who shall find a valiant woman? Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her. The heart of her husband trusteth in her, and he shall have no need of spoils. She will render him good, and not evil, all the days of her life…. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: the woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised” (Proverbs 31: 10-12, 30).
It is amazing what a difference holiness can make in the world. In the Providence of God, situations that seem humanly impossible to resolve are sometimes remedied by individuals who are simply trying to live holy lives in the circumstances in which God has placed them. We are going to consider here three saints, all women of the early Church, whose influence changed the course of history for the better. Each of these ladies beautifully exemplifies the “valiant woman” — the strong, virtuous, and yes, feminine woman described in the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs 1 wherein Solomon’s mother enumerated for him the duties and virtues of the ideal woman whose worth is priceless.
St. Helena (250-330), St. Monica (332-387), and St. Pulcheria (399-453) — they touched three centuries, but none lived at the same time; each one entered eternity before the next one was born. All three of our saints were married. Helena and Monica were mothers and eventually widows. Pulcheria retained her vow of virginity even in the married state and lived the life of a nun while in the world. Two were empresses: St. Helena rising to that office by unlikely circumstances, while St. Pulcheria was born into the imperial family. But regardless of position, each of the three proved to be a valiant woman whose holiness was far-reaching. As we shall see, because of these three women: the Age of the Catacombs was brought to an end and the Roman Empire converted; heresy was condemned and truth expounded clearly for future generations; the Church obtained one of her greatest theologians; the Holy Cross upon which Jesus Christ wrought our redemption was found and duly venerated; holy places trod by Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were honored; alms and works of charity were performed for the love of God; and countless souls would be edified by their example throughout the ages.
St. Helena — Mother of a Christian Empire
In order to bring the effects of His Redemption to individual souls of all times and places, Our Lord, Jesus Christ, founded His Church. His last instructions to His twelve Apostles were: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 29:19-20).
Before the last one of them died (St. John in 100 A.D.), the Apostles had spread the Catholic Faith throughout the entire known world. In 64 A.D., Nero issued his infamous Edict of Persecution wherein it became a crime punishable by death to be a Catholic. The result was that, over the next two hundred and fifty years, there was a tremendous outpouring of Christian blood in ten major persecutions. The brutality and hatred shown against the unoffending Christians was such that it was evident that hell was throwing all its power at the infant Church in an effort to crush it before it could win many souls to Christ. St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori tells us there were eleven million Catholics martyred for the Faith during the persecutions. So powerful did the enemies of Christianity appear, that the conversion of the Empire from paganism to the True Faith would have seemed utterly impossible to anyone who was living at the time, except those trusting in the Providence of God to bring about such a miracle.
Our Lord was with the suffering members of His Mystical Body. The joy and fortitude of the martyrs and the stupendous miracles worked by some resulted in so many conversions that Tertullian would remark: “Our number grows in the same measure that you decimate us; the blood of the Christians is a sort of seed.” Fr. O’Reilly further summarizes:
“Wherever the name of Christian was found, the persecution raged. It would seem that Almighty God adopted this means to give His infant Church publicity and a sign of the stamp of divinity. Hence in His mercy and goodness He made the persecutions the fruitful harvest of souls” ( The Martyrs of the Coliseum ).
Helena was one of these souls won by the blood of the martyrs. Born around the middle of the third century, she was contemporary with the last four major persecutions. About 275, she married Constantius Chlorus, a Roman commander descended from the noble Flavian family. Both were pagan. Helena and Constantius loved each other and their first married years were happy ones, made even more joyous by the birth of Constantine. The couple undoubtedly planned and dreamed of a promising career for both father and son. That dream was partially fulfilled but only at the tremendous heartache of Helena. After Diocletian became Emperor in 284, he divided the leadership of the Empire between two main rulers (augusti) and two lesser rulers (caesars). Thus, Diocletian ruled in the East with Galerius as caesar; Maximian in the West chose Constantius, who, to have the position, had to repudiate Helena and marry Maximian’s step-daughter. Also, the children of the caesars were to be swapped as hostages. Thus Constantine, whose first formation was in the hands of his loving mother, was also taken away from the heartbroken Helena and sent to the palace of the wicked Galerius. We can only guess what sufferings these losses caused our saint. It could well have broken a weaker woman. Suffering, however, strengthened the soul of Helena, much as gold is tried by fire.
While Helena was bearing her cross, so was the early Church. Caesar Galerius was the real drive behind the tenth and worst persecution. But the drive behind him was a woman: his mother, Romula, who had a fanatical hatred of Christianity. Among other acts of deceit and malice, Galerius set fire to Diocletian’s palace, blaming the Christians. By means of such treachery, he succeeded in goading Diocletian into issuing the Edicts of Persecution of 303 and 304, which were put into effect in all the Empire except the provinces controlled by Constantius Chlorus (Britain, Gaul, and Spain). The good influence of his former wife must have contributed to Constantius’ unusual deference toward the Christians. Fr. Alban Butler tells us that when Constantius received the edicts, he gave the Christians among his officers and household the choice of sacrificing to the pagan gods or losing their posts and his favor. To the surprise of all, he discharged the apostates saying that persons so self-interested and treacherous to their God could not be depended upon. But those who had remained steadfast in the Faith, Constantius kept near him as his most trusted confidants.
In 305, Galerius forced Diocletian and Maximian to abdicate simultaneously, thus raising himself and Constantius to the title of augustus. Instead of making Maxentius (son of Maximian) and Constantine caesars, he installed two of his friends. So of the four new rulers, the only one not of Galerius’ clique was Constantius, now ill and dying. Constantine was in an extremely precarious position, for his very existence was a threat to Galerius. Helena’s son showed his mettle by escaping and making a wild ride 1600 miles across the Empire to arrive at his father’s deathbed. He was hailed “Augustus” in Constantius’ place. Galerius was furious; things were not going according to his plan. Constantine had escaped his clutches and within a short time no fewer than seven persons were vying for power in the Empire. That Constantine, the only one of this brutal crowd favorable to Christianity, could become sole ruler should be clear proof that St. Helena’s son was specially chosen by God to be the liberator of the faithful.
One by one Constantine’s rivals fell. Galerius’ demise is worth mentioning, for God’s vengeance descended in a display of condign justice upon this brutal wretch responsible for so much Christian bloodshed. Stricken with venereal disease, his body began to decay and was filled with worms so that the stench was unbearable even beyond the palace. At length, with no hope of recovery and still no repentance, he thought to appease God’s wrath upon him by issuing an Edict of Toleration on April 30, 311. The edict was received with joy by the Christians and brought some reprieve, but was largely ignored. Galerius died miserably a few days afterward.
A Miraculous Sign and a Decisive Victory
The most formidable rival seeking to undo Constantine was the cruel, unpopular Maxentius who was in command of Rome and who continued to persecute Catholics. Constantine’s armies crossed the Alps, defeated the armies of Maxentius in northern Italy, and made their way toward Rome for the decisive battle. Helena’s son at this time was about thirty-six years old. He was an excellent commander, well-liked, and possessed a purity of morals unusual for one in his position at the time. Knowing how much was at stake, Constantine, still pagan, humbled himself and prayed fervently to the God of the Christians. He was answered spectacularly. Early one afternoon in the year 312, Constantine and his forces saw in the sky a cross surmounted by the words, In hoc signo vinces! (“In this sign thou shalt conquer!”) Later, in a dream, the Savior told Constantine to put this emblem of man’s salvation on his standard and to have his men place it on their shields. This they did, and the standard thus fought under has been known ever since as the Labarum.
The battle began on October 28, about nine miles outside the city of Rome at a spot called Saxa Rubra (Red Rocks), where the Tiber River formed a horseshoe shape. Maxentius put the strongest part of his army, a heavily armed cavalry on horseback called the cataphracti , in the center. Constantine, in a wise strategic maneuver, drew the cataphracti out of formation, then defeated them with heavy maces. Seeing their strongest point beaten, Maxentius’ forces lost heart. Hemmed in by the river and the terrain, they panicked and fled toward the Milvian Bridge and another hastily thrown up pontoon bridge which they hoped to cross to get back within the walls of the city. But the pontoon bridge collapsed under the weight of so many fleeing troops. Maxentius was one of the many who, in heavy armor, sank and was drowned. Vastly outnumbered, Constantine, with the protection of the True God, had triumphed and was welcomed into the city the following day, amid the shouts and acclaim of the people. Known as the Battle of Milvian Bridge, this victory in 312 is one of the decisive battles of history. It was won in answer to prayer, was accompanied by a miraculous sign, and resulted in “the transfer to the side of the Christians the same formidable power which until then had persecuted them” (Mourret-Thompson, History of the Catholic Church ).
After his visions and victory, Constantine’s every action reflected favor toward Christianity. In 313, he signed the famous Edict of Milan which granted Catholics the freedom to practice their Faith. Later, in 324, he would defeat his final rival, Licinius, and become sole Emperor. One of his first acts following Milvian Bridge was to proclaim Helena Empress of his armies and provinces. Thus, his dear mother, whom he had always esteemed, directed her motherly instincts to the good of the Empire. Unlike Constantine, who put off his baptism to the end of his life (he was baptized on his deathbed in 337), Helena entered the Church soon after the victory over Maxentius. And her life conformed to that which she professed, as witnessed by Helena’s heroic practicing of the virtues of Christian perfection following her baptism. Her biographers say that her faith and holy zeal were incomparable and that she enkindled the same fire in the Roman people. We are told that her greatest delight was to assist at Mass, where she always wore plain attire. Fr. Butler says that she was fervent, zealous, and edified the Church by her example as her son labored to exalt it by his authority. Helena distributed alms among the poor, performed various charities, enriched and restored churches, and built new ones. We are told that she especially loved to wait upon religious as their servant at table. “Though Empress of the world and mistress of the empire, she looked upon herself as servant of the handmaids of Christ” (Rufin). Under her influence, the Lateran palace was given to the Bishop of Rome, and Constantine passed a number of laws reflecting Christian convictions.
Finding of the True Cross
Eager to venerate the places made sacred by Our Lord, and yearning to find the actual Cross upon which He merited our Redemption, Helena, at age seventy-six, journeyed to Palestine in 326 A.D. Years before, the Emperor Hadrian had put a mound of earth on Calvary and built a temple there to the goddess Venus. Helena ordered the temple destroyed and the dirt removed by her workmen. After much digging, to the joy of all, three crosses were found. But which was Our Lord’s? Miraculous means would be needed to find out. Rufin says that the Empress prayed aloud as the Bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, applied the crosses to a woman who was dying and also to a boy with a crippled arm. Two of the crosses had no effect, but the third cured them instantly. Thus it was determined which was the Holy Cross. St. Ambrose says, “Helena adored not the wood, but the King, Him who hung on the wood. She burned with an earnest desire of touching the remedy of immortality.” And so the joyous news of the finding traveled across the Empire causing tremendous excitement.
Part of the Cross was given to Bishop Macarius and covered in a rich silver case. This was placed in the new church the Empress had erected on Mt. Calvary. The rest of the Cross was sent to Constantine at Constantinople, where it was venerated. Part of this was later sent to Rome, where it is kept in the Basilica of the Holy Cross. Four nails, the spear, and the inscription on the Cross were also found. These were distributed throughout Christendom. Empress Helena had two other magnificent churches erected in the Holy Land: one on Mt. Olivet, the site of the Ascension, and another in Bethlehem. She also had a Church constructed in Fostat, Egypt, the town where St. Joseph and Our Lady fled with the Divine Child to escape Herod. In addition, Helena had a convent for holy virgins built at Jerusalem. While there, she discovered an icon believed to have been painted by the Evangelist, St. Luke. Known as Our Lady of Czestochowa, the icon was given to Constantine who built a shrine for it in Constantinople. During a battle, it was taken to the walls of the city, and the enemy retreated. Later it was moved to Poland and enshrined at a monastery in Czestochowa, from which it takes its name. The holy Empress also brought the relics of St. Samona and her seven sons to Constantinople; these were later translated to Rome. While traveling over the East, she beautified the city of Drepanum in Bithynia in honor of St. Lucian (+312), the priest and martyr buried there. Afterwards, Constantine renamed the city Helenopolis. According to John of Hildesheim, a friar of the Carmelite Order writing about 1370, St. Helena set sail to India and succeeded in obtaining the bodies of the three Wise Men (SS. Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) and placed them in the Santa Sophia in Constantinople, where many miracles were worked. Eventually the bodies were taken to Cologne, Germany.
In his review of the life of St. Helena, Fr. Butler says, “As her death drew near she gave excellent instructions to her son on how to govern the empire according to the holy law of God.” On August 18, 330, she died peacefully at the age of eighty, her son and grandchildren gathered around her. The name Helena means “torch.” Just as a torch pierces the darkness, through the influence of St. Helena the night of paganism was dispelled and the conversion of the Empire accomplished. Before the end of the century, Emperor Theodosius the Great (379-395) declared the Catholic Faith to be the religion of the Empire!
St. Pulcheria — Protector of Christendom
St. Pulcheria, our other Empress, has been called a second St. Helena. Her name means “beautiful,” and she was one of the most beautifully holy personages to arise in the Eastern Empire. Born in 399 and baptized by St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, Pulcheria was the granddaughter of Theodosius the Great. When Theodosius died, the Empire was divided between his two sons: Honorius in the West (capital, Milan) and Arcadius in the East (capital, Constantinople). Pulcheria was the daughter of Arcadius and his wife, Eudoxia. Our saint had an older sister who had died, a brother two years younger (Theodosius II), and two younger sisters. Her father was a weak ruler and allowed himself to be run by unscrupulous advisors and his ambitious wife. Worldly lives and imperial meddling in Church affairs marked the short reign of Pulcheria’s parents. Our saint’s mother died when she was five, and her father when she was nine. Unlike her parents, the princess Pulcheria was pious and prudent. Mature for her age, she possessed intelligence, wisdom, and great administrative ability. In 414, when just fifteen years old, Pulcheria was proclaimed Augusta, and acted as regent for her brother. Highly educated, fluent in both Greek and Latin, and skilled in history, literature, the arts and sciences, she was charged with the education of her brother, the future Emperor. Her first concern was to instill religious sentiments, for she believed this should be the guiding light for any leader. But like Arcadius, Theodosius II was weak, indecisive, and inept. One time, as a test, Pulcheria drew up a decree containing a death sentence for herself. Her brother signed it without reading it!
Under our saint’s direction, the imperial palace, in striking contrast to that of her parents and so many other courts, was transformed into a convent. She had made a vow of virginity and induced her sisters to do the same. Pulcheria spoke to men only in public; they were forbidden to enter the palace apartments. Fr. Butler tells us that her penitential practices were suitable to a recluse and that she was united in devotion and charity with her sisters. They ate together and spent their recreation either in dispensing alms, pious reading, or working on tapestry and embroidery. Any other time not given to affairs of the State, she spent with them in prayer and study.
As to her governance of the Empire, Fr. Butler says that she had chosen the wisest, most virtuous, and most experienced persons in the empire for advisors. In all emergencies she consulted heaven by prayer and then listened to the advice of her counselors, “yet in deliberations all of them readily acknowledged the superiority of her judgment and penetration.” Like St. Helena, Pulcheria built hospitals to care for the sick, hospices for pilgrims, and many churches, including three dedicated to Our Lady in Constantinople. She had the body of St. John Chrysostom brought back to Constantinople and enshrined in the Church of the Apostles. (St. John had died an exile in Cappadocia thanks to Pulcheria’s own parents.) Likewise, the relics of the Forty Holy Martyrs were translated and duly honored. Two other achievements of Pulcheria and Theodosius were the founding of the University of Constantinople and the formulation and publication of a code of law. As regent, St. Pulcheria guided her brother so wisely that never before had the Empire enjoyed such peace and tranquility.
Defending Truth in the East
This happy state, however, was to be interrupted by heresy and intrigue. To understand why, we must establish some background. In 330, the same year that St. Helena died, Constantine moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople, the city he had built expressly for that purpose. Located on the old Greek site of Byzantium south of the Black Sea, it had a perfect climate. This “New Rome” was solemnly dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary on May 11, 330. In his Church History , Fr. Laux says that the founding of Constantinople was one of the turning points in history in its consequences , for it transferred the center of gravity of the Empire from the West to the East. Thus when the waves of barbarians flowed into Europe bringing about the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, civilization (Roman law, Greek science, literature, and art) was preserved in the East until the Church had converted the barbarian nations and they were ready to receive them. Of even greater significance is the fact that the transfer of the capital moved the imperial seat away from Rome, the city of the Popes. This helped minimize interference of the secular power in spiritual matters. In the East, however, imperial meddling in religious affairs became a continual problem. All too often the clergy became tools of the Emperor rather than remaining loyal to the truths of the Faith and to the Vicars of Christ residing in Rome.
No sooner had the persecutions ended than an even greater problem arose to afflict the Church — heresy. Is this an evil greater than death? Yes, death releases a martyr’s soul to enjoy eternal beatitude; heresy destroys souls and plummets them into hell forever! Of the early heresies, those of major import arose in the eastern part of the Empire. Logically, the Church’s remedies — the first eight Ecumenical Councils — took place in the East. In most cases, these heresies would not have gained so strong a foothold had they not found partisans at Constantinople’s imperial court, partisans who used their authority to support the heretics and persecute the defenders of the Faith.
St. Helena had not yet discovered the Holy Cross when the first Ecumenical Council was held at Nicea in 325. She undoubtedly prayed for orthodoxy to triumph at this momentous Council which Constantine attended. And triumph it did. The impious wretch, Arius, 2 was exiled and his erroneous teaching that “Jesus was not truly God but only the most exalted among creatures” was condemned. The 318 bishops in attendance, many of whom bore the scars of persecution on their bodies, proclaimed the Divinity of MarySon, and gave us, as the formula for orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed, which is sung at Holy Mass. But even the great Constantine dabbled too much in Church affairs. Later his half-sister, Constantia, because of her close friendship with the supporters of Arius, swayed Constantine to recall the heretics and send St. Athanasius into exile. Arianism (under its less radical form known as “Semi-Arianism”) became so widespread that for a time the champion of orthodoxy, St. Athanasius, seemed alone in defending the Faith — “Athanasius Against the World.” The second Ecumenical Council was held in Constantinople in 381 and condemned Macedonianism, a variant of Semi-Arianism, which attacked the Holy Ghost as Arius had Our Lord. This council proclaimed the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, Mary’s Spouse, and its hero was the Patriarch of Constantinople, St. Gregory Nazianzen. But it was the third and fourth Ecumenical Councils held in Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) that bring us back to our story of St. Pulcheria. Pope St. Leo the Great tells us that we owe their success and, therefore, the upholding of the Catholic Religion — that One True Faith outside of which neither holiness nor salvation can be found — to her! So important were these first four Councils of the Church that Pope St. Gregory the Great said that they are to Tradition what the four Gospels are to Sacred Scripture!
When Theodosius was twenty, at the advice of Pulcheria, he married a pagan who was baptized Eudocia; two years later Theodosius II proclaimed her Augusta. At first this had no bearing on the management of state, but then Eudocia began to resent Pulcheria’s influence over her husband. This was fueled by Chrysaphius, a favorite eunuch of the Emperor (and a scheming court flatterer). Both Chrysaphius and Eudocia had heretical leanings and hoped to sway the weak and gullible Theodosius. Indeed, the battle over the mind of the Emperor became apparent at the third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, in 431) which dealt with the atrocious teachings of one Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. This doctrinal deviant had the audacity to divide Our Lord into two persons, one human and the other divine. Thus, to him, Mary was not truly the Mother of God, but mother of a human person closely united to God. With the support of Pope St. Celestine, the holy Patriarch of Alexandria, St. Cyril, rose up in defense of the Divine Maternity of Mary: “If Our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how can the holy Virgin, who has begotten Him, not be the Mother of God?” St. Cyril wrote letters warning the faithful, monks, and clergy. He also sent a letter to both Theodosius and Pulcheria urging them to defend the Divinity of Christ, but Theodosius was more concerned with securing the superiority of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (currently held by the heresiarch Nestorius). The Council deposed Nestorius, 3 defended the unity of Our Lord’s Person, and proclaimed Mary to be truly the Mother of God. Hearing the verdict, the blinded Theodosius assumed a power not his, rejected the council, and had St. Cyril arrested. He also arrested St. Cyril’s ally, Memnon, the bishop of Ephesus, and Nestorius, ordering a delegation from each side to appear before the imperial throne. But no sooner had he sent the order then he suddenly switched sides in favor of St. Cyril and the Council. St. Pulcheria had persuaded him to change his mind!
Now more than ever, Chrysaphius and Eudocia were determined to turn Theodosius away from his sister by lies and intrigue. Theodosius was finally convinced to get Pulcheria out of the way. She was forced to retire to a country home. Fr. Alban Butler says she “looked upon her retreat as a favour of Heaven and consecrated all her time to God in prayer and good works. She made no complaint of her brother’s ingratitude, of the Empress who owed everything to her, or of their unjust ministers.” Despising the world and seeking the sweet converse of God, Pulcheria would have stayed in exile were it not for the drastic turn for the worse in matters of Church and State in her absence.
A new heresiarch, Eutyches, had come upon the scene teaching Monophysitism, the belief that Jesus had only one nature, the Divine, and that He was not truly Human. Eutyches was the head of a monastery, not a position of influence, but it just so happened that his friend and godson was Chrysaphius. With Pulcheria and now even Eudocia out of the way (she had been accused of infidelity and was sent on permanent “pilgrimage”), the schemer had full power over the weak Emperor. Also, another man rose up in the heretic’s defense, Dioscorus, the successor of St. Cyril in the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Dioscorus was as bad as his predecessor had been holy. Besides supporting heresy, he was jealous of the superiority that the Patriarchate of Constantinople was assuming over Alexandria. When Pope St. Leo I authorized St. Flavian of Constantinople to excommunicate Eutyches, Dioscorus was determined to have revenge. He and Chrysaphius had Theodosius open another council at Ephesus in 449, where Dioscorus himself would preside. Known as the Robber Council, it was a complete sham full of irregularities and sacrilegious behavior. Dioscorus refused to read the Tome of Leo, a doctrinal treatise in defense of the Faith written by the Pope to settle the issue. (St. Leo had placed his treatise on the tomb of St. Peter begging him whose successor he was, to correct any error in it. After fasting and praying forty days, Leo found his treatise edited!) But in addition to ignoring the Tome, Dioscorus used threats and physical violence to intimidate the bishops present. He even struck Flavian, knocking him to the floor. His henchmen rushed upon the fallen bishop kicking and trampling him. He died three days later from the wounds, a martyr (St. Flavian: feastday Feb. 18). Hilary, the Pope’s representative, nullified the council with one word: Contradicitur! (“It is contradicted”). Then, eluding Dioscorus’ men, he barely escaped with his life to arrive in Rome and relate the details to the outraged Leo. (This Hilary would succeed Pope Leo and is also a saint — feast day, Feb. 28.) St. Leo anathematized Dioscorus and Eutyches, and wrote to Theodosius to rescind the unlawful decrees. The needled Emperor refused to do so, and Dioscorus presumed to excommunicate the Pope. In these straits, Pope St. Leo pleaded with Heaven and called upon Pulcheria.
Our saint returned to court where, Fr. Butler tells us, “she spoke in such a manner to the Emperor, that, upon the spot, he opened his eyes, and saw the brink of the precipice to which he had been pushed by designing persons….” His death followed shortly in 450, when he fell from his horse while hunting.
The happy result was that, at the age of fifty-one, Pulcheria became Empress. She chose for Emperor, Marcian, a widowed general and a good Catholic. To secure his acceptance by the populace and to give them a good manly ruler she offered herself in marriage as long as he would respect her vow of virginity which he readily agreed to do. Thus began a wise ruling partnership that brought good once again to the Empire and the Church. Chrysaphius was executed as an enemy of the State. With Pope St. Leo I, the sovereigns called the fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon in 451. There the injustices of the Robber Council were rectified, and the Tome of St. Leo was finally read. Upon hearing this beautiful masterpiece, the prelates spontaneously rose to their feet crying, “That is the faith of the Fathers, that is the faith of the Apostles…. Peter has spoken by Leo!” Thanks to St. Leo, St. Flavian, and Empress Pulcheria, the True Faith was upheld!
Marcian and Pulcheria, who had attended the sixth session in person, tried to get the decrees of the council accepted all over the East. They initiated a policy of low taxation and as little warfare as possible. So well did they rule and so esteemed were they by the people, that forty years later, when the citizens greeted a future Emperor, they would prevail upon him to “rule like Marcian.” Always a mother to the poor, Pulcheria willed her private estates to them. The holy Empress and virgin died, age fifty-four, followed by Marcian three years later. In a little over twenty years, in 476, the Roman Empire in the West would fall — overrun by the barbarian invasions. Like Pope Leo, St. Pulcheria could see it coming. We can’t help but think that her prayer as she died was for the Eastern Empire, whose responsibility had fallen upon her valiant shoulders, and that God, grateful for the fulfillment of the trust He had given her, answered her prayer. For the Empire in the East lasted exactly one thousand years from her death. St. Pulcheria died in 453, and Constantinople, the city of St. Helena’s son, fell to the Turks in 1453!
St. Monica — Model of Christian Mothers
St. Monica is a woman whose virtues can be imitated by anyone. She did not perform miracles or do anything spectacular by worldly standards. Nonetheless, she did great things for time and eternity — all in the course of fulfilling her daily duties of wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and friend. She bore suffering heroically, practiced patience bravely, and was a model in caring for the needs of others. Her name is inseparable from her son, the extraordinary St. Augustine, whose conversion and greatness were won by her prayers and tears. Augustine, one of the greatest intellects ever, is both a Father and Doctor of the Church. Bossuet calls him the “Doctor of Doctors.” His influence dominated the Western world for a thousand years and still carries through to this day. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, till it finds its rest in Thee” is but one example of so many pure gems of wisdom given to us by the great Augustine. He never forgot, though, and continued to tell others, that his conversion was largely due to his mother.
Monica lived between our two empresses. She was born in 332, two years after the death of St. Helena, and would enter eternity the same year that Augustine was converted — 387, twelve years before St. Pulcheria was born. Monica was from Tagaste, a largely pagan city in northern Africa. Her parents were Christians who brought her up in the Catholic Faith from her infancy. She was pious and spent many hours kneeling in church. Much of her training was in the hands of a trusted old maidservant who taught her to have a great love of God. She also sought to teach Monica holy temperance by forbidding her to drink anything, even water, between meals. Nevertheless, our saint fell into the practice of first “innocently” tasting and then taking longer sips of the wine she went to fetch. What might have become sinful intemperance was cut short when a stern correction from another maid opened Monica’s eyes to her fault. That we can fall little by little into greater disorder as a result of a seemingly small act of disobedience was a lesson Monica remembered henceforth. She also learned to put her trust in God rather than in herself.
At age twenty-two she was married to Patricius, a pagan nearly twice her age. Why her parents would choose such a match with its great challenges for their daughter is unknown. He was from a poor yet noble family with a good position in the town. But Patricius had all the rough manners and untamed passions of a pagan. Not only would he prove unfaithful to Monica, but he had a violent temper which would erupt in abusive shouting. If this weren ’t enough to bear, Patricius’ mother lived with them. She possessed similar vices and resented her daughter-in-law. The servants added further abuse, treating her rudely and making up stories to build the animosity of their mistress against the newcomer. But Monica, through prayer, trust in God, and practice of the virtues bore all of this abuse heroically. St. Augustine tells us that his mother “spoke little, preached not at all, loved much and prayed unceasingly.” She returned every slight and insult with kindness and gentleness. Never presuming to take over the household, Monica showed great deference to her mother-in-law. As the lady was growing old and becoming less capable of managing simple tasks, Monica discreetly anticipated her needs and made things easier for her. This did not go unnoticed, and the mother-in-law softened. She discovered the servants’ lies and unkindness toward Monica and would have punished them severely, but Monica pleaded in their behalf and brought peace all around.
The saintly wife ignored her husband’s unfaithfulness and treated him as though he were fully deserving of her every attention and favor. She learned to deal with the anger of Patricius’ choleric temperament by holding her tongue and looking at him, gently showing neither fear nor impatience. Later, when he calmed down, she would meekly point out his fault. When he showed repentance, she encouraged him to improve. She gave advice and example of Christian virtue to other women of the town who had similar problems. Monica was quick to anticipate the needs of others and would spend many hours in charitable service throughout the city. She was seen assisting Christian widows, attending the sick in hospitals, caring for orphans, and burying the dead. In addition to her peacemaking abilities, she had a gift for instructing others without being overbearing. Her words, kindness, and gentleness made them wish to be better, and so they were drawn to God. She assisted at daily Mass and led a prayerful life with eternity always in mind. Monica visited the tombs of the martyrs and had a confident trust in their aid. By rendering comfort to others, her bitter sorrows and sufferings were eased. Eventually, Monica had the happiness of bringing the entire household: husband, mother-in-law, and servants to the Faith.
Monica and Patricius had three children. Navigius and Perpetua were gentle, pious, and caused no problems. Both eventually married, Perpetua entering a monastery after her husband’s death. It was Augustine, the eldest, who brought heartache and trial to his mother. Monica had recognized the qualities of greatness in him and had worked especially hard at teaching him the truths of the Faith. She encouraged his natural desire for all that was good and noble by giving it a spiritual direction stressing prayer and virtue. In all her care, one thing was lacking. Because of an unfortunate custom of the time, baptism was delayed, and Augustine was deprived of the graces of the Sacraments. Attendance at non-Christian schools, with their pagan teachers, books, classmates, and conversation, began to turn Augustine away from Monica. Patricius, still a pagan, was no help. He didn’t understand Monica’s worries for their boy’s soul, but only saw the achievements their exceptionally bright son was making on his way to a brilliant career. Augustine was eager to put effort into what interested him but had an insurmountable dislike for anything causing him trouble. Sensual and pleasure loving, he found it difficult to fight concupiscence. Thus, he disliked work and punishment, but would play when he should be working and tell lies to avoid the punishment. He would also cheat. All this, even though he despised these sins in others.
Augustine had a gift for making friends. While he was a leader among them, he was also brought low by their bad influences. Not wanting to lose prestige in their eyes, he would pretend to be as bad as they and eventually became so. He took up with a mistress and had a son out of wedlock. The next crushing blow for Monica was Augustine’s embracing the Manichean heresy, which he would hold for nine years. Monica was so appalled at this affront to the good God that she turned him out of the house for a time and refused to eat at the same table with him. This greatly surprised Augustine, as did her dream that she related to him. She had seen herself standing on a narrow plank immersed in sorrow when a radiant young man smilingly asked the cause of her tears. Monica had answered, “I am weeping for the loss of my son.”
“Grieve no more, then, for, look, your son is standing there beside you,” the young man replied. “Be of good cheer for where you are, there shall he be also.” Monica awoke greatly consoled. When she told Augustine, he suggested that perhaps the dream meant Monica would be the one to change.
But she firmly held her ground insisting, “No, for he did not say, ‘Where he is, you shall be,’ but ‘Where you are, there he shall be.’” Mother Forbes, in her book on St. Monica, says that Augustine was even more struck by the earnestness of his mother’s answer than by the dream itself, though he pretended to make light of both.
Shortly after this, St. Monica sought help from a holy bishop, begging him to approach her wayward son in an attempt to bring him back to the truth. But the wise man advised her to let him alone for the present since he was still obstinate and puffed up with his new ideas. The bishop explained that he, too, had been led away by the Manichean sect, but it hadn’t taken long to see through their lies. Augustine’s quick mind and great desire for truth, he assured her, would enable him to discover his error in time. Monica began to weep in her great disappointment, for she had placed great hope in his help. The bishop, struck at her genuine concern and sadness said, “Go thy way, and God bless thee! It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish!” These words brought fresh hope to lighten Monica’s burden as she redoubled her prayers.
After completing his schooling, Augustine began to teach. Among his students were some of his friends and old school fellows, all of whom Augustine drew into heresy with him. Then his dearest boyhood friend and constant companion became seriously ill, was baptized, and began to recover. Augustine ridiculed the baptism but was rebuked by this dear friend. Augustine intended to dispute with him when the recovery was complete, but his friend relapsed and died. Inconsolable, Augustine wanted to leave so that familiar places would not remind him of his loss. He decided to go to Rome. Monica was against it and tried to dissuade him. Augustine lied to his mother, promising he wouldn’t leave but only wanted to see a friend off. Monica felt ill at ease; her intuition caused her to go with him. While she was praying in a nearby chapel, weary and worn from grief, pouring out her prayers to God, the wind became favorable. Augustine took ship and left for Rome. Who can imagine the mother’s heartbreak at having been so deceived, losing her son, and God’s seeming deafness to her prayer. Providentially, though, what seemed so cruel to her was really taking Augustine toward his conversion. Monica could not know this; she could only trust and persevere.
Augustine’s time in Rome did not go well. His teaching was unsuccessful, and he became deathly ill. In his Confessions he assures us that Monica’s prayers saved his life for, had he died unbaptized and unrepentant, her prayers would have remained unanswered, something God would not allow. Just as the wise bishop had said, Augustine became increasingly disconcerted with the Manicheans. Even their greatest “teacher” could not answer his piercing questions adequately. Living with one of the heretics in Rome allowed him to see the duplicity between what they professed and the immoral lives they actually lived.
When he received a teaching offer in Milan, Augustine set out for northern Italy. His persevering mother sought him out there. On her sea journey a great storm threatened to kill all on board, but from a vision she had of their safe arrival, she was able to comfort the sailors. In Milan mother and son met the renowned St. Ambrose, whose eloquent sermons impressed Augustine. He realized that the Catholic Faith could be intellectually defended. Augustine also read at this time the life of St. Anthony of the Desert, written by St. Athanasius. This book had a profound effect. At last he arrived at the truth, but his struggle to fight the flesh was immense. “Lord, make me pure, but not yet…. How long, O Lord, how long? … Tomorrow and tomorrow — why not now?” He rushed into the garden where he heard a child’s voice: Tole, lege (“Take and read”). Randomly opening the Bible, he read “85not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities… but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences” (Romans 13:13-14). At last Monica’s great desire was realized. At the age of thirty-three, in the year 387, St. Augustine (along with his son and companions) was baptized. For the occasion Augustine and Ambrose composed the Te Deum , that great triumphal hymn of praise sung by Catholics ever since. Further, Augustine let his mother know that he wished to become a monk. Her joy knew no bounds! God had answered her prayers in excess. St. Monica joined Augustine and his newly converted companions as they gave time to holy conversation.
Augustine said to her, “Philosophy means nothing else but love of wisdom. Now you love wisdom even more than you love me, and I know how much that is. Why, you are so far advanced in wisdom that you fear no ill-fortune, not even death itself. Everybody says that this is the very height of philosophy. I will therefore sit at your feet as your disciple.”
Augustine, Monica, and companions (including her other son, Navigius) set out for home, but Monica died on the way, at Ostia. Just a few days before her death, mother and son had been discussing and contemplating the joys of heaven. Augustine had at last come to recognize the holiness of his mother and to realize the depths of bitter sorrow he had caused her. Just as he began to appreciate her greatness and relish her companionship which he had so long spurned, she was taken from him. Her desire to see him converted and baptized being fulfilled, Monica, so desirous of heaven, saw no more purpose in life. “There is nothing in this world now that gives me any delight. What have I to do here any longer?” To her sons, concerned that she was being buried so far from home, she said, “One is never far from God. Bury my body anywhere, it does not matter. Do not let that disturb you. This only I ask — that you remember me at the altar of God wherever you may be.” So, at the age of fifty-five, that pure soul peacefully took her leave from this life.
Monica was influential beyond anything she herself could have imagined. How many mothers, wives, single women — and even men — have read her life throughout the ages, becoming encouraged in their own circumstances, and improving their lives as a result? Only in heaven will we fully realize what this one “ordinary” woman in “ordinary” circumstances was able to accomplish by striving for holiness!
We have seen how much depended upon our three valiant women: St. Helena, St. Monica, and St. Pulcheria. They were influential: not in a domineering way contrary to God’s ordered plan for women, nor in the twisted feminist sense of equality which usurps man’s role in society; but with the beautiful feminine qualities that allow ladies to accomplish so much good. May we all be inspired by their holy example and draw hope and encouragement while we face the problems of our own age. Let us pray for more valiant women who will bring about good in the times in which we live.
SS. Helena, Monica, and Pulcheria, assist us!
Some Facts About the Three Holy Women
St. Helena died in 330. One hundred years later, in 430, St. Monica’s son, Augustine, died. One thousand years later in 1430, St. Monica’s body was translated from Ostia to Rome and placed in the church of St. Augustine there. St. Helena’s feast is August 18; St. Augustine’s, August 28. The feast of the Finding of the True Cross is May 3; St. Monica’s is May 4. The feastday of St. Pulcheria is September 10.
“Milan 13” — A memoria technica to remember the following facts: Thirteen years into the century, 313, Helena’s son Constantine signed in Milan the edict by that name which granted freedom to the Christians and led to the conversion of the Roman Empire. Thirteen years before the end of the century, 387, in Milan, Monica’s son Augustine was converted and baptized. At this event the Te Deum was sung the first time. Also in 387, St. Monica died, St. Patrick was born, and St. Jerome was commissioned by Pope St. Damasus to translate the Bible, which resulted in the Church’s official version of Holy Scripture — the Latin Vulgate.
“We need to cultivate and think upon, and seek the companionship of those saints who, though living on earth like ourselves, have accomplished such great deeds for God.” — St. Teresa of Avila
1 Proverbs 31:10-31 has been chosen by Holy Mother Church as the Epistle for Masses of Holy Women not Martyrs. The St. Andrew Daily Missal summarizes it thus: “…the valiant woman loves her husband and merits his trust: she is a good housewife, is prudent and industrious, manages cleverly, handles the spindle, the needle and scissors; she possesses wisdom, is charitable in her actions and in her words, and fears God: there is also bestowed upon her the praise of her children and of her husband.”
2 Arius died miserably in another display of God’s vengeance upon one who would utter and spread such blasphemous and contemptuous teachings. On the eve of what he expected to be his triumph, Arius was seized by intense abdominal pains and burst asunder, thus sending his unrepentant soul to meet his Judge — Who he claimed was not God but a mere creature!
3 This villain later contracted cancer of the tongue. That tongue, which had so contemptuously blasphemed Jesus and Mary, rotted in his mouth.