Last month Pope Francis stressed the importance of religious freedom in a message marking the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan in which the Roman Emperor, Constantine, legalized Christianity.
The year A.D. 313 is an important date in the history of religious freedom. That date brought into a positive focus some very significant developments in “Christendom” and the Roman world of that time. The new emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, signed an agreement with Licinius Augustus, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. By this edict, Constantine agreed to protect the Christians who had endured years of persecution. This document, called the Edict of Milan, became the first edict in favor of religious freedom for all people living in the Roman Empire.
Previously, on April 30, 311, Emperor Galerius had issued an edict of toleration. This was the first step. Christians were at least tolerated. The Edict of Milan was about the recognition of their rights. After centuries of persecution and nearly 10 dramatic, fearful years under the emperor Diocletian, the Christians were finally free to worship God, and the pagans were also free to worship as they chose.
After the Edict was released not all persecutions stopped entirely. As a result Licinius, the Eastern Emperor, soon marched against Constantine to gain control of the whole Empire for himself. In doing so, he voided the Edict in an attempt to gain the support of pagans particularly those who composed much of the military. Constantine, however eventually defeated Licinius.
Constantine became more and more involved in the life of the Church. He played a preponderant role at the Council of Nicea which established the foundation of the Christian Creed. A few decades later, in 391, under Theodosius, the Christian Church became the official state church.
Cardinal Angelo Scola and the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, marked the anniversary of the Edict in a ceremony in Milan on May 16. Patriarch Bartholomew holds a primacy of honor among the heads of Orthodox churches. On the occasion of the anniversary of the Edict, Pope Francis sent a message to the Patriarch, as well as to the entire city: “…for the importance given to the memory of the historic decision that, decreeing religious freedom for Christians, opened new paths to the Gospel and decisively contributed to the birth of European civilization.”
In the text, our Holy Father expressed the desire that, “today as then, the common witness of Christians of the East and West, sustained by the Spirit of the Risen One, will agree to the spread of the message of salvation in Europe and the entire world, and that, thanks to the foresight of civil authorities, the right to publicly express one’s faith will be respected everywhere, and that the contribution that Christianity continues to offer to culture and society in our time will be accepted without prejudice.”
After the ecumenical prayer service on May 16, Cardinal Scola and Patriarch Bartholomew went down into the crypt of the Cathedral of Milan to venerate the relics of Saint Ambrose and the Saints Gervase and Protaso, a devotion that unites Catholics and Orthodox. Cardinal Scola also gifted to Bartholomew, the new Ambrosian Gospels and some relics of Saint Ambrose. This was the second time an Orthodox patriarch visited the Archdiocese of Milan within a week. Earlier, on May 14, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, visited.
To read the entire Edict of Milan please follow the link under Blogroll (on the menu, to the right).