St Helen: An Inspiring Woman for Our Times

St Helen: An Inspiring Woman for Our Times

On Thursday 18 August 2022, we celebrated the feast of St Helen. In Malta, in Birkirkara, we celebrated with great jubilation her feast on Sunday 21 August 2022.

Who was Helen? History tells us that she was the mother of Constantine the Great, a figure whom our Christian brethren in the East consider as a saint. She was born in Drepanum, Asia Minor, from a very humble family. Her marriage with Constantius Chiorus fructified in the birth of their son Constantine in 274. However, twenty years later, Helen’s marriage went into ashes due to divorce. Constantius did this with the aim of advancing his political career by taking the hand of a woman who had a further noble rank.  

Thus, Helen was left alone in her marriage. She had to live with this terrible abandonment for several years. But things took a turn to the better. In fact, when in 306 Constantius died and Constantine took the throne as Emperor after defeating Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, immediately Constantine declared his mother Helen as Empress and later he bestowed on her the title of Augusta.

Helen was truly a wise woman. Instead of taking advantage of her political position for herself she used her prestigious position and wealth to spread the Christian faith. For that matter, she built a lot of churches in the whole of the empire. Furthermore, Helen was another Good Samaritan for those who were suffering. She was always there for the prisoners, the poor and the marginalized.

Helen’s transformative actions reminded me of some precious reflections Pope Francis shared via a video message to the participants in an international conference, held on April 15, 2021, organized by the Centre for Theology and Community in London, entitled: A Politics Rooted in the People. In his very interesting video message the Pope said that all the other organisations present for this conference, hailing from different parts of the world, their mission is to  accompany the people in their struggle for ‘la tierra, el techo y el trabajo’, the famous three ‘T’s’, [land, work and housing], and to stand by them when they encounter attitudes of opposition and contempt. In his message the Pope said that one of the main goals of the meaning was that of making known that the true response to the rise of populism is precisely not more individualism but quite the opposite: a politics of fraternity, rooted in the life of the people. In other words, and in Pope Francis’s words, I call this a ‘politics with a capital P’, politics as service, which opens new pathways for the people to organise and express itself. The Holy Father went on by saying that it is not just for the people, but with the people, rooted in their communities and in their values.

In Pope Francis’ vision, Helen gave the people of her time the dignity they deserve. She helped them live their own destiny and history and facilitated for them the process of expressing themselves thanks to their values and culture, hence their creativity and fruitfulness. As a politician, Helen was a missionary in the sense that she utilised her political appointment to promote the common good, especially of the marginalized and the poor.

Her son, Constantine, cultivated in himself the great desire of finding the True Cross. Thus, in the year 324, Helen bravely led a small expedition to search for the Cross of Christ in the Holy Land. From the information she gathered along the way she was told that the Cross was probably buried at the Temple of Venus. In order to find the Cross, Helena gave order for the demolishing of the temple while, in the due process, the tomb of Jesus was found together with the three crosses. The discerning criteria to establish which was the cross on which Our Saviour was crucified was that of taking the three crosses to a woman who was suffering from an incurable disease and made her touch each one of them. When one of them instantly cured her it was officially stated that it was, in fact, the True Cross of Jesus.

The wise Helen wasted no time. Whilst in Jerusalem, she excelled in the living of the seven works of corporal mercy which, our Catholic tradition, always has directly linked with the poor’s physical needs. Furthermore, Helen cleansed all the places which were connected with the life of Our Lord and His Mother from every pagan influence. She gave precise commands for churches to be erected on each of these places. Helen donated the Cross to the Patriarch of Jerusalem whilst taking some wood and nails back to Constantinople.

After building some eighty churches or more, in such precious sites as Bethlehem, as Jesus’ birthplace, on the Mount of Olives, at Gethsemane the place where the Lord prayed and sweated blood and where, according to the Jerusalem tradition, Our Lady was buried, and finally at Calvary, where Constantine built the Basilica of the Resurrection of Christ, Helen went for her eternal and much deserved price, that of eternal life with Christ and Mary forever. This occurred in 327.

Let us thank God for this great woman of faith through the undying words of the akathist hymn dedicated to the God-Crowned Sovereigns and Great Saints of God, the Holy Constantine and Helen:

The power of the Most-high truly descended upon you from on high, O blessed Helen, as you venerated the Holy Lands in reverence, and because of this, you raised up a divine temple that was greatly beautified, crying out to Christ the Savior: Alleluia (Kontakion III).

All the nations, through you, O all-joyous one, heard the preaching of the Gospel: Armenians, Indians, Iberians and all the rest, O Lady, therefore the tribes and tongues of the earth praise you, crying out these things:

Rejoice, she who was ordained by God,

Rejoice, she who was elected by Him.

Rejoice, equal in honor to the former Prophetesses,

Rejoice, equal in station to the Myrrhbearers of Christ.

Rejoice, for you were zealous for Mariam of Moses,

Rejoice, for you were anointed more divinely that Oldas.

Rejoice, you who poured myrrh upon the Tomb of Christ,

Rejoice, another Magdalene and Joanna.

Rejoice, you who conquered the manliness of Judith,

Rejoice, you who surpassed Queen Esther.

Rejoice, you who desired Christ as Salome,

Rejoice, you who loved Him like Susannah.

Rejoice, O all-precious Queen (Oikos IV).

Performing a God-led journey, O godly-minded one, you returned to the Queen of Cities Constantinople, and you brought with you the Precious Cross of Christ, and the Nails, bringing them to your son, who was filled with incomparable joy, and cried out to the Lord: Alleluia (Kontakion V).

You appeared shining forth with the faith as a radiant light, O all-joyous Helen, for the light of your divine works dissolved the darkness of the idols, and illumined all to cry out with fervor these things:

Rejoice, most-radiant light,

Rejoice, most-meek lamp of Christ.

Rejoice, rejoicing of pious Rulers,

Rejoice, adornment of all women.

Rejoice, for you adorned the temples of the Lord,

Rejoice, for you dispersed the altars of the idols.

Rejoice, you who confirmed the true faith in deeds,

Rejoice, you who fought on behalf of all those who are wronged.

Rejoice, common refuge of the poor,

Rejoice, surrounding wall for the naked and strangers.

Rejoice, through whom piety shines forth,

Rejoice, through whom virtue dawns.

Rejoice, O all-precious Queen (Oikos VI).

Always bearing in mind the commandments of the Lord, you loved Him wholly with all your soul and body, and were arrayed in love for God like porphyry, as the Queen of the Psalms, you were arrayed and crying out: Alleluia (Kontakion VII).

Having all your fervor towards God, O blessed one, and love towards for neighbor, you praised God with hymns and prayers, and rejoiced to adorn His temples, and filled all the earth with good works, as we cry out:

Rejoice, fervent worshipper of God,

Rejoice, healer from the Creator.

Rejoice, you who were enriched with ceaseless prayer,

Rejoice, you who ever studied divine hymns.

Rejoice, for you built temples of the Lord,

Rejoice, for you enriched them with your treasures.

Rejoice, for you ever served as a benefactor to men,

Rejoice, for you filled the earth with good deeds.

Rejoice, for the Angels hymned you,

Rejoice, for the demons were afraid of you.

Rejoice, the joyous hymnody of God,

Rejoice, guide of mortals to salvation.

Rejoice, O all-precious Queen (Oikos VIII).

All the earth truly received the voice of your deeds, and because of this, every breath hymns the name of Helen, and every tongue praises her, crying out to the Creator of all: Alleluia (Kontakion IX).

Wishing to save the whole world, the Lord of glory gave the power and the wood of His Cross to you, and He revealed His life-flowing Tomb, which is venerated by all, as we cry out ceaselessly: Alleluia (Kontakion X).

Ranks of the Angels, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs and all the Saints received you in joy as you proceeded from earth to Heaven. Intercede along with them, O Helen, that we be saved who cry out to you:

Rejoice, you who proceeded towards the Lord,

Rejoice, you who ever stand beside Him.

Rejoice, you who joined the mansions of the Prophets,

Rejoice, you who dwelt in the dwelling places of the Apostles.

Rejoice, for in your calling, you shine with light among the Saints,

Rejoice, you who entreat the sacred Trinity with joy.

Rejoice, you who were granted the grace of working wonders,

Rejoice, you who stand beside those who call upon you.

Rejoice, for we have been granted you as our protector,

Rejoice, for we have put on you as a surrounding wall.

Rejoice, you who deliver from the danger of death,

Rejoice, you who protect us in creation.

Rejoice, O all-precious Queen (Oikos X).

We all are led to offer hymns to the Creator, as you were sent from the earth, O blessed one. Patriarchs, Priests, Judges, together with your God-crowned offspring, O Lady, serve litany with fear, and chant unto the Lord: Alleluia (Kontakion XI).

The great David chants and tells beforehand of you with joy, O wondrous Helen, as a mother who ever rejoices over her child. And we your servants ever cry out with joy:

Rejoice, you who ever stand before God,

Rejoice, you who are ever nourished by His glory.

Rejoice, you who dwell with the Mother of God,

Rejoice, you who ever rejoice with your son.

Rejoice, you who receive glory and love of Christ,

Rejoice, you who rule together with Him unto the ages.

Rejoice, the common intercession for the whole world,

Rejoice, the fervent protector of those who honor you.

Rejoice, hope and help,

Rejoice, my strength and foundation.

Rejoice, the protector of your famed church,

Rejoice, the deliverer of us who honor you.

Rejoice, O all-precious Queen (Oikos XII).

St Helen, patron saint of difficult marriages, pray for us!

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap