Who was St Helen?
Legend has often dominated historical fact, but we know that Helen, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, (4th century), was a Christian. She had a great devotion to Christ crucified and had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She is known to have researched to find the true Cross there. It was after having had a vision of the cross and of these words accompanying it ‘By this sign you will conquer’, that Constantine, her son, entrusted his faith in Christ. He put an end to the terrible persecutions which had raged regularly against the Christian communities for more than three centuries. At last there was peace in the Church. Relics of Helen, who died in Constantinople, were moved to the little church of Aracoeli in Rome and an altar was built there in her honour.
The House in Rome is founded (1882) and placed under her protection
On the day of the feast of St Helen and under her patronal protection, the first Mass in via Ferruccio and installation of the community marked an important step for the small missionary institute whose existence was still being threatened. The book ‘Rome, my spiritual homeland’ (Sorgente 1982, chap.3) tells of the beginnings of the Roman foundation, the joy, the poverty, the hopes…
Mary of the Passion, in her General Letter of 4 October 1882, explains the choice of St Helen as patroness of the house:
« So, founded on 18 August, this Roman house from now on will be the soul of the Institute; you can be assured that it will bring you new and true life. It is named St Helen and here are the reasons:
It was to my patroness that I went to ask her to obtain this foundation; the idea came to me just when I was there in front of St Helen’s statue in St Peter’s, (…). We had not yet made any move to obtain the foundation. I remembered in God’s presence that St Helen had been the missionary empress of Rome, one of the women who had contributed most (…) to the growth of Catholicism.
What is more, you offer yourselves as victims for the Church. The conversion of Constantine was one of its greatest triumphs; could you also, my daughters, conquer by this sign, the Cross, and obtain for (…) our holy mother, the Church, a time less sorrowful and more favourable for the salvation of souls. »
« In hoc signo, vinces » : « By this sign , you will conquer »
In the Blue Chapel, on Mother Foundress’ tomb – she whose first name was Helen – it was this citation which was chosen to be engraved under the cross. For us these words are without doubt the essential message of the feast of 18 August. They speak of ‘the true power of love’ that Mary of the Passion discovered more and more deeply through her experience of union with the Crucified Christ: love which offers itself forever, this filial love which is ‘obedient even unto death, death on a cross’, this is the way to Life, for victory over the evil which crushes our world… And we, his disciples who have chosen to follow Him on the way, ‘we carry in our bodies the sufferings of Jesus’ but ‘if death is at work in us, life is at work in you’ (2Cor 4:10-12).
From the beginning of its history, the Roman house witnesses to the fruitfulness of the Paschal Mystery. What beauty in our vocation!
On the Feast of St Helen,
Let us thank the Lord for the good news of conquering love that we are missioned to make known to the world.
Let us give thanks for the life of the Institute, for our lives offered with that of Christ « for the Church and the salvation of the world »
so that Love sets free all those who dwell in the shadow of death…