Perhaps as many as 200,000,000 Christians now scattered throughout the world — from the Greek Catholics of southern Italy to the Ukrainian Orthodox of Canada’s prairies — participate in the life of the Church of Constantinople, the existence of which is tied to the actions of one Roman emperor.
Constantine I moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, a Greek port straddling Europe and Asia, after formally recognizing Christianity in the year 313. On 11 May 330, he solemnly christened his “new Rome” as a Christian capital. The emperor built elaborate churches, including a cathedral dedicated to Christ as Hagia Sophia, “the Wisdom of God,” that served as his personal chapel. These sanctuaries, which dominated Constantinople, or “Constantine’s city,” took on immense significance for the development of the church. As Christianity grew and embraced converts from different cultures, debate raged regarding the nature of Jesus. While today understood to be largely compatible, these philosophical and theological nuances and variations disrupted the unity of the Roman Empire, which took on a Christian character. In the interests of peace, unity, catholicity in practice and consensus in governance, Constantine and his successors convoked ecumenical (from the Greek, oikoumene, meaning “of the inhabited world”) councils, bringing together bishops and theologians from throughout the empire and beyond. At the first such council, held in Nicaea in 325, the fathers formulated the Christian creed that, with some modifications, is recited to this day in churches worldwide. The council fathers also recognized the “patriarchal” authority of the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch.
But as the city of Constantine increased in size and wealth, so did the prestige of its bishop. In 381, the fathers of the Council of Constantinople conferred primacy in the east to the bishop of Constantinople, stating that “the bishop of Constantinople shall have the prerogative of honor after the bishop of Rome since the city of Constantine is the New Rome.”
Even as church and state mingled increasingly throughout the empire (today called “Byzantine”), its reach and power began to decline. Nevertheless, Constantinople continued to lure those who desired to possess or emulate the wealth and beauty of this dazzling cosmopolitan city.
The greatest remaining example of the sophisticated culture of the Byzantine capital is the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the rites of the patriarchal church of Constantinople. Though these practices originated in the churches of ancient Palestine and Syria, they matured in Constantinople’s Great Church of the Hagia Sophia, which the Emperor Justinian rebuilt and dedicated in the year 537 with the words, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!”
The Great Church of Constantinople — today a museum in Turkish Istanbul — became a metaphor for heaven. Its domes, vaults, arcades, columns, mosaics and silk hangings, with imperial patronage, evoked the heavenly sanctuary inhabited by God. This “cosmos church for a cosmic liturgy” evolved over the ages, and was adopted and adapted by Christians in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central and Eastern Europe.
While the Byzantine Empire finally collapsed in 1453, the Church of Constantinople survived, her reach rivaling even that of “Old Rome.” Today, whether in a remote Greek Catholic parish church in the Carpathians of Romania or in the majesty of the Kremlin’s cathedrals, these Christians who share in the legacy of Constantine celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy as conceived in Constantinople for the glory of God in his creation.