In an ancient city full of old stone bridges, this particular bridge isn’t very remarkable. Made of stone and brick, it has six arches which cross the Tiber River in Rome. It was first constructed in 115 B.C. and has undergone several renovations over the many centuries that have followed. The last major repair was accomplished by Pope Pius IX in 1850. Today the bridge is a popular destination for couples in love. They go to the bridge around sunset and lock a padlock onto one of its lampposts or columns, signifying the joining of their two hearts. Then the key to the lock is thrown into the Tiber below them, locking their love for all time….at least that’s what they hope.
A bridge is a symbol of joining together since it connects two shores with its structure. It allows us to go from where we are to where we want to be. The Latin word for “bridge” is “pons” and from that root we get the word “pontifex” which means “bridge builder.” Pontifex is one of the titles for the Pope because he is a bridge builder spanning the centuries back to the first Apostles, and between the Church and our Savior. He also builds bridges between the faith and the world, between believers and non-believers, between rich and poor, etc. So what does this old stone bridge have to do with Christianity? In a word—lots. Something happened on that bridge that, quite literally, changed the world.
In the third century, the Roman Empire was large and hard to govern. It stretched from France to northern Africa, across Europe to Turkey and the Middle East. It was struggling with debt, war, and unrest. Christians were a favorite object of blame and persecution in this pagan society. Roman emperors demanded worship from their citizens, but Christians refused to deny Christ. Thousands were tortured and killed as a result. By the beginning of the fourth century, the Empire was ruled by a group of four men. Two of them, Constantine and Maxentius, were opposed to one another with both men wanting to be top dog. Their conflict eventually led to a decisive battle between their two armies on October 28, 312. They were pretty evenly matched in terms of fighting strength and the battle looked to be horrific and bloody. Who would win? And what would victory mean?
On the night before the battle, Constantine had a vision in his dreams. He saw the Cross of Christ before him and heard God tell him to place the Cross on the shields of his soldiers. God said, “in hoc signo vinces” which means “through this sign, you will conquer.” The next morning, the battle played out there on the Tiber, at the Milvian Bridge. Constantine won a decisive victory and entered the city of Rome the next day as the undisputed leader of the western half of the Roman Empire. Constantine’s victory and the vision he had of the Cross led him to become a Christian. The next year, the Edict of Milan was issued which made Christianity an officially recognized religion throughout the Empire.
Knowing its history, the Milvian Bridge looks a bit less ordinary. This bridge was part of God’s plan for His Church. He used a pagan Emperor to make the faith available to millions of people. In the year 313 alone, history tells us that more than 12,000 people were baptized in Rome. A few years later, Constantine called the Bishops of the Church together for the Council of Nicaea. From this council we received the Nicene Creed which we Catholics still profess each Sunday. That creed is another bridge, across countries and continents and centuries, joining the Body of Christ in holy alliance.
God’s love bridged heaven and earth in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Heaven came to earth in Bethlehem, and the doors to heaven opened for us on the Cross. That same Cross that Constantine saw and marched behind to victory on the Milvian Bridge. The grace of Christ in the sacraments is our bridge to eternity, giving us all that we need to follow Him home. So if you’re in Rome, at the corner of Via Clodia and the Via Flamina, step onto that old stone bridge. Look at the lovers and their padlocks. Listen to the river Tiber flowing past under your feet. And remember what happened here. Feel the tug of that history pulling your heart, bridging your heart between earth and heaven. Feel the tug of God calling to you. By His sign, you will conquer.
“High up in the royal rafters where
The Savior rose from His grave,
Our king declared allegiance there
And Christianity was made.”
—“The Battle of Milvian Bridge
by Terrell Martin