Prof Roberto de Mattei
In hoc signo vinces
Gaming (Austria), 2th August 2007
Conference during the Summer University of the TFPs from Austria, French and Germany)
It is October 27 of the year 312 after Christ. Two armies face each other at the doors of Rome. The first descends from the Aurelian Walls to deploy along the banks of the Tiber, near the Milvian Bridge. It is commanded by Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius. The second, which arrived in Rome from Trier, Germany, is spread along Via Flaminia. It is led by Flavius Valerius Constantine. The two contenders fight for the title of August of West, one of the four supreme positions in the Tetrarchy, the new system conceived by Diocletian to govern of the empire.
The day is waxing into sunset as the troops of Constantine suddenly see in the sky a large bright sign with flaming words: In hoc signo vinces. Eusebius of Caesarea, the first great historian of the Church remembers the event with these words: “An extraordinary sign appeared in sky. … when the sun started to decline, Constantine saw with his own eyes way up in the sky, even higher than the sun, a cross of light on which were written the words IN HOC SIGNO VINCES. He was struck with great awe and his army with him." (1)
The effect on the troops is impressive. Many in the army of Constantine are Christians. They have lived the latest and most terrible persecution, which Diocletian begun in 297 by purging all Christian believers from the army. Christian soldiers, very numerous in the imperial armies, were faced with a radical alternative: To abandon either their religion or their place in the army. Some chose the sad road of apostasy, but many persevered and left the army, migrating to Gallia where they enlisted with Costantius Clorus, the only one of the four tetrarchs who had not adhered to the persecutions of Diocletian. This means that in the beginning of the 4th century a considerable number of Christians crowded the army of Costantius, based in Gallia and in Britain.
When Constantius died in York in 305 during an expedition against the Pictis and the Scots, the troops acclaimed as emperor Constantine, an illegitimate child of Costantius and Helen, a future empress and saint, while the Praetorian guard in Rome proclaimed emperor Maxentius. The latter had invoked pagan gods asking for victory. Without the shadow of a doubt, the Cross that appeared in the sky was the symbol of Christians. The two armies facing each other were aware that their terrible clash involved more than merely human forces. At night, as Lattanzius narrates, Christ appeared to Constantine in a dream” exhorting him to affix that symbol on the shields of his soldiers as a heavenly sign from God and proceed to battle." (2)
There are moments when a man can change the course of his life with a yes or a no. And there are moments when the fate of peoples and nations for centuries to come may depend on a man’s choice. That is what happened that October night with the son of Constantius and Helen, called on to decide what the destiny of the Roman empire would be.
We don't know what went on inside Constantine’s heart, whether his decision was quick or whether he had doubts and hesitations. We do know, however, that by morning he not only had the monogram of Christ engraved on the banners of his legions but also instituted the Labarum or standard to replace the Roman eagle of Jupiter, a new standard that all soldiers would have to honor from then on.
The battle raged furiously. Constantine succeeded in pushing the rival army with its back to the Tiber, where Massentius tried to escape. He was swallowed by the waters and his head was taken to the winner, who ascended to the imperial throne.
On October 28, 313 the Cross triumphed amid the blood and dust of the great battleground of Saxa Rubra, where the Tiber makes a great turn before coasting along the Via Flaminia. The place took the name of Saxa Rubra [red stone] from the color of the blood shed on the stones. For the first time in history, that blood was not only Christian blood.
Constantine was not a Christian and didn't become one that night, but he said yes to the invitation of Christ. One year later, on June 13, 313 he promulgated the Edict of Milan abolishing all laws persecuting Christians and making Christianity a licit religion in the empire.
Constantine is famous for that edict which put an end to the era of persecutions and opened a new epoch of liberty for the Church. It is thanks to that edict that one speaks of a “Constantinian turnaround” in the history of the Church. Nevertheless, the decisive hour in the life of both Constantine and the Church was another: The hour when for the first time the Cross of Christ, vexilla regis, actually appeared on the battlefield defended by the swords of legionaries and imposed on the enemy by force.
There had been heretics such as the Montanists who had upheld that Christianity was incompatible with weapons. That was not the teaching of the Gospel, nor was it the position of Christians in the first three centuries,. Despite the contrary opinions of Treutlen, reflecting his evolution toward the Montanist heresy, no act by the Magisterium during the first three centuries forbade military service. On the contrary, it is well known that during that historical period many Christians served as officers or soldiers in the Roman legions, reconciling the double characteristic of Christians and soldiers without any reproach from the Church on that account; and many of them were later were canonized.
The Christian officers and soldiers martyred at that time were not put to death for refusing to serve the army as Christians but for refusing to participate in pagan ceremonies imposed by the persecutors and thus falling into idolatry and apostasy. Such are the examples of Saint Eustachius, Saint Sebastian, the legionaries of the 12th Fulminata Legion under the command of Marcus Aurelius, and of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion under Diocletian.
Christianity taught that it was possible to be a good Christian and a good soldier: It was possible to render military service to an authority recognized as legitimate even when it persecuted the faith. But the apparition of the Cross to Constantine meant something else: For the first time in history, a Christian army appeared that was not entirely made up of Christians but was prepared to fight in the name of Christ.
For the first time the Cross was not only the symbol of suffering in martyrdom: It became the symbol of suffering in battle. It was Christ Himself who asked Constantine and his legions to fight and to do so in His name. Therefore one can fight in the name of God when the cause is just, when the war is holy or when God Himself wants it, as has so often happened in history.
The battle of Saxa Rubra showed more than just the legitimacy of Christian combat. The monogram of Christ engraved on the standard of Constantine expressed the political theology of the Gospel summarized in the maxim, Non est potestas nisi a Deo [there is no power but from God] (Rom. 13:1). The monogram of Christ gave a sacred character to the imperial standard, which contained in it the whole Christian Civilization of the Middle Ages.
The monogram of Christ engraved on the imperial banner and the insignia, in hoc signo vinces, that spurred soldiers to battle, contained the history of centuries to come: The dream of Saint Ambrose and Theodosius to build a Christian Roman Empire; the realization of the Holy RomanH Empire with the coronation in 800 A.D. of Charlemagne, the father and founder of medieval Christendom. In the royal imperial coronation ceremonials that followed that of Charlemagne, the sovereign not only receives from the consecrator the crown but also the sword: Accipe gladium de altare sumptum; the sword is as holy as the altar from which it is taken. The sovereign must wield it vigorously to show his resolution to defend the Church against the external and internal enemies who attack her.
It was in that spirit that the crusades were born, undertaken to defend the faith and recover the Holy Places. The cry, Deus vult, that resounded on the battlegrounds of the crusades are echoes of Saxa Rubra: In hoc signo vinces. Castello Cardinal Lara writes: “On calling the Crusades and encouraging soldiers by placing them under their high command, the popes never posed to themselves the problem of whether the spirit of the Church was inconsistent with war or asked themselves if they had the right to organize armies and launch them against the infidels … Accordingly, the Popes not only did not deem that to be illegitimate but were aware they were exercising a power of their own: The power of supreme material coercion." (3)
In the crusades the Church practices the potestas gladii ecclesiastica, the power of coercion, not only spiritual but also material that stems from her juridical nature as societas perfecta independent from any human authority. The pleno jure, fully legitimate juridical power of coercion of the Church both on the spiritual and material planes stems from her nature as a perfect society. The crusades are an historical expression of that right of the Church to use material force to attain her supernatural goal.
Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, a leader of renewed studies on the crusades, in an essay appeared in 1979 titled Crusading as an Act of Love, (4) recalls the bull Quantum praedecessores, of December 1, 1145 in which Pope Eugene III, referring to those who had heeded the call for the First Crusade, affirms they were “inflamed with the ardor of charity” and that charity, the love of God, is what makes the profound motivation of that enterprise stand out.
To offer one’s life is the greatest form of love and the most perfect act of charity, as it makes us perfect imitators of Jesus according to the words of the Gospel, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 3:16; 15:13). This testimony is common to martyrs and crusaders. If martyrdom is the act with which a Christian is prepared to sacrifice his life to preserve his own faith, a crusade, in its most profound motivations, stands out as the action with which a Christian is prepared to offer his own life for the supernatural good of his neighbor, defending him through combat. The perspective of martyrdom among the crusaders is inherent in the super signum vestem: The red Cross on the white habit. In October of 312 that same Cross appeared in the sky to point the way of combat and victory to the legionaries of Constantine.
On June 11, 1571, when Mark Anthony Colonna, commander of the papal fleet in the battle of Lepanto took the oath in the papal chapel, he received from the hands of the Pope, in addition to the baton of command, a flag of red silk. On that flag was engraved Christ crucified between Peter and Paul, princes of the apostles; below them was the coat of arms of Pius V and the motto: In hoc signo vinces.
In hoc signo vinces. Under this motto could be placed the life of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, who has entered history as “the crusader of the 20th century." (5)
The personality of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was undoubtedly so multifaceted that every definition, even that of “crusader” can be considered reductive. Yet the word “crusader” suits him more than any other, and from a certain standpoint sums up his vocation. I will try to offer a few elements for reflection on this point.
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira one day summarized the meaning of his life and work in these few words he wrote by hand:
To understand these words, to understand the grandeur of the vocation of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, one can meditate on a point that Vatican Council I defined as an article of our faith: That it is possible for human reason to attain the certainty of the existence of God and to believe in Him by following an itinerary that ascends to God through the created things (6) according to the words of St. Paul: “For the invisible perfections of God, from the creation of the world, are made clearly visible to man’s intelligence through the beings that He himself has made” (Rom. 1:20).
By analogy, one could say that the human soul has the possibility to know and love the Church through her works and, in primis, through the perfections of Christian Civilization of which she is the Mother. Contemplating a cathedral, listening to a Gregorian or polyphonic melody, reading a masterpiece such as The Divine Comedy or The Lusíadas infuses in our souls the possibility to understand that all things beautiful, good and true produced by man in history have their supernatural source in the Church, which Pius XII defined as the “vital principle of human society." (7)
In the years when young Plinio entered the struggle of life, the First World War was eating away at the pillars of Christian society, but what was left was enough to reveal all its grandeur to his heart. That grandeur was above all spiritual, drawing nourishment from the fountain of grace whose Mother and custodian is the Church.
Contemplating the ruins of Christendom, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira knew and deeply loved the Church and decided to serve her. From his love for the Church arose the decision to defend Christian Civilization by engaging an open combat against its enemies. He wrote: “Christian combativeness has meant only self-defense. There is not other possibility of legitimacy for it. It is always love for an offended thing that drives a Christian to the struggle. Every struggle is all the more vigorous as more elevated is the love with which one combats. For this very reason, a Catholic has no greater combativeness than that with which he fights in defense of the Church, outraged, denied, trampled upon." (8)
Accordingly, the crusades were defensive rather than aggressive undertakings, born out of love for the Church and Christian Civilization. Medieval Christendom always lived in a war of self-defense against the Barbarians invading Europe from the north and the east and against the Moslems who attacked it from the south. If neither one had invaded its borders, if they had allowed the missionary work of evangelization, if they had respected the Holy Places the crusades would not have taken place. A new enemy now threatened Christian Civilization: A destructive process rooted in the humanism of the Renaissance which had developed through the historical stages of Protestantism, the French Revolution and communism. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira engaged a deadly war against the anti-Christian Revolution which took, after the First World War, the shape of two “hostile brothers:” Communism and National-Socialism.
The voice of Christendom, coming from a past laden with sorrow, echoed profoundly in the heart of the young law student at the University of São Paulo, young President of Catholic Action in that capital, young deputy to the Constituent Federal Assembly and young director of Legionário. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira turned his back on his future and made “that past full of blessings” his tomorrow.
In what sense his “future” can be compared to that of a “crusader”? After all, one could object, no crusade was called by the Popes in the 20th century and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira fought but never took up arms. He used pen, word and example, more like a great apologist or polemicist or doctor of the Church rather than a crusader.
The answer to this objection is simple. Saint Augustine affirms that martyres not facit poena, sed causa. (9) That means that a martyr is not made by violent death or sudden suffering but by the ultimate reason why he suffers and dies: The fact that his death is inflicted out of hatred for the Christian truth. The martyrs were martyrs not because of their sufferings but because they offered their lives for the Church. Analogously, one could say that what makes a crusade is not the use weapons or the hardships of armed struggle but the very goal of the enterprise: The service of Christian Civilization and, through it, of the Church. The fight of a crusader is directly oriented to the defense of Christian Civilization, just as the suffering of a martyr is directly oriented to bear witness to the truth of the Church.
No one in the 20th century had a greater intuition than Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira of the intimate and profound bonds that unite Christian Civilization with the Church. He understood that the Revolution is a process that aims to destroy the Christian temporal order as a means to strike a deadly blow against the Church, “Mystical Body of Christ, infallible teacher of the Truth, guardian of the natural law and, as such, ultimate foundation of the temporal order itself." (10) The Revolution seeks to prevent the Church from fulfilling her mission for the salvation of souls, a mission she carries out not only through her direct spiritual power but also through her indirect temporal power. The Counter-Revolution that rises in defense of the Church “is not destined to save the Spouse of Christ” who “has no need of man to survive. On the contrary, it is the Church that gives life to the Counter-Revolution, which would be neither feasible nor conceivable without her." (11) “The Church is the very soul of the Counter-Revolution." (12)
The Church, therefore, is fundamentally a counter-revolutionary force but is not identified with the Counter-Revolution: Her true strength is being the Mystical Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, in a certain sense the scope of the Counter-Revolution goes beyond that of the Church because it includes a reorganization of the whole temporal society from its foundations. Says the Brazilian thinker: “If the Revolution is disorder, the Counter-Revolution is the restoration of order. And by Order we understand the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ. That is, Christian Civilization, austere and hierarchical, fundamentally sacral, anti-egalitarian and anti-liberal." (13)
He who fights, says Saint Augustine, does not fight for the sake of war but for the sake of peace; (14) and the peace of him who fights for Christ it is the peace of Christ, fully realized in a Christian society. That goal is expressed by the ideal of the social Royalty of Jesus Christ, whose Kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36) but extends to this world and begins to come true in it, because to Christ alone all power has been given in heaven and on earth (Mt. 18:28). (15)
Fighting for Christian Civilization means fighting to “restore all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10). And in the words of St. Pius X, to restore in Christ “not only that which belongs to the divine mission of the Church to lead souls to God but also that which … spontaneously derives from that divine mission: Christian Civilization with all the complex and single elements that constitute it." (16)
What makes a crusader is the goal, not the means with which he fights. It is not the use of weapons but the intention to fight for the Reign of Christ that forms a crusader’s heart. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was the crusader of the 20th century because all his life was spent in defense of Christian Civilization. That was his specificity, his essence and the cause of his holiness, because it was in this service that his virtues shone with particular heroism. That is the goal that he gave his final and crowing work, the foundation of the TFP in July 1960.
Blessed Urban II did not combat in person at the walls of Jerusalem but brandished and infused the spirit of that First Crusade that served as model for analogous and subsequent enterprises. St. Bernard of Clairvaux did not take up the sword but transmitted to the Knights Templar, even before the Rule his Order, the spirit of those religious and military orders that later flourished in Christendom. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira did not defend Christian Civilization with weapons but infused the spirit of combativeness in all those called to defend it even after his death, inside or outside the TFP.
In May 1944 he published in Legionário a kind of balance sheet of his life which looks somewhat like a “will” but contains at the same time the program for a crusade:
It was in perfect coherence with that spirit that in January 1951 Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira published the first issue of Catolicismo with an unsigned article titled “The Crusade of the 20th Century,” destined to become a manifesto of the Catholic Counter-Revolution. (18) We need to read once again those pages with attention, meditating on them as those words are inspired by grace and do not lose their perennial value over time.
These words express first of all a theology and philosophy of history. When Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira writes them, right after the Second World war the dominant myth is still that of progress. The idea of progress, the soul of European thought in the 1800’s from liberalism to socialism, had penetrated inside the Church with modernism, whose ideas already fermented quietly under the pontificate of Pius XII. After the death of that pontiff, Catholic thought was dominated by progressivist authors such as Jacques Maritain. In his book, Integral Humanism, published in 1936, the French philosopher affirmed his faith in the irreversibility of the modern world and in the historical role that Marxism played in it.
During those same years Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira foresaw crumbling of the modern world and the end of communism, or rather its metamorphosis, from a hypertrophy of the State to its dissolution, from a communist State to a communism without State, from the utopia of progress to the reign of chaos: a process which he defined as the “Fourth Revolution.”
However, the Revolution would not win. Christian Civilization of the 21st century would rise upon the ruins of the modern world:
Also these words require meditation. In them we again find the spirit of all Christian fighters who, ever since Saxa Rubra, never retreated before the enemy: They placed all their trust in God, they fought, and they won.
In hoc signo vinces. This is the real spirit of the Message of Fatima, which concludes, in the Third Secret, with a vision in whose center stands “a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark” at the foot of which the Holy Father “is killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions.” A Cross that evokes terrible persecutions but also bloody struggles, having in the background in a devastated city that recalls the ruins of the modern world from which, according to Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Christian Civilization will rise like medieval Civilization was born from the ruins of the Roman world.
The message of Fatima is a supernatural seal of confidence in that victory. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was younger than nine when, on the side of Europe diametrically opposed to the place where communism appeared, the Blessed Mother gave three little shepherds at Cova da Iria a dramatic message filled with hope: “Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”
The words of Our Lady, like those of Christ to Constantine, are today a sign that rises on the horizon. The message of Fatima, like that of Saxa Rubra, is a call to arms for the triumph of Christian Civilization, which Saxa Rubra inaugurated in history and Fatima promises to realize in its splendor.
Among the conditions Our Lady set at Fatima for the installation of her reign is the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart. To consecrate means to order and to subordinate man and society to God. (21) The promise of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart expresses the ideal of sacralization of the temporal order represented by Christian Civilization, which subjects itself to God entirely and recognizes the supreme royalty of Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother.
While attaining that triumph is projected for our future, it will come only after but at the end of a struggle whose echo has been reaching our hearts from distant centuries and will put us through difficult trials, spiritual and moral but and physical and material. “The life of the Church and the spiritual life of every faithful - wrote Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira referring to St. Therese of the Child Jesus – is an incessant struggle. God at times grants periods of splendid, visible and tangible greatness to his Spouse. He gives souls moments of extraordinary internal or external consolation. But the true glory of the Church and the believer results from suffering and fighting: An arid fight with neither sensible beauty nor definable poetry. A fight in which one advances sometimes in the night of anonymity, in the mud of indifference or incomprehension, under storms and bombardments unleashed by the united forces of the devil, the world and the flesh. But a fight that fills the angels of heaven with admiration and attracts the blessing of God." (22)
This is our ongoing struggle today and we need to understand its scope, meaning and goal in aridity. We are the heirs to those who one day raised with enthusiasm their shields at Saxa Rubra. We are the heirs of those who raised the flag of the Church on the fields of the crusades and in the waters of Lepanto. We are and want to be the heirs of the crusader of the 20th century par excellence: Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. We want to make ours his battle against the Revolution. We want make ours his supernatural certainty in the final victory of the Counter-Revolution.
Like him, we do not take up material arms. Ours is not an armed struggle but a peaceful and bloodless one. But precisely because it is peaceful, our fighting spirit is more intense, more radical and more determined.
We are the heirs of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira and in his name we repeat:
In hoc signo vinces
(1) Eusebio, Vita Constantini, 37-40.
(2) Lattanzio, De mortibus persecutorum, 16-17
(3) Rosalio Castillo Cardinal Lara, Coacción eclesiastica y Sacro Romano Imperio, Pontificio Ateneo Salesiano, Augustae Taurinorum 1956, p. 115.
(4) Jonathan Riley-Smith, Crusading as an act of love, in “History, The Journal of the Historical Association,” vol. 65, n. 213 (February 1980), pp. 177-191. Republished in 2002 in the anthology, The Crusades, by Thomas Madden (Blackwell, Malden MA 2002).
(5) Roberto de Mattei, Il crociato del secolo XX - Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Piemme, Casale Monferrato 1996
(6) Denz-H, nn. 3004-3006..
(7) Pio XII, Speech La elevatezza to new cardinals on February 20, 1946.
(8) Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Passio Christi, conforta me, in O Legionário n. 637 (October 22, 1944).
(9) Saint Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 34, 13, col. 331.
(10) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Rivoluzione e Contro-Rivoluzione, cit., p. 161.
(11) Ivi, p. 162.
(12) Ivi, p. 163.
(13) Ivi, p. 125.
(14) Saint Augustine, De Civitate Dei, lib. 19, c. 12, 1.
(15) Cf. Pius XI , Encyclical Quas Primas of December 11, 1925
(16) S. Pius X, Encyclical Il fermo proposito of June 11, 1905.
(17) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, 17 anos, in O Legionário, n. 616 (May 28, 1944).
(18) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, The Crusade of the 20th Centuiry, in Catolicismo n. 1 (January 1951)
(20) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII, Marzorati, Milano 1993, p. 123.
(21) S. Agostino, De Civitate Dei, lib. 10, c. 6.
(22) P. Corrêa de Oliveira, True Glory is Only Born from Pain,, in Catolicismo, n. 78 (June 1957).