A Voice of the Fourth Century: Nicholas

By Anne Neuberger

Background material on the period followed by a brief narration with Nicholas. For the other four saints from this century, see the full source listed below.

Fourth Century: The Classical World

San Nicola: Resuce of a ship from shipwreck
"San Nicola: Rescue of a ship from shipwreck"
First day issue of Vatican stamp, 900th centenarian of the Translation of the Relics, 1987 St Nicholas Center Collection

The fourth century brought momentous change for Christianity. In the beginning of the century, Christians were a persecuted group, imprisoned and killed. By the time the fifth century was dawning, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. This would have reverberations for centuries to come. How did this all come about? Much is due to a man named Constantine.

Years of incompetent emperors in the vast Roman Empire had left it crumbling. Then Diocletian came into power. Though an excellent administrator, he was anti-Christian, and in 303, he ordered a general persecution of Christians. Once again, the young Church was tormented by violence and repression.

When Diocletian abdicated two years later, Constantine emerged as a leader. He was a man who was willing to worship any god who would grant him victory. Before a particularly difficult battle, Constantine had a dream or vision that he would conquer through a sign of Christ. He had his soldiers put the first two Greek letters of Christ's name on their banners and shields. When they won, Constantine was convinced. He honored the Son of God in thanksgiving, much to the amazement of the Roman senate.

Constantine shared imperial power with a general named Licinius. In June of 313, they issued the Edict of Toleration, granting freedom to Christians in the Roman Empire. No longer could Christians be punished legally for practicing their religion.

But it also meant the emperor could be involved with Church matters. In 325, he called the first ecumenical council of the Church, the Council of Nicaea. This meeting dealt with significant issues, such as the Arian heresy which would haunt the Church for years to come. The Nicaean creed was formulated there, too. By 330, the Church of Saint Peter was erected in Rome. But Rome itself was in decay, and Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium, near Asia Minor. In 337, the great Christian emperor lay on his deathbed, and requested baptism. Like others of the fourth through sixth centuries, he believed that forgiveness was given only once, so he waited until the end for that forgiveness.

There were still short periods of persecution in this century, but for the most part, the Church had status: it was given lands, clergy were not taxed, and some bishops ranked high in public life. By the end of the century, the Roman empire was in definite decline. The emperors then spent most of their time trying to defend the frontiers from the invading Franks, Goths, Vandals, Huns, and Visigoths. But Christianity was on the rise, for in 395, it was declared the official religion of the empire. Yet it was a far different Church than the one the wandering band of apostles had begun.

Many saints lived in this extraordinary time. Lucy (feast day December 13) died for her faith; Bishop Nicholas (December 6) was imprisoned for his; Martin (November 11) forsook a military career to spread Christianity; Augustine (August 28) resisted becoming a Christian before turning into one of the Church's greatest spokesmen; and Melania (December 31) cast off tremendous Roman wealth for simplicity.

They shared the same century, but lived in different decades, places, and circumstances. It is to them that we turn to learn of this time.

A Voice of the Fourth Century: Nicholas
280-343 AD

Choose two readers to represent the narrator and Nicholas.

Imagine with me the year 304. Christians were being imprisoned and often killed for their faith, for Emperor Diocletian had ordered a persecution of Christians. Despite fear, many held firmly to their faith. Now imagine a tall bishop standing before you, in the year 325.
My name is Nicholas of Asia Minor. My wealthy parents taught me to be generous, so when they died, I gave away my inheritance. I don't speak much about this, but others seem very interested in it. I entered the priesthood while in my teens and became a bishop before I was thirty thus the nickname "boy bishop." I endured prison under Emperor Diocletian. Apparently, God did not have martyrdom in his plans for me, for though I worked in prison to keep up the spirits of others there with me, I lived to tell the tale.
All of that has changed now. To our amazement and relief, the present emperor, Constantine, has embraced Christ! We are free now, and the Church is growing rapidly. If that is not amazing enough, the emperor has built churches, and has even called an important meeting in the city of Nicaea. I am attending now, along with bishops from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Greece, and of course, Asia Minor. There are over two hundred of us, and the emperor attends our meetings. We have long discussions, particularly about the teachings of a priest named Arius who claims that Jesus is not God. We call this the Arian heresy. Oh, the long, heated debates, the frustration! But this is most important work, and I am honored to be part of it.
Saint Nicholas lived a long life, working for his people as bishop. Some say he was a calm man unless there was an injustice; then he could spring like a lion. After he died, miracles were done in his name, many involving children. These, and his habit of quietly giving gifts have led to his famous reputation. You know him, perhaps, by the name of Santa Claus.


  1. Help children research the types of clothing worn by people of various classes of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
  2. Have them create symbols for [St. Nicholas] in this story.
  3. Make posters with the name and date of [St. Nicholas], and have children draw pictures of him based on their research of the clothing, or draw the symbols on the posters. When reading . . . the story, have one child hold up the poster for the "saint" that is speaking.

Reproduced with permission from the book Stories of Saints through the Centuries, by Anne Neuberger. Copyright © 1999; all rights reserved. Published by Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT 06355.
This book includes thirty-one different saints beginning with Paul in the 1st century and going through Edith Stein in the 20th. Each century is presented in a section with three parts: information on the times, the story of one or more saints, and related activities.
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