Survival of the FaithfulMIKE AQUILINA
When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 312, there were already many millions of Christians in the empire. What was their life like? In one sense, it was no different from the lives of their pagan neighbors. In another sense, their faith made all the difference in the world.
Most people, however, lived in rat- and lice-infested tenements — overcrowded, teetering, overly tall buildings with no ventilation or plumbing. There was a constant danger of fire taking out your city block. Life expectancy was around 30. The corpses of the dead were sometimes dumped with the day’s trash into the city’s open sewers.
These were the neighborhoods where the Christians lived. Yet Christian homes were somehow different, and that difference was among the great and silent means of evangelization.
This is a story we don’t find often in the lives of the saints, which tend to focus on extraordinary events. Nor do we find it in ecclesiastical histories, which focus on the lives of the bishops. Yet it is the true story of the Church. As St. Augustine said, it was “one heart setting another on fire.”
It was a new kind of fire — full of promise rather than danger. The fire of charity, tended in the Christian home, also could consume city blocks. Let’s look at just one example.
Epidemics were among the great terrors of life. Physicians knew that the diseases were communicable, but they knew nothing about antibiotics or antisepsis. So, once the diseases hit, there was really no stopping them.
The first people to flee were the doctors. Next were the pagan priests. Ordinary pagan families were encouraged to abandon infected family members.
Yet Christians were duty-bound to care for the sick. Consider this account of the great epidemic of the year 260: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending their every need and ministering to them in Christ — and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
Imagine: cheer amid such squalor! We possess pagan accounts of that same epidemic, and all are characterized by despair.
Amid the havoc, Christian charity had an enormous impact on Church growth. Christians were more likely to survive epidemics because they cared for one another. What’s more, Christian families cared for their pagan neighbors. And the pagans who received Christian care were more likely to survive and become Christians themselves.
This routine of charity did not so much constitute a new culture, replacing the old. The law, the government, and many routines of daily life remained as they were. But inwardly, everything had changed.
A document of the early second century, the anonymous Letter to Diognetus, describes the process:
Gradually. Invisibly. But inexorably. This is the way that Christian doctrine, hope, and charity transformed the Roman Empire — one good deed at a time.
Mike Aquilina. "Survival of the Faithful." Lay Witness (May/June 2006): 56.
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Copyright © 2006 Lay Witness
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.