Survival of the Faithful
by Mike 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.
Consider the everyday misery of ordinary citizens. Today, we know the magnificent ruins-columned halls, marble walls, and maybe an obelisk on the front lawn. But these are the dwellings made to last, the homes of the rich and their places of work and worship.
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 dayís trash into the cityís 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 donít 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. Letís 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. Whatís 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:
Christians are distinguished from others neither by country, nor language, nor the customs they observe. . . . But following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and striking way of life. . . . They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. . . . To sum up: As the soul is in the body, so Christians are in the world. . . . The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible.
Gradually. Invisibly. But inexorably. This is the way that Christian doctrine, hope, and charity transformed the Roman Empire-one good deed at a time.
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Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series. Please visit his blog
for more articles on the early church. ďSurvival of the FaithfulĒ first appeared in the May/June 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine. Copyright Catholics United for the Faith
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