In 313 A.D, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legitimizing Christianity and ordering the restitution of property confiscated from Christians. Yet, long before that historic day, the Church experienced remarkable growth. The times certainly did not favor such expansion. Christians were stigmatized, persecuted and martyred.
Nero, Domitian, Trajan and Valerian set the stage for the most ruthless and systematic persecution of Christians under Diocletian. The emperor Diocletian ordered Christian church buildings destroyed, worship ended, Scriptures burned, clergy arrested and the death of any Christian who did not offer pagan sacrifice. Yet, despite the rack, the sword, the fire, the cross and every other means of torture, the Church was growing at the astonishing rate of 40 percent every 10 years. Why? What could possibly attract anyone to a religion so persecuted and hated?
In pagan Rome, when an epidemic broke out in any town, there was little anyone could do to stop it. Fearing for their own lives, people would simply flee. It was not uncommon for the healthy to leave behind family members and friends.
In 161 A.D. a plague struck Rome. The emperor's own physician, Galen, fled. So did the pagan priests and as many others as could. Each one's life was at stake. Yet, the Christians remained. Their motivation was not self-centered, but Christ-centered. They stayed behind to care for the sick. Jesus had told them that, in attending to the needs of others, they were caring for him. The charity of Christians set them apart from their pagan neighbors and attracted their attention.
Caring for the needy is part of the fabric of faith. In the first centuries of Christianity, every church kept a matriculum, a list of those in need. Much was expended in the care of the poor. But, such care was never limited to the Christians. The first century Didache urged Christians "Give to everyone who asks and do not refuse anyone." The second century treatise The Shepherd of Hermas, likewise, counseled, "Give to all without doubting to whom you give, but give to all." Care for the needy also meant feeding those imprisoned during the persecutions. Such an act of defiant charity was indeed courageous and not without notice.
To most pagans, Christian charity made no sense. Why spend energy and one's goods on those who do not contribute to the state? Through its lavish self-indulgence, pagan society was tottering on the brink of extinction. But, Christianity, with its care for the needy, the sick and the dying, was emerging as a new way for a society to live.
To the question what could possibly attract anyone to a religion so persecuted and hated, Julian, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, gave the answer. Julian himself despised all Christians. Yet, he grudgingly admired their charity. He is remembered for his sarcastic remark: "These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes." Clearly, even among the Church's most strident enemies, her care of the poor, the neglected, and the marginalized could not go unnoticed.
Today, the Church still continues, at great sacrifice, her care of those in need. In one year alone, 554 Catholic hospitals treat 89,501,723 patients. Other Catholic health centers in 357 locations treat 5,535,260 patients. And, 418 locations for residential care of children assist 28,941 residents. The Church has perhaps the most extensive private health-care system in the nation. She cares for people of every race and religion. Her charity is inclusive.
Each year, in terms of social services, more than 2,391 local Catholic Charities agencies provide assistance to 9,164,981 unduplicated individuals in need of help. Food banks and pantries, home delivery and soup kitchens feed 7,216,379 people. Clothing as well as financial assistance for utilities, drugs prescriptions and other basic needs help 1,933,799 people. No small contribution to the common good!
In terms of education, the Catholic Church keeps open more than 7,500 primary and secondary schools. One third of the students enrolled in these schools are non-Catholic. Catholic schools have a 99 percent graduation rate and a 97 percent success rate at placing students in college. By educating more than 2.5 million, Catholic schools save taxpayers $20 billion dollars a year.
The Economist estimates that, in one year alone, the Catholic Church spent upwards of $171,600,000,000 in her charitable work (cf. Herman Mehta, The Economist, Aug. 17, 2012). Where the Church is strong, there is compassion and charity. Nonetheless, as in the first centuries of the Christian era, so also today, there are those who see no value in religion and no place for the Church in the public square. Will such individuals promote government regulations and laws that limit the Church's exercise of her charity?
With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the recent federal ruling known as the HHS Mandate will require employers to subsidize coverage of sterilization and contraception as well as abortion-inducing drugs. To some, this poses no problem. But, for Catholics and others whose moral teaching does not condone direct, voluntary sterilization, abortion and artificial contraception, what will be the choice? Will they disobey the law that violates their moral teaching? Will they be stigmatized as intolerant? Will penalties amounting to millions of dollars per year imposed on dissenters force the Church to close her hospitals, schools and charities? If the Church could no longer operate her hospitals, schools and social services according to the teaching of Jesus, how great that loss would be to the common good! Even in our day, the charity of the Church cannot go unnoticed!