In the year 361 A.D., Flavius Claudius Julianus became the new Roman emperor. A nephew of Constantine, he is known as Julian the Apostate, for he was the last pagan Roman emperor, and he desired to convert the people he ruled away from Christianity and back to the pagan beliefs of old.
He quickly discovered a significant obstacle in his path: Christian charity. Charity simply wasn’t practiced in Greco-Roman civilization, nor in the empires that preceded them. The strong and wealthy had acquired their fortunes through their superior merits, and the poor and lowly deserved their fate. There was no good reason for anyone to help them.
The Jewish people were unique in the western world in practicing charity, as God had commanded them: “You shall not oppress the poor or vulnerable. God will hear their cry” (Exodus 22:20-26). “A portion of the harvest is set aside for the poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 19:9-10).
Jesus, as He always did, took the Old Law and elevated it to a higher level. He did this by not only becoming human, but by living as one of the poor. “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head” (Matthew 8:20, cf Luke 9:58). As He Himself was one of the poor, Jesus equated our treatment of the poor with our treatment of Him: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for Me” (Matthew 25:40).
Thus the Church from the beginning took care of the poor and needy: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone in need” (Acts 2:44-45). This charitable work distinguished the Christians from the rest of the Greco-Roman world, and fostered the growth of the Church:
“Every week, in churches across the Roman world, collections for orphans and widows, for the imprisoned, and the shipwrecked, and the sick had been raised. Over time, as congregations swelled, and ever more of the wealthy were brought to baptism, the funds available for poor relief had grown as well. Entire systems of social security had begun to emerge. Elaborate and well-organized, these had progressively embedded themselves within the great cities of the Mediterranean.” (1)
Julian knew he was fighting an uphill (and in fact, a hopeless) battle on behalf of paganism, because of the contrast in how each faith treated the less fortunate. A third century pagan philosopher would complain, “How apparent it is to everyone, and how shameful, that our own people lack support from us, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans (i.e., Christians) support not only their own poor, but ours as well?” Julian attempted to revive the pagan temples and distribute food to the poor through them. His efforts and his reign were cut short when he was killed in battle in 363, just two years after becoming emperor.
The Catholic Church continues the work of Jesus today of “bringing glad tidings to the poor” (Luke 4:18). The charitable work of the Catholic Church touches nearly every corner of the globe. Serving in 115 countries around the world, Catholic Relief Services improved the lives of 140 million people in 2020, helping people in agriculture, capacity strengthening, education, emergency relief, health, microfinance, peacebuilding, and water/sanitation.
In the United States, Catholic Charities USA in 2020:
- Served over 15 million people
- Distributed over 20 million pounds of food
- Provided emergency housing services to over 179,000 people
- Provided workforce development and job training to more than 30,000 people
- Provided health and wellness services to more than 500,000 people
- Assisted more than 237,000 migrants
The Church has likewise spoken up for the most vulnerable members of society, 2,000 years ago and today. In the Roman world, abandoned babies were a common site. It was the prerogative of the father to keep a newborn child, or abandon it. Discarded by pagan society, Catholics began rescuing and raising these precious children. Just as the Church continues to serve the poor, the Church continues to speak up today on behalf of the most defenseless children, advocating firmly and tirelessly for the preborn.
In recent weeks, it has been a commonplace on social media to claim that those who speak out for the preborn do nothing to help the poor and less fortunate. This is not true of the Catholic Church. Quite the contrary. The Church’s work for the poor and preborn is of one accord: to affirm the dignity of and work for justice on behalf of every person made in the image and likeness of our good and gracious God.
(1) Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, p. 139-140.
Image: The Poor Widow by James Tissot (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).