The early church spread rapidly across the Mediterranean world. The efficient Roman roads carried missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas. The violent attempts by the Roman Empire to stop the spread of the faith only drew new converts moved by the courage and joy of the Christian martyrs. Another, equally important, element in that remarkable evangelization was the compassion and charity of those Christians.
In the fourth century, a man named Julian rose to be emperor. By that time, the official persecution of Christians had ended. Julian, often call the “Apostate,” abandoned the faith and openly embraced paganism. Julian was angered by the continuing spread of the Christian faith in his empire. Realizing that the persecutions practiced by earlier emperors had failed to stop Christians and even increased their numbers, Julian pursued a different strategy. He knew the Church from the inside and he had seen the church’s many efforts to care for the sick and elderly, educate the young, and assist the poor. So Julian did not forbid the faith, he forbade Christians from these charitable and compassionate efforts.
The culture of the ancient Roman world was harsh and power based. Roman society focused on the well-being of the individual and sought to exploit and even dominate others and other peoples for the gain of their own family or people. Romans did help each other, but when they did so there was always a price to be extracted for that help.
Julian understood how the Christian habit of helping others without selfish motives shocked and impressed people in that culture. In short, Julian understood that the Church’s compassionate care of the most vulnerable was itself a powerful evangelizing force and a constitutive element of the faith. He tried, and failed, to stop it. The Christians of his empire ignored his order and went on doing the work.
That work has continued across the centuries. You see it in the hospitals, universities, schools, orphanages, and countless other church institutions for the care of the suffering. You see it in the religious communities established to care for the sick and the poor and in the lives of the Saints who combine heroic virtue and heroic compassion.
That work continues here in the Church of Providence. I wonder if some of you take for granted the amazing array of your generous engagement for those in need. Arriving new in Providence, I have been struck by the breadth and depth of this Church’s outreach. Parishes and schools continuously seek ways to help others, the diocese has long-standing programs that assist migrants and refugees, care for the elderly and sick, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and assist people to find a new start. Sometimes, it is as simple as bringing the elderly together for shared company at the St. Martin de Porres Center, where hundreds of seniors come for a hot meal every week, and where 300 families use the food pantry. Sometimes it is a matter of raising our voices in defense of human life and dignity or helping a young single mother to make the beautiful choice for life. Sometimes it means helping people “Keep the Heat On,” a program which helped more than 700 families last year. Sometimes, such as at Emmanuel House, it is a 24/7 complex operation dedicated to sheltering and protecting 60-65 homeless men every evening, with 30 women’s beds slated to open within weeks. Additionally, diocesan Immigration and Refugee Services handles hundreds of immigration cases each year. The office found homes for 98 Afghan evacuees, 60 refugees and hundred of migrants. All of this is made possible by Catholics across the state who give so generously of their time talent and treasure to see to the needs of others, stranger and friend alike.
Last week, our Governor convened religious representatives to discuss the coming winter and resources for the homeless. At that meeting, the representatives of the Diocese of Providence were singled out multiple times for the commitment and contribution of the Catholics of Rhode Island. That admiration does not surprise me in the least because I share in it.
That spread of early Christianity and that remarkable outpouring of charity was not a mere strategy to expand the Church. It was the work of the Holy Spirit, inspiring hearts to love God and neighbor. I am so grateful to see that Spirit at work here and now. I rejoice to belong to you, the Church of Providence, and to share in your work of charity!