In the years between the first preaching of the apostles and the reign of Emperor Constantine when the practice of Christianity was legalized, the Catholic Church experienced explosive growth. In fact, historians estimate that Christians went from numbering about seven thousand at the time of the apostles to thirty-three million by the beginning of the fourth century. Such a rate of growth is especially notable given how widespread persecution of Christians was.
Of course, as believers we give all the glory to God and credit the work of the Holy Spirit for the expansion of the Catholic Church throughout the Roman Empire. However, historians who have studied this time in the Church’s history - many of whom are not believers - point to some other historically verifiable factors to account for it.
Interestingly, they do not attribute it to sound planning by Church leaders, to compelling preaching by priest nor to meaningful Sunday Masses. Rather, they credit such rapid growth in those first centuries to ordinary families witnessing to their faith in Jesus Christ in their homes and communities.
When we look at pagan society in those first centuries of the Church, we can understand why Christians stood out. In Roman culture, human life was cheap. People thought nothing of leaving babies to die if they thought they couldn’t care for them - especially if those babies were female. Children were frequently abused both physically and sexually.
Marriage was also held in low esteem. Even when women and men bothered to get married, they were rarely faithful to one another. Women were often abused physically by their husbands and divorce was common.
The elderly did not fare much better than women or children. Once they were no longer able to contribute financially to the family, they were often turned out of their houses. Since there were no hospitals, the sick were frequently abandoned by their families and left to die in the street.
In contrast, Christian families welcomed every child whether male or female. It was not uncommon for believers to take into their homes babies who were abandoned by their parents and left to die in the streets.
Unlike pagan families in which adultery was common and women were subject to abuse, Christian men and women treated one another as partners and took seriously the vows of Holy Matrimony to love each other faithfully and exclusively.
The first Christians were renowned not only for the love they showed within their homes but for the charity they practiced to those in need. They typically invited the poor into their homes. When someone fell ill, they would nurse them back to health rather than abandon them.
The witness of Christian families in which the vows of marriage were honored, children were welcomed and the poor were fed was such a departure from the cultural norm that people could not help but notice. As a result, women were attracted to the Church because they found in it a refuge from the harsh treatment they suffered in society. The poor and sick also sought baptism because of the care they received at the hand of Christians. They all wanted to hear about this Jesus who commands us to love one another.
And so, we are here today because of the witness of faith of untold numbers of families who lived their marriage vows faithfully, raised children to believe in Jesus and reached out to serve the poor.
In many ways, society has advanced from those early pagan days. Sadly, however, some conditions have not changed. Though we are not killing infant girls at birth, we are aborting unborn babies by the millions. Despite numerous government programs, rampant homelessness and poverty continue to plague our cities. And though there is no shortage of hospitals and nursing homes, the sick and elderly are routinely pushed aside and deemed too inconvenient.
The witness of faithful Christian families is needed as much now as it was in those first centuries of the Catholic Church. It is up to us now to spread the good news of God’s love not just by our words but by our actions. It is up to us to make our homes places where God is honored, where children are welcomed and where the poor find help.
Today’s Feast of the Holy Family reminds us that God calls all of us to be part of a family. His desire is that our homes be places that radiate faith and love. To be sure, no family is perfect. But even imperfect families can teach us about forgiveness and reconciliation. Even if we have failed for whatever reason to live our marriage vows faithfully or raise our children well, God can still use us to show others that He is the Lord of second chances.
Many people might not go to church regularly. They may never read the Bible. However, if we live good lives and foster loving, charitable homes, the society around us will not fail to notice. And, desiring that spark of faith for themselves, they’ll ask us to tell them more about Jesus Christ who commands us to love one another. Only in this way will our Church continue to experience explosive growth into the future.