Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio recently gave the keynote address at the Missouri Catholic Conference Annual Assembly. He spoke on the Catholic contribution to immigration reform. And he told his listeners the story of Julian the Apostate.
I want to go back in history a little bit. To the short reign of the Emperor Julian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 361 to 363 A.D.
You remember your history, I’m sure. After centuries of persecution, Christianity became first a “tolerated” religion, and then the official state religion under the Roman Emperor Constantine, beginning in the early fourth century. Well, Julian was the son of Constantine’s half-brother, Julius Constantius, and he came to power after a series of bloody struggles.
Julian came to be known for all time as “Julian the Apostate.” He got that notorious label because, although he had been baptized and raised a Christian, he abandoned his faith immediately upon becoming emperor. Julian then used his “bully pulpit” as emperor to scorn the Church and Christianity and to promote devotion to the pagan gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome—Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, and the rest.
Julian called the Christians “Galileans.” It was a kind of ethnic and class slur. And he wrote a big book against the Church. He said his aim was to strip that “new-fangled Galilean god” of “the divinity falsely ascribed to him” (Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 177).
But there was something that Julian couldn’t shake about the Christians. Something he couldn’t get out of his mind. And that was the Christians’ virtue. Their charity. And especially their hospitality to those they didn’t even know. In fact, Julian once issued an order to try to get pagan believers to start imitating the Christians in what he called their “benevolence toward strangers.”
Here’s a quote from a letter he wrote, and you can tell he’s not very happy. He complains that Christians’ care for strangers and their holiness is contributing to the spread of “atheism.” (He called Christians “atheists” because they didn’t believe in the pagan gods.)
Here’s what Julian wrote: “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers … and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism. … It is disgraceful that when … the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men should see how our people lack aid from us.” (Macmullen and Lane, Paganism and Christianity, 100–425 C.E.: A Sourcebook, 271–272).
You see he’s embarrassed. Ashamed. The Christians are so generous that they’re helping the poor Romans and that exposes how the Romans themselves don’t take care of their poor.
My friends, my point in this little history lesson is this: From the beginning there was something very different about Christians. Something even their enemies, like Julian, couldn’t help but notice—and admire, no matter how reluctantly.
It’s true there was a tradition of welcoming the stranger in other cultures and religions. Philosophers like Plato wrote about the importance of hospitality. But for the first Christians it became an original and central element of their religious identity. To be a Christian was to practice hospitality to the stranger.
Julian the Apostate is worth getting to know. See here. Or cut to the chase and buy Adrian Murdoch’s The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World.
Archbishop Gomez is always worth reading. See his collected works here.