Orphan (in the Early Church)

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In the primitive Church, the local Christian community took into its care any child who had lost one or both parents. This attitude set the Church clearly apart from the pagan world, which was "without affection." Actually, except in Athens, where the law said that the state must educate the children of citizens killed in war until age 18, orphans among the pagans could count on no other assistance except that of their near relatives or the rare individual who was moved by their misery.

From the Jews of the OT the Christians inherited the conviction that God is the Father of orphans (Ps 67.6) and that the surplus of the harvests granted by God accrue by right to the orphan (Dt 24.21). But it was chiefly their "faith which works through charity" (Gal 5.6) that provided Christians with the bases and motives for their attitude toward orphans.

At Rome in the 2d century justin martyr declared explicitly that every Sunday, at the end of the apostolic assembly, "those who have in abundance give freely, each as he wills, and what is collected is given over to him who presides, and he aids the orphans and widows" (Apol. 67). In 197 at Carthage, Tertullian wrote in the same vein and said that Christians had a common treasury into which each placed his contribution freely according to his means "to aid the boys and girls who have neither fortune nor parents" (Apol. 39). In the more important communities the deacons kept up-to-date books of the persons assisted, and the Christian orphans were officially inscribed in these. Even though the non-Christian orphans were not listed here, they were not discriminated against in the distribution of alms. The Church especially urged the faithful to adopt orphans or to give the girls dowries so that they could marry and to set the boys up as apprentices (Const. Apost. 4.12).

Only after the official recognition of the Church (c. 313), when the emperor aided charitable institutions by according them legal protection and financial assistance, did the Church inaugurate a new form of aid to orphans by founding, especially in the East and later in the West, homes for orphans, called orphanotrophia. St. Ephrem, St. Basil, and St. John Chrysostom distinguished themselves especially by such foundations. These houses were built not only in the shadow of the cathedrals together with other hospices, but also close to monasteries when they began to spread. Steps were taken simultaneously to educate and instruct orphan children and to use their talents for chant and liturgical ceremonies, bringing about an identification of the orphanotrophion and the schola cantorum ; in some cases priests and monks were recruited from among them. About the end of the 6th century such recruitment gave rise in Rome to a type of junior seminary that provided the Church in the 7th century with four popes: Deusdedit, Leo II, Benedict II, and SergiusII.

Bibliography: l. lallemand, Histoire des enfants abandonnés (Paris 1885); Histoire de la charité, 4 v. in 5 (Paris 190212). r. herrmann, La Charité de l'Église (Mulhouse 1961) 1953. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. carroll, h. leclerq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 1.1:130106.

[j. beaudry]