Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Monday 27 September |
Saint of the Day: St. Vincent de Paul
home iconArt & Culture
line break icon

Hospitals trace their origins to early Christianity

HOSPITAL; MIDDLE AGES; CHRISTIAN; LEPROSY

Public Domain

John Burger - published on 01/21/19

Pope Francis' moves to extend healthcare to the very poor are part of a long tradition in the Church.

Few words in the English language elicit more dread than “going to the hospital.” The phrase conjures up all kinds of images, including surgery, battling disease and even the thought that once you go in, you might not come out.

But considering the origins of the very word hospital might help give a patient a greater sense of hope.

The obvious corollary to the word that’s often overlooked is the word “hospitality.” Indeed, that is where the word hospital comes from, and the specific motivation for that hospitality is Christian charity.

There were certainly “hospitals” in pre-Christian societies such as Greece, Ireland, Mexico and India. But in the Christian era, early efforts to establish houses for strangers, which later took on the job of caring for the sick, were motivated by the Gospel. Christ instructed his Apostles to heal the sick, after all.

At the same time, Christians felt an obligation to be hospitable—St. Paul admonished the Romans to “give the stranger a loving welcome.” Bishops in particular were expected to open their homes to travelers, whether they were Christian or not, and some bishops were even physicians and could provide care for the sick.

“There was thus from the earliest times a well organized system of providing for the various forms of suffering; but it was necessarily limited and dependent on private endeavor so long as the Christians were under the ban of a hostile State,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

After the conversion of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, the number of Christians increased rapidly. At the same time, new economic conditions led to greater poverty. “To meet these demands, a different kind of organization was required, and this, in conformity with the prevalent tendency to give all work for the common weal an institutional character, led to the organization and founding of hospitals,” the encyclopedia said.

In the Christian East, places caring for travelers and the sick were called xenodochia, from the ancient Greek for “place for strangers.” Eventually, it was apparent that the name was not as catchy as hospital. However, the English language has adopted some Greek names for institutions caring for those in need did survive, such as orphanotrophium, in “orphanage,” and gerontochium, in “geriatrics.”

Throughout the Middle Ages, although hospitals suffered ups and downs, the tradition was kept alive variously by dioceses that ordered the cathedral have a hospital attached to it or religious orders such as the Benedictines ensuring that each of its monasteries have one. In time, confraternities and religious orders, such as the Alexians, were established specifically for the purpose of ministering to the sick.

During the Crusades, chivalric orders such as the Order of St. John established hospitals for pilgrims in the Holy Land.

Perhaps it’s not strange, then, that Pope Francis should refer to the Church as a “field hospital” for souls, or to order that a health station be opened beneath St. Peter’s Square to serve the homeless. Such a practice of incorporating care for the body with care for the spirit goes back to the very founding of the Church.

Tags:
Health
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
1
The Sinai Peninsula and the Dead Sea Rift
J-P Mauro
Experts now believe Sodom was destroyed by a meteor
2
VATICAN LEGOS
J-P Mauro
Chicago architect models Vatican City from 67,000 LEGO bricks
3
Giovanna Binci
He’s autistic, she has Down syndrome, and they’re wonderfully hap...
4
Fr. Michael Rennier
The purpose of life according to J.R.R. Tolkien
5
PADRE PIO
Bret Thoman, OFS
Exclusive photos: Meet Padre Pio and the place he lived
6
crisis man
Marzena Devoud
Advice from 3 monks for overcoming acedia
7
Christ and the woman taken in adultery
Daniel Esparza
What Jesus wrote
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.