Today is the Feast of the glorious martyr, St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome, who lived in the third century (ca. 225-258). Lawrence experienced martyrdom, along with his bishop, Pope Sixtus II, in Rome during persecution of the Church in the imperial city under the emperor Valerian. It is believed that Lawrence was born in Spain. He first met Sixtus while he was studying in the Spanish city of Zaragoza, where Sixtus, who was Greek, was one of his teachers. In time, both Sixtus and Lawrence wound up in Rome. When Sixtus became the Bishop of Rome, he ordained Lawrence, who was still very young, a deacon. Further, Sixtus appointed his former student as first among the seven deacons of Rome, making him effectively archdeacon of the city. In this capacity Lawrence was in charge of the Roman Church's treasury, meaning that he also oversaw the distribution of alms to the poor of the city.
In August 258 Valerian decreed that all bishops, priests, and deacons be put to death. Shortly afterwards, Pope Sixtus was captured while celebrating Mass and hastily executed. Upon the death of the Bishop of Rome the demand was made that Lawrence surrender all the Church's treasury to the imperial authorities. According to ancient accounts, the most ancient of which is that of St. Ambrose (ca. 340 – 4 April 397), Lawrence said it would take him three days to gather up the Church's treasury. Over the three days he vigorously set about disbursing all Church assets to the poor. After he finished his work, on day three, accompanied by the poor, the lame, and the blind, Lawrence turned himself in to the city's prefect, who immediately ordered him to turn over the riches. So, he presented the Roman prefect the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering who were with him, saying that these were the Church's true wealth. According to the narrative, this act is what led to his martyrdom.
Tradition hands on that Lawrence was roasted alive on an iron grill. Each year on his feast, the Holy See exhibits the reliquary containing St. Lawrence's burnt head for veneration by the faithful. While some may find the picture of St. Lawrence's burnt head gruesome, I think, if nothing else, that seeing it helps to keep us from being all sappy and sentimental by reminding us of the reality the Lord calls us to engage with our whole heart, might, mind, and strength, even to the laying down of our lives.
It is also worth noting that Pope Pius IX, having initially been buried in St. Peter's, was moved three and-a-half years after his death and re-interred in the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, as it is known in Italian, is the shrine/tomb of St. Lawrence. Being assigned to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, it is one of the five Patriarchal Basilicas, along with St. Peter's, St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major, as well as one of the seven Pilgrim Churches, which includes the Patriarchal Basilicas plus the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem and the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love.
Along with the great Feast of St. Stephen, which falls on 26 December, the day after the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, today's feast is an important one for deacons. I find it a bit odd that the among the many faculties granted to permanent deacons in the restored and renewed diaconate, such as being ordinary ministers of Baptism and being able to preach, governance and care of the Church's temporal goods is a ministry in which deacons no longer share.
S. Laurentii, ora pro nobis