Lawrence of Rome
Lawrence of Rome (Latin: Laurentius, lit. “laurelled”; c. 225–258) was one of the seven deacons of ancient Rome under Pope Sixtus II that were martyred during the persecution of Emperor Valerian in 258.
Lawrence is thought to have been born in Spain, at Huesca, a town in the Aragon region near the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. As a youth he was sent to Zaragoza to complete his humanistic and theological studies. It was here he first encountered the future Pope Sixtus II, who was of Greek origin. The future Pope was one of the most famous and highly esteemed teachers in Zaragoza, one of the empire’s most renowned centres of learning. Eventually, both left Spain for Rome. When Sixtus became the Pope in 257, he ordained Lawrence as a deacon, and though Lawrence was still young, appointed him first among the seven deacons who served in the patriarchal church; Lawrence is therefore called “archdeacon of Rome”. This was a position of great trust that included the care of the treasury and riches of the church and the distribution of alms among the poor. St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, notes that Roman authorities had established a norm according to which all Christians who had been denounced must be executed and their goods confiscated by the Imperial treasury. At the beginning of the month of August 258, the emperor Valerian issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. Sixtus was captured on August 6, 258, at the cemetery of St. Callixtus while celebrating the liturgy and executed forthwith. After the death of Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. St. Ambrose is the earliest source for the tale that Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. Lawrence worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said these were the true treasures of the Church. One account records him declaring to the prefect, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.” This act of defiance led directly to Lawrence’s martyrdom and can be compared to the parallel Roman tale of the jewels of Cornelia. On 10 of August, Lawrence, the last of the seven deacons, also suffered a martyr’s death. The 10th of August is also the first day of Puck Fair. This is an example of a Pagan festival converting to that of a religious festival. This was a common practice in the Iron Age/Early Medieval world, as Christianity was starting to take hold. Here in Ireland, everything Pagan including Healing Wells, Ogham Stones and festivals were converted. For example, Healing Wells became Holy Wells, some Ogham Stones had signs of the Cross inscribed into them and festivals with Pagan roots became associated with Saints. However, there is no real connection between St. Lawrence and Puck Fair, although St. Lawrence is the Saint, Killorglin is named after.
According to lore, Lawrence was able to spirit away the chalice used during Christ’s Last Supper (the “Holy Grail”) to Huesca, in present-day Spain, with a letter and a supposed inventory, where it lay hidden and unregarded for centuries. WhenSt. Augustine connects Lawrence with a chalice, it is the chalice of the Mass:
For in that Church, you see, as you have regularly been told, he performed the office of deacon; it was there that he administered the sacred chalice of Christ’s blood.
According to Catholic tradition the Holy Grail is a relic sent by St Lawrence to his parents in northern Aragon. He entrusted this sacred chalice to a friend who he knew would travel back to Huesca, remaining in the monastery of San Juan de la Peña, core of spiritual strength for the emerging Kingdom of Aragon. While the Holy Chalice’s exact journey through the centuries is disputed, it is accepted by many Catholics that the Chalice was sent by his family to this monastery for preservation and veneration. Historical records indicate this chalice has been venerated and preserved by a number of monks and monasteries through the ages. Today the Holy Grail is venerated in a special chapel in the Catholic Cathedral of Valencia, Spain.
The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, Tintoretto, oil on canvas, (Christ Church, Oxford)
By tradition, Lawrence was sentenced at San Lorenzo in Miranda, imprisoned in San Lorenzo in Fonte, and martyred at San Lorenzo in Panisperna. The Almanac of Philocalus for the year 354 mentions that he was buried in the Via Tiburtina in the Catacomb of Cyriaca by Hippolytus and Justin the Confessor, a presbyter. One of the early sources for the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence was the description by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens in his Peristephanon, Hymn II. A well-known legend has persisted from earliest times. As deacon in Rome, Lawrence was charged with the responsibility for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. St. Ambrose of Milan relates that when St. Lawrence was asked for the treasures of the Church he brought forward the poor, among whom he had divided the treasure as alms. “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown.” The prefect was so angry that he had a great gridiron prepared, with coals beneath it, and had Lawrence’s body placed on it (hence St. Lawrence’s association with the gridiron). After the martyr had suffered the pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he made his famous cheerful remark, “I’m well done. Turn me over!” From this derives his patronage of cooks and chefs. Some historians, such as Rev. Patrick Healy, view the traditions of how Lawrence was martyred as “not worthy of credence”, as the slow lingering death cannot be reconciled “with the express command contained in the edict regarding bishops, priests, and deacons (animadvertantur) which ordinarily meant decapitation.” A theory of how the tradition arose is put forward by Pio Franchi de’ Cavalieri. He postulates that it was the result of a mistaken transcription, the accidental omission of the letter “p” – “by which the customary and solemn formula for announcing the death of a martyr – passus est [“he suffered,” that is, was martyred] – was made to read assus est [he was roasted].” The Liber Pontificalis, which is held to draw from sources independent of the existing traditions and Acta regarding Lawrence, uses passus est concerning him, the same term it uses for Pope Sixtus II (martyred by beheading during the same persecution). Constantine I is said to have built a small oratory in honour of the martyr, which was a station on the itineraries of the graves of the Roman martyrs by the seventh century. Pope Damasus I rebuilt or repaired the church, now known as San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, while the minor basilica of San Lorenzo in Panisperna was built over the place of his martyrdom. The gridiron of the martyrdom was placed by Pope Paschal II in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.
The life and miracles of St. Lawrence were collected in the work, The Acts of St. Lawrence, but this is now lost. The earliest existing documentation of miracles associated with St. Lawrence is found in the writings of St. Gregory of Tours (538–594), who mentions the following:
A priest named Fr. Sanctulus was rebuilding a church of St. Lawrence, which had been attacked and burnt, and hired many workmen to accomplish the job. At one point during the construction, he found himself with nothing to feed them. He prayed to St. Lawrence for help, and looking in his basket he found a fresh, white loaf of bread. It seemed to him too small to feed the workmen, but in faith he began to serve it to the men. While he broke the bread, it so multiplied that that his workmen fed from it for ten days.
The stone on which Lawrence’s body was laid after death, in San Lorenzo fuori le mura
Lawrence is one of the most widely venerated saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Legendary details of his death were known to Damasus, Prudentius, Ambrose and Augustine. The church built over his tomb, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, became one of the seven principal churches in Rome and a favorite place for Roman pilgrimages. Devotion to him was widespread by the fourth century. Since the Perseid Meteor Shower typically occurs every year in mid-August, on or near Saint Lawrence’s feast day, some refer to the shower as the “Tears of Saint Lawrence.”
The shrine in Rome containing the gridiron said to have been used to grill Lawrence to death
St Lawrence is especially honoured in the city of Rome, where he is one of the city’s patrons. There are several churches in Rome dedicated to him, including San Lorenzo in Panisperna, traditionally identified as the place of his execution; the part of Rome near the San Lorenzo basilica is called Quartiere San Lorenzo. He is invoked by librarians, archivists, cooks, and tanners as their patron. His celebration on 10 August has the rank of feast throughout the entire Catholic world. On this day, the reliquary containing his burnt head is displayed in the Vatican for veneration. The Escorial Palace, situated at the foot of Mt. Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama, was built by King Philip II of Spain to commemorate the victory of Spanish forces over those of King Henry II of France at the Battle of St Quentin, which took place on the feast of St Lawrence on 10 August 1557. To honour the martyr, the entire floor plan of this imposing edifice was laid out in the form of a gridiron, the means by which St Lawrence was martyred. French explorer Jacques Cartier gave the name of Saint Lawrence to the widest river estuary in the world. At the mouth of this river is the large Gulf of Saint Lawrence, surrounded by all the Canadian Maritime provinces. Closer to the source of this river are the Laurentian mountains (north of the city of Montreal), the major Montreal borough of Saint-Laurent (borough), as well as the famed Saint Lawrence Boulevard that spans the full 11.25 km width of the island of Montreal. Further upstream, on the south side of the river near its source at Lake Ontario, is St. Lawrence County, New York. St Lawrence is the patron saint of the monks of Ampleforth Abbey. St Lawrence is also venerated by Anglo-Catholics. A major church in Sydney, Australia, situated in the former civil (land division) parish of St Lawrence, is called “Christ Church St. Laurence”. The Brotherhood of St Laurence also bears his name.
According to Fr. Francesco Moraglia, Professor of Dogmatic Theology, the role of deacon is distinguished by service of the poor. He is destined both to the service of the table (corporal works of mercy) and to the service of the word (spiritual works of mercy). “The beauty, power and the heroism of Deacons such as Lawrence help to discover and come to a deeper meaning of the special nature of the diaconal ministry.” The Basilica of St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr is located in Asheville, North Carolina. Rescue operation for the miners trapped in the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in Chile was termed Operación San Lorenzo after the saint.