Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr. He was one of the chief of the seven patriarchal deacons of Rome during the pontificate of Pope Xystus (Sixtus) II. As such he was responsible for the administration of the Church’s financial and material possessions. Pope Xystus and the other six deacons were all martyred under the persecution of Valerian a few days before Lawrence’s martyrdom. He had not been with them when they were arrested while celebrating the Eucharist at the cemetery of St. Callixtus (Callistus) a few days earlier.
A legend has grown up around this figure of Roman history regarding his martyrdom and the administration of the Church’s wealth. When pressed by the Roman prefect to hand over the wealth of the Church, Lawrence took three days to gather up all the poor, the widows, and orphans of Rome and presented them to the prefect and declaring that they were the real wealth of the Church. This infuriated the prefect who ordered his immediate death.
According to the legend St. Lawrence was placed on a gridiron under which burning coals had been placed. He was “roasted” to death. He is also said to have declared during the slow, agonizing death that he wished to be turned over because he was “done” on one side.
The legend seems to hang on one letter of the alphabet; namely, the letter “p.” Most accounts of martyrdom state in Latin: “Passus est,” which is translated “He suffered.” However the inscription over Lawrence’s burial site reads, “Assus est,” which would be translated “He roasted.” It is quite likely that Lawrence was beheaded rather than roasted as this was the common manner of execution for Roman citizens at the time.
Whatever form the martyrdom took really is not of much importance. The veneration of St. Lawrence throughout Rome endures to this day. He is still regarded as one of the patron saints of Rome, and his image is found frequently in the art work that beautifies the churches of Rome and Italy. He has become a favorite precisely because of his generosity to the poor people of Rome.
The readings for the liturgy on the Feast of St. Lawrence focus on his martyrdom. The Gospel invokes the familiar theme of reversal: “the last shall be first,” “those who lose will find,” “the lowly will be great.” Lawrence died in the third century. Eighteen hundred years later, we still cherish his memory. Even in human terms, the Gospel has been proven in St. Lawrence.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator