Today is the feast of St. Lawrence of Rome, a third-century martyr of the Catholic Church. Lawrence was the first saint I ever seriously explored, learning his story from a non-Catholic friend in college. When I entered the RCIA process and was told I had to choose a ‘patron’ Saint, I chose Lawrence–partly because of his story, but partly because, well, I didn’t know many others saints.
History doesn’t tell us much about him, but the couple of surviving anecdotes are deeply inspiring. In 258 A.D., the Roman Emperor Valerian began a massive killing campaign, murdering numerous Christians in and around Rome. And one of his earliest victims was the Pope himself, Sixtus II.
According to lore, before the Pope’s own martyrdom, he placed the young Deacon Lawrence in charge of the Church’s riches. The treasures included the legendary Holy Grail, purported to be the cup Christ used while celebrating the Last Supper.
But here’s where the story gets interesting. Valerian, still blood-thirsty after killing the Pope, set his sights on noble Lawrence. Familiar with the Church’s riches, Valerian commanded Lawrence to turn over all the “treasures of the Church” or else he too would suffer a terrible death.
Lawrence asked for a few days to gather such a mass amount of wealth, to which Valerian agreed. Three days passed, and Valerian finally beckoned Lawrence to deliver the “treasures”. So Lawrence, with enlivened boldness, busted open the palace doors, and marched forward to Valerian’s throne.
But his hands were empty of gold and silver. Instead, parading behind him were all the poor, blind, and crippled citizens he could gather in three days. When he reached the throne, he bluntly explained to the Emperor that “these are the true treasures of the Church!”
Valerian was enraged. He sentenced Lawrence not only to death, but death by torturous grilling.
Quite literally, the executioners barbecued Lawrence to death on a gridiron.
But this act led to Lawrence’s greatest claim to fame. After a few minutes of being roasted, Lawrence turned to his executioners and said, “This side’s done, turn me over and have a bite.”
You can’t make that kind of stuff up.
And, to top it off, in her infinite humor the Church has deemed Lawrence the patron saint of comedians, butchers, chefs, and roasters. Too good!
May St. Lawrence’s boldness and love for the poor guide us all to saintliness, teaching us to lay down our lives for the “true treasures of the Church”. St. Lawrence, pray for us!
(If you want to know more about St. Lawrence, the best book I’ve found is Janice Bennett’s St. Laurence and the Holy Grail. It has a great account of Lawrence’s martyrdom along with an exploration of the Holy Grail. Also, the excellent SaintCast podcast featured a couple of episodes on St. Lawrence and the Grail, including a moving account of Lawrence’s martyrdom. Listen if you get the chance.)