Today marks the feast day of St. Lawrence of Rome, whose courage and commitment to the poor inspired me to choose him for my confirmation saint.
Persecution was a daily reality for St. Lawrence and other third-century Christians. And in 258, the Emperor Valerian began another massive round. He issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death, and he gave the Imperial treasury power to confiscate all money and possessions from Christians.
In light of the news, Pope Sixtus II quickly ordained a young Spanish theologian, Lawrence, to become archdeacon of Rome. The important position put Lawrence in charge of the Church’s riches, and it gave him responsibility for the Church’s outreach to the poor. The pope sensed his own days were numbered and therefore commissioned Lawrence to protect the Church’s treasure.
On August 6, 258, Valerian captured Pope Sixtus while he celebrated the liturgy, and had him beheaded. Afterwards, he set his sights on the pope’s young protégé, Lawrence. But before killing him, the Emperor demanded the archdeacon turn over all the riches of the Church. And he gave Lawrence three days to round it up.
Lawrence worked swiftly. He sold the Church’s vessels and gave the money to widows and the sick. He distributed all the Church’s property to the poor. On the third day, the Emperor summoned Lawrence to his palace and asked for the treasure. With great aplomb, Lawrence entered the palace, stopped, and then gestured back to the door where, streaming in behind him, poured crowds of poor, crippled, blind, and suffering people. “These are the true treasures of the Church,” he boldly proclaimed. One early account even has him adding, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than the Emperor.”
Unsurprisingly, Lawrence’s act of defiance angered the Emperor. Valerian ordered his death that same day. Hundreds of year later, Lawrence is still remembered for his final jest: while being barbecued alive, he quipped to his executioners, “I’m well done. Turn me over!” But we should also hail Lawrence for his keen insight regarding the Church’s real treasure.