The so-called Long Lent just keeps getting longer. The myriad sex abuse scandals have damaged her public witness and weakening the faith of her members. Several high-ranking prelates have been mired in corruption charges, most recently Bisjop Michael J. Bransfield of Charleston-Wheeling.
Catholic public figures whose dogma “lives loudly” within them, in turn, have been derided by senior political elites. 13 percent of American adults are former Catholics, while only two percent are converts to the faith. The Notre Dame fire seems an apt (if bitter) symbol of the state of the Church. And, as Benedict XVI has long warned, things will likely get worse before they get better.
Yet persecution and apathy need not keep us Catholic faithful perennially in the dumps. In years past the Church has faced far worse, and still remained doggedly hopeful and stubbornly joyful. The saint whose feast we celebrate tomorrow, St. Lawrence, well embodies these virtues necessary for a full Christian life. We should take heed his courage—united to a winsome humor and sense of irony—as welcome lessons for our own time of trial.
Lawrence was born in the year 225 in modern-day Valencia – then the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis. According to tradition, his parents were the martyrs Orentius and Patientia. While in Spain, Lawrence met the future Pope Sixtus II, a celebrated Greek catechist. The two eventually left for Rome, where Sixtus was named Pope in 257. He soon ordained the young Lawrence as a deacon: one of seven to serve in the Roman cathedral church. Lawrence was named Archdeacon of Rome, a position of great honor that included management of the treasury and wealth of the Church, as well as the distribution of alms to the poor.
Only a year later, in 258, the Roman Emperor Valerian a member of a noble senatorial family, issued an edict demanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons be immediately executed. Within a few days, Sixtus was captured at the cemetery of St Callixtus—a common gathering place for early Christians—while celebrating the liturgy. The prefect of Rome then demanded that Lawrence in his capacity as deacon turn over the riches of the Roman Church.
Lawrence asked the Roman prefect for three days to gather the Church’s wealth. He then turned around and began quickly distributing ecclesial property to the needy, in order to prevent it from being seized by the Roman authorities. When Lawrence’s time was up, he led a small delegation of the Church’s indigent, crippled, and blind to the Roman prefect. According to St. Ambrose of Milan, when the prefect ordered Lawrence to deliver the treasures of the Church, Lawrence declared: “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 didn’t find this amusing, and ordered Lawrence to be executed.
Lawrence so elicited the ire of the prefect that the Roman official ordered that a great gridiron be prepared with hot coals beneath it, upon which Lawrence was roasted. Even amid this tremendous suffering, his flesh cooking over the heat of the fire, Lawrence reportedly announced, in a cheerful voice: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!” He was not yet thirty-three years old at the time of his martyrdom.
For the good humor with which Lawrence met his martyrdom, he is the patron saint of cooks, chefs, the poor, and comedians, among many other professions. He is often depicted with a gridiron, the means of his murder. He was widely revered by the universal Church within a hundred years of his death. Churches and geographic features the world over are named in his honor.
Reported to have baptized fellow prisoners prior to his execution, Lawrence was subsequently buried in the Catacomb of Cyriaca on the Via Tiburtina by local church members. The Emperor and Christian convert Constantine reportedly erected a small oratory in honor of Lawrence, which was then rebuilt by Pope Damasus I. It is now the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. The Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo in Panisperna stands at the traditional site of his martyrdom.
Lawrence’s story is compelling not just because, like so many other early Christians, he displayed a tenacious willingness to suffer for his Savior. The wit he maintained in the face of persecution is both striking and instructive. His handling of the Church’s “treasures” was both clever and profound; his defiance of the Roman authorities was both pious and winsome. That he kept up the routine during his martyrdom by egging on his tormentors: it goes to show that that no amount of persecution could steal from his Lawrence his hope in heaven or his humor.
We Catholics today are faced with so many threats, both from without and within, that even if we retain our hope, we often lose our humor. We can be tempted to a grim sobriety that neglects to remember that, even in times of loss, we still have Christ the Lord on our side and are assured of victory. United to Christ, we have an eternal hope. No persecution or ridicule can steal that from us. It certainly couldn’t from St. Lawrence—who, though he leaves us no writings or theological reflections, offers an invaluable catechetical legacy for the Church.
St. Lawrence appreciated what modern psychologists are now realizing: that risibility is an important asset for humans, especially when experiencing suffering. So yes: as the Long Lent continues, we Catholics should, as St. James urges us, “weep, wail, and mourn” for our Church and its sins. Yet that doesn’t mean we can’t also find humor in this wretched world, whose incongruities really are comical often enough. Indeed, we might find, as St. Lawrence did, that a sharp and well-formed wit can serve the Church quite well—especially when enduring the attacks of those who have no joy, and who’ve lost the ability to smile or laugh. St. Lawrence, ora pro nobis!
[Above: The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Cornelis van Poelenburch]