St. Lawrence of Rome
Born: December 31, 225 AD in Huesca, Spain.
Martyred: August 10, 258 AD in Rome.
Canonized: 4th Century AD
Feast Day: August 10
Patronage: Comedians, Librarians, Chefs, Students, Tanners, Miners, Chefs, Roasters/Bbqers, The Poor, Fire Fighters and the Cities of Rome and Huesca.
When one thinks of the saints that once walked the streets of Rome, names like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Cecilia, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, St. Agnes, St. Frances of Rome and St. John Paul II, to name but a few, might come to mind.
Surprisingly, the saints with the most basilicas dedicated to their honour and intercession are not the great princes of Rome, Sts. Peter and Paul, but the deacon St. Lawrence. Typically depicted carrying a gridiron on which he was burnt alive (thus making him the patron saint of BBQ), St. Lawrence is usually remembered for his horrific martyrdom in the late 3rd century AD.
But his life and ministry in the city of Rome, marked by his loyalty to the Pope in a time of intense persecution and his special care for the poor, whom he told the Roman powers were the true treasure of the Christian People, add further glory to this humble deacon of the Eternal City.
I will admit that I knew little of St. Lawrence growing up, minus his gruesome martyrdom of being roasted alive over an open fire. But I was able to more fully discover this great saint when I visited the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, Roma. Located outside the walls of the ancient city, this basilica looks quite stark and subdued compared to the towering facades of St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran.
The interior of the church is another striking contrast to the gold gilded baroque churches that dominate the centre of the Eternal City. Brick walls with faded mosaics and an ancient Romanesque altar reflect the spirit of this holy deacon who loved the poor and offered his life as an oblation for their spiritual and physical well being.
St. Lawrence’s love for the Holy Father and willingness to stay loyal to him to his dying breath is also discovered in the history that embodies this ancient basilica. Located behind the main altar at the apse of the church is the tomb of Blessed Pope Pius IX (1792-1878).
This remarkable Pope, who declared the dogmas of Papal Infallibility and The Immaculate Conception, is not buried alongside other popes who typically rest in St. Peter’s Basilica or the Papal Cathedral of St. John Lateran. Rather, he rests in the Basilica of San Lorenzo outside the walls since Italian nationalists threatened to thrown his body in the River Tiber after his death on account of his defence of the Papal States and opposition to the revolutionary forces who fought for the creation of the Italian state, since he saw their mission as void of the Christian principles that would prevent it from degrading into a vicious socialist state, one that would eventually give rise to the Fascist rule of Benito Mussolini.
The mortal remains of this saintly pontiff now rest safe near the tomb of St. Lawrence, who in death continues to show his undying loyalty to the Vicar of Christ.
As one walks through the haunting yet peaceful cemetery at the back of this basilica, one is reminded of the heroic witness of another Pope who came to the care for the poor in imitation of St. Lawrence. When Venerable Pius XII learned that the San Lorenzo region of Rome, including its basilica, was bombed in 1943, he departed immediately to care for his flock. Despite concerns that a Nazi death squad would kidnap or murder the pope once he left the borders of the Vatican City, Pius XII insisted he visited the poor and wounded, offering the Last Rites to the dying and blessings to the sick and injured.
He donated a sizeable sum from his own family’s fortune to the needy citizens of San Lorenzo and was required to have a new papal cassock made as the fine white silk one that he wore was so covered in blood and dirt that it could not be worn any longer. Most certainly the great St. Lawrence interceded for his beloved pontiff on that fateful day in 1943, inspiring him to care for the poor and discovering in them the great treasure that St. Lawrence was willing to die for.
There are other wonderful traditions concerning St. Lawrence, most notably how he was given the Holy Grail by Pope St. Sixtus II, who had been given it by the previous pope and traced its origins all the way back to St. Peter who brought it with him when he first began to serve as the first Bishop of Rome. St. Lawrence, knowing that he was going to die and the holy relic fall into the hands of the pagan Romans, had it secretly sent to Spain where it would survive for many centuries despite the Islamic conquest of Iberia and the brutality of the Spanish Civil War that saw its revolutionary forces seek to destroy the Holy Chalice of the Last Supper. Was it not for one courageous woman who hide it in those years of bloodshed, it is possible it would have been profaned and destroyed. One can find the Holy Grail now in the Cathedral of Valencia, though the entire story of the stone cup that first held the Blood of Christ is for another time…
St. Lawrence inspires us to love of Holy Father and seek to serve Christ in the poor and persecuted. May He, alongside Blessed Pius IX and Venerable Pius XII, intercede for us and inspire us to do likewise.