Who was Saint Lawrence?
Saint Lawrence or Laurence was a Christian religious figure from the 3rd century. He served as one of the seven deacons of the city of Rome during the tenure of Pope Sixtus II. All of the deacons, along with Sixtus II, were martyred during the persecution of the Christians that took place under the order of the Roman Emperor Valerian in 258. Originally from the region that the Romans called Hispania, Lawrence met Sixtus II for the first time in Caesaraugusta, and the two subsequently relocated to Rome. According to Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, the Roman authorities had introduced a norm that allowed them to seize the property of all convicted Christians and execute them. In August 258, Valerian ordered the execution of all bishops, priests, and deacons. Being a deacon of Rome, Lawrence’s duties included looking after the material goods of the church and giving away alms to the poor. Ambrose of Milan states that when Lawrence was asked to surrender the treasures of the church, he showed the poor to whom he had given alms. Lawrence was executed at what later would be known as San Lorenzo in Panisperna. Throughout the ensuing centuries, multiple churches have sprung up in Rome and elsewhere that are dedicated to Saint Lawrence.
It is generally believed that Saint Lawrence was originally from Valencia, or less likely, Osca (present-day Huesca), and his birth date was December 31, 225. His parents, presumably martyrs Orentius and Patientia, were natives of Osca but later relocated to the region of Aragon, which, at the time, was part of the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis.
The first meeting between Lawrence and Sixtus II occurred in Caesaraugusta (modern-day Zaragoza). By then, Sixtus II, who was Greek, had established himself as one of the most prominent teachers of his fledgling religion. They both later moved to Rome. In 257, Sixtus II was appointed the pope, and he subsequently made Lawrence a deacon.
He was the first among the seven deacons of the cathedral church to be appointed in that position. This earned him the byname, "archdeacon of Rome", a post that allocated to him great responsibility and reverence. He was in charge of looking after the treasury and riches of the church and administration of the alms allocated to the poor people.
Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, reveals that the Roman authorities had created a norm that enabled them to put the condemned Christians to death. Furthermore, their properties were seized by the imperial treasury.
In early august 258, Emperor Valerian introduced a decree in which he ordered the deaths of all bishops, priests, and deacons. On August 6, 258, Pope Sixtus II was arrested at the cemetery of St Callixtus while participating in the celebration of the liturgy and was subsequently put to death.
Following Sixtus’ execution, the prefect of Rome told Lawrence that he had to hand over the treasures of the church. The earliest source on what transpired next is Saint Ambrose. Lawrence requested for three days to comply with the order. He quickly gave away as much of the church’s wealth as he could to the poor people, so he could stop the confiscation by the prefect.
On the third day, he positioned himself as the leader of a small delegation and went to meet the prefect. After he was instructed to bring forth the treasures of the church, he showed the indigent, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering that had come with him and announced that those people were the real wealth of the church.
According to one account, Lawrence said to the prefect, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor." This was seen as dissent and led to his martyrdom. Lawrence’s story is similar to the parallel Roman tale of the jewels of Cornelia. Lawrence, the first deacon of Rome, also became its final deacon when he was killed on August 10, 258.
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Becoming a Martyr
During his tenure as the deacon of Rome, Saint Lawrence’s main duties were to supervise the church’s treasury and give away alms to the poor. Ambrose of Milan notes that when the prefect of Rome asked Lawrence to hand over the church’s wealth, he pointed at the indigent among whom he had dispersed the treasures.
The incensed prefect ordered a great gridiron to be heated over hot coals and Lawrence to be put on top of it. Because of this, a gridiron has become part of Lawrence’s tale. The torture lasted for a long time. However, according to the legends, he light-heartedly remarked, “I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!" This has led to Lawrence becoming the patron of cooks, chefs, and comedians.
His sentence was given to him at the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which later became San Lorenzo in Miranda. He was kept at a prison located at a place where San Lorenzo in Fonte now stands. During his short time there, he baptised fellow inmates.
He was executed on 10 August. The church San Lorenzo in Panisperna was erected at the place where Lawrence was martyred.
Emperor Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, built a small oratory over the plot where, according to tradition, Lawrence was interred. Since then, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura has been constructed there.
The Almanac of Filocalus or the Chronograph of 354 states that he was laid to rest in the Catacomb of Cyriaca on the Via Tiburtina by Hippolytus and Presbyter Justin the Confessor.
One of the initial pieces of literature that provided an account of Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom was Aurelius Prudentius Clemens' 'Peristephanon'. Historian Patrick J. Healy holds the view that the legend surrounding the martyrdom of Lawrence is likely not true.
According to him, the slow, lingering death described by the tradition directly contradicts "with the express command contained in the edict regarding bishops, priests, and deacons (animadvertantur) which ordinarily meant decapitation."
Miracles Attributed to Saint Lawrence
The now-lost ‘The Acts of St Lawrence’ was a compilation of his life and miracles. Gregory of Tours was the first writer to document his miracles. The relics of Saint Lawrence (a little bit of his blood, a piece of his flesh, some fat, and ashes) are kept in the renowned reliquary of the ampulla in the mediaeval Church of St Mary Assumed in Amaseno, Lazio, Italy.
The Perceptions of Various Denominations
Saint Lawrence is one of the most revered saints of Roman Catholicism. The date of his death, 10 August, is annually celebrated as his feast day. He is regarded as the third patron of Rome, following Saint Peter and Saint John.
According to Anglicanism, the spelling of his name is Laurence or Lawrence. As with the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicanism celebrates his feast day on 10 August. He is also honoured by the Anglo-Catholics.
In Rome, several churches have been constructed throughout the centuries that are associated with him, including Basilica Minore di San Lorenzo in Damaso (built where Lawrence conducted his work as a deacon), Basilica Minore di Santa Maria in Domnicaalla Navicella (constructed where he gave away alms to the poor), Basilica Minore di San Lorenzo in Lucina, and Church of St Lawrence in Piscibus.
The Anglo-Catholics have set up numerous churches all over the world honouring him. Just England has 228 of them. The Christ Church St Laurence is a prominent church in Sydney, Australia. Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Anglican charitable society, was named after him.