It is in times of persecution and hardship that the godliness of the saints is most clearly revealed. St. Laurence, 3rd century deacon of Rome, is an example from the early years of the Church of those qualities which make one a saint.
Although history does not record details of his early life, it is thought that Laurence was a Spaniard who came to Rome for study as a young man. When he offered himself in service to the Church, he was placed under the tutelage of Archdeacon Sixtus, who found him to be a virtuous and faithful Christian.
In 257, the Emperor Valerian began a persecution of those who followed Christ, and his strategy for stamping out this religion was to eliminate the hierarchy, expecting laymen and those in lower orders to fall away quickly. When he had Pope Stephen killed, Archdeacon Sixtus willingly became his successor, knowing that he would not long survive. Pope Sixtus (II) made his gifted student the new archdeacon, responsible, along with the other six deacons of the city, for the care of widows and orphans and the keeping of the church treasury which was used for their care.
When the pope was very shortly arrested and led away to be killed, Laurence tried in vain to accompany him so that he, too, could share in the fate of those who were sacrificing their lives for Christ’s sake. The pope assured Laurence that he would soon follow in his footsteps and that he should make the necessary preparations.
Laurence’s life was spared at this time, perhaps because of the other evil desire which the Emperor and other public officials had – that of greed and envy of the Church’s wealth. The archdeacon was brought before the prefect of the city, who spoke to him in falsely ingratiating terms. According to the report of the 4th century poet Prudentius, the prefect assured Laurence that he would not be subjected to cruelty, that all he wanted was some of the Church’s treasure for the upkeep of the Emperor’s forces. He had heard that Christians were to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and this need for some of the wealth of the Christians for the good of the Empire was surely understandable.
Having interpreted Pope Sixtus’ admonition to “make the necessary preparations” as a directive to protect the charitable contributions of the Church, Laurence had already disposed of a good amount of the Church’s money which he gave to the poor and needy. He now asked for three days to prepare to comply with the prefect’s wishes. During those three days, Laurence gathered together all those whom the Church had been caring for – the blind, the lame, the elderly, the orphans – and he brought them to the prefect. When the outraged official demanded to know the meaning of all this, Laurence replied that he had brought him the “treasure” of the Church. He preached to him of the folly of worshiping false idols and being a slave to greed and avarice.
For his supposed insolence, Laurence was tortured by being roasted on a gridiron, which he bore valiantly, knowing that he would soon join his holy father Sixtus in martyrdom. He prayed fervently for the conversion of the Romans. As his earthly life came to an end, Laurence’s prayer began to be answered immediately. Several senators who witnessed his martyrdom were so moved by the truth of his words and by his courage that they soon sought baptism, and many others followed. A little more than fifty years later, the Emperor St. Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Empire and built a basilica over the tomb of St. Laurence, whose faithfulness had helped to bring about this miracle of conversion.
May we follow the good example of St. Laurence in recognizing God’s true “treasures”, may we boldly and faithfully confess Christ, and may we ask for the intercessions of St. Laurence for all who are in need of conversion.