ST. LAWRENCE of ROME :
Patron of Cooks
A Likely Tale
If you believe that all saints are dry, sedate joyless types you should hear the tale about St. Lawrence. No one is really certain how much of this story about him is true but as the Italians say,“Se non e vero, e ben trovato” or “Even if it isn’t true it makes a fascinating story.” Famous Christian writers such as St. Ambrose, Damasus and St. Augustine thought so as they faithfully recounted the details of the martyrdom of one of the earliest martyrs of the church in Rome to show how early Christians viewed the prospect of dying for their faith.
Not only did the account of Lawrence’s martyrdom amuse people, more importantly it made such a deep and lasting impression on the early Church that many were converted to the faith on hearing the oral tradition about this saint.
According to Tradition
Lawrence, it is said, was born in Huesca, Spain around 230. He was the first of seven deacons (clerics ranking just below a priest) who served the Roman Church in the third century. Besides assisting the Pope when celebrating Holy Mass and giving Holy Communion to the people, Lawrence was tasked with being the almsgiver who had the grave responsibility of being in charge of Church property and distributing to the poor the offerings and alms given by the Christians.
He was a deacon of Pope Sixtus II with whom he was on intimate terms. When Sixtus was condemned to die at the Catacombs of St. Calixtus in 258 during the oppressive persecution of the Christians conducted by Emperor Valerian, Lawrence was overwhelmed with grief that he could not die along with him.
But as the Pope together with four other deacons were being led out to die, the Pope said, “Do not cry, my son. I am not leaving you. In three days you will follow me.”
Overjoyed and believing wholeheartedly his beloved pope’s prophecy, Lawrence immediately began to prepare for his own leave-taking. Following the order of the pope he first sold many of the treasures of the Church such as the chalices and even the sacred vessels. Then he assembled as many of the 1,000 unfortunates of Rome the church had been caring for. To them he distributed all the money he had amassed.
You can imagine the anger of the prefect of Rome when he heard of Lawrence’s unheard of charity and mass disposal of Church valuables as he felt that the Church’swealth should rightfully go to the government to maintain the Emperor’s forces.
Being a “worshipperof gold and silver” the prefect also thought of all the other treasures the Church must have in hiding. So he summoned Lawrence andtold him, “I am told that to adorn your ceremonies you Christians burn tapers in silver candlesticks and that your priests make offerings in bejeweled cups of gold. Bring these and your other treasures out of hiding. The emperor needs them.”
On being commanded to immediately reclaim and hand over the other treasures of the Church in his charge, Lawrence begged for three days time to be able to reassemble and inventory them.
By the third day he had gathered all the poor, crippled, orphaned, blind, ill, old, lepers, widows and dispossessed of Rome that the Church maintained. Instead of the gold and silver the prefect was expecting these he presented grandly to the prefect of Rome as the riches of the Church. “These seeming wretches are truly what our Church treasures most,” Lawrence insisted.
Failing to see the humor in this and enraged beyond belief the prefect shouted at Lawrence, “I know that it is your mad wish to die a martyr and so you shall. But not in the way you imagine. You will not die quickly as I will make sure that your flesh will be destroyed bit by bit, inch by inch.”
Immediately ordering a huge gridironto bebrought forth he had hot coals placed under it. Then after having Lawrence stripped he had him bound to this red-hot griddle where his flesh would be roasted in slow motion. He wanted to be sure Lawrence would die a slow and painful death.
However after some considerable time Lawrence now bathed in light but apparently feeling no pain seemingly immune to the tortures of his persecutors smiled at the prefect and said, “I think I am now well done on this side, so you can turn me over.”
After complying with his macabre request and when he was near death. Lawrence again spoke and cheerfully said, “There. I believe that I am now thoroughly cooked. Let the feast begin.”
Wide-awake to the end, Lawrence bore the agony with unbelievable equanimity and even prayed for the conversion of Rome and the spread of the faith throughout the Roman world. And on that note he breathed his last.
It is said that several people including some senators and soldiers who witnessed the final moments of Lawrence were so moved by his heroic death that they immediately became Christians on the spot. It is said that it was they who gave Lawrence a decent burial on the Via Tiburtina. According to the poet Prudentius it was the death and example of Lawrence which signaled the end of paganism and led to the conversion of Rome. God had answered Lawrence’s prayer! His death which had inspired a great devotion in Rome spread quickly throughout the Church. In keeping with his name Lawrence won great “laurels” for the Church.
Thus the beautiful basilica of San Lorenzo was built over his grave just outside the walls of Rome in a cemetery on the Via Tiburtina by Emperor Constantine. It became one of the centers to which the newly baptized were taken during Easter week.
Few martyrs have been as venerated as Lawrence with a cult growing up quickly around him probably because of his sense of humor in the midst of his fiery end. His rare courage which encourages others in times of persecution could only come from a firm faith in the promises of the Lord and made him one of the most famous Roman martyrs.
In the 4th century the name Lawrence was included in the Canon of the Roman Mass immediately after Saints Peter and Paul.
St. Lawrence is understandably the Patron of the Poor as his job as deacon was to distribute alms to them.
He is named Patron of Firefighters because of his fiery death. And with a hint of his own humor, Lawrence was appropriately named Patron of Cooks.
His feast day which falls on August 10 was first observed early in the 4th century.Falling shooting fiery stars which are periodic swarms of meteors often seen in Rome at that time of his feast are known as “the tears of St. Lawrence.”
He has even given his name to a river in Canada, a cathedral in Spain and to many churches the world over.
However while later historians revealed that our saint was actually beheaded, his death (or the likely tale of his death) did actually lead to the conversion of Rome. This is probably why while little is known about him the Church has given him extraordinary honor.
His burial place in St. Lawrence Outside the Wall (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura) has become not only one of the seven principal churches in Rome but a favorite pilgrimage site in Rome. It is said that in Rome alone there are 30 Roman Churches dedicated to him and countless churches worldwide.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
ST. LAWRENCE of ROME
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. III – pp 297 – 299
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – p 304
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – p 141
A Calendar of Saints – p 152
A Year With the Saints – August 10
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 374 – 375
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp 355-356
My First Book of Saints – pp 176-178
Saint Companions – pp 295-296
Saints for Our Time – pp 167-168
Saint of the Day – pp 200 – 201
Saints – A Visual Guide – pp 84-85
Voices of the Saints – pp 66 – 67
The Everything Saints Book – p 270
The Lion Treasury of Saints – p 215; p 64 – 65
The Flying Friar – pp 54-57
Best Loved Saints – pp 38-40
The Way of the Saints pp 274-275
Book of Saints – Part I – pp 16-17