ST. LAWRENCE of BRINDISI: Greatest Capuchin Preacher and Doctor of the Church
1559 – 1619
Like his namesake Julius (Giulo) Caesar, Cesare de Rossi grew to be a great man.
Cesare was born at Brindisi, a town in the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy on 22 July 1559 to devout middle–class parents of good standing William and Elizabeth Russo.
Early in life he already showed signs of being deeply religious and of being a great orator. First educated by the Conventual Franciscans of Brindisi he was sent by his uncle to the College of Saint Mark in Venice when his parents died.
He was only sixteen when he joined the Order of the Friars Minor Capuchin, a branch of the Franciscan Order that tried to return to the austerity and traditional idea of poverty of St. Francis of Assisi. As such it was one of the leading voices for reform both within the order and the Church.
For some reason he changed his name to Lawrence upon receiving the Capuchin Franciscan habit at Verona.
It was at the University of Padua where he was sent for his philosophical and theological studies that his extraordinary gifts became apparent.
Not only was he a great scholar with a very facile memory but one with an amazing gift for languages. In no time he became fluent not only in his native tongue Italian but also in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Bohemian, French and Spanish. Because of this he was able to preach in five languages. His excellent knowledge of Hebrew and Greek enabled him to easily instruct the Jews in Rome thereby allowing him to make many converts among them. He was also able to study the Bible in its original languages.
His prodigious memory helped him to acquire an extraordinarily broad knowledge of the text of the Bible. It’s no wonder that he was able to use Scripture so extensively in his preaching.
But it was his remarkable gift of oratory that made him famous. Even before his ordination while still a deacon he already was entrusted with preaching the Lenten sermons which he did with great success.
After his ordination as a deacon at age twenty-three he became famous throughout Europe as a forceful and magnetic preacher. His preaching ministry began in Padua, Verona, Vicenza and other cities in northern Italy.
His Preaching Style
Lawrence was very successful with his preaching style probably because it was always carefully adapted to the spiritual needs of his listeners. Of course his evident sanctity also helped to readily capture their hearts. This led many to comment that he was an effective and forceful preacher because his life of prayer and penance affirmed his sermons.
To illustrate the points he was making Lawrence often relied on scriptural quotations. This combination of brilliance and human compassion is very evident in most of his sermons which were aimed principally at the conversion of his hearers to a better way of life. It is no wonder that many scholars consider him the greatest Capuchin preacher of the Church.
While Lawrence, unlike other doctors of the Church didn’t write any important book, still the collection of his sermons filled eleven volumes. In 1928-45 they were published in nine volumes.
Converts the Jews
In 1596 he went to fill the office of Definitor General of his Order (a post he held twice) in Rome. This was when Pope Clement VIII asked him to work for the conversion of the Jews. He successfully did this aided by his knowledge of Hebrew and the Old Testament. He was so fluent in Hebrew that in fact many Jews believed him to be a Jew like them who just converted to Catholicism.
Lawrence was then sent in 1598 together with Bd. Benedict of Urbino (who was later beatified) to Germany and Austria to oppose Lutheranism which was gaining strength. To do this they first nursed those sick of the plague and then established the Capuchin Convents at Prague, Vienna and Gorizia which later on developed into the provinces of Bohemia, Austria and Syria. They proved a very effective bulwark against Lutheranism.
Battles the Turks
In the meantime the Turks were becoming a greater menace of Europe. While their sea power had been broken at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, Sultan Mohammed III since his accession in 1595 had been able to conquer a large part of Hungary and was now threatening the whole of the country.
So Emperor Rudolf II, having heard of the fame of Lawrence’s holiness, wisdom and administrative ability, sent him to enlist the help of the German princes against the invading Turks. Not only was he successful in his mission but when an army was gotten together he was appointed military chaplain general of the forces.
At the Battle of Stuhlweissenburg the low spirits of the Christian soldiers who were outnumbered four to one were roused with a powerful inspiring address by their chaplain Lawrence who managed to communicate his ardor and confidence to them.
Then he mounted a horse and with a crucifix held high in his hand he rode before the army and successfully beat back the Turks and Europe was saved. It’s no wonder that the crushing defeat of the Turks was attributed by many to Lawrence.
In 1602 he was elected minister general of the Capuchins, a post he administered with both vigor and charity. But he refused re-election three years later.
Instead Lawrence accepted another mission of Emperor Rudolf to induce Philip III of Spain to join the Catholic League, a group of Catholic rulers in opposition to a group of nations headed by Protestant rulers. Once more he was successful in his mission.
But while in Madrid he founded a house of Capuchins there.
Now aware of his ability as a skilled diplomat the Holy See appointed him nuncio in Munich. While there besides acting as a mediator in settling disputes between rulers he succeeded in bringing many back to the faith in Bohemia, Austria and Germany. This he did by his devoted apostolic labors and miracles.
But the position he held longest was as papal nuncio to Bavaria where he once more served as peacemaker in several royal disputes.
His Death and Canonization
In 1618 he tried to retire as he was worn out and his health had deteriorated. But he was recalled from the friary at Caserta at the request of the rulers of Naples to go to Spain to intercede with King Philip to settle their grievances.
While he was once more successful in his mission he was so ill that on his 60th birthday July 22, 1619 he died in his lodging at Belem near Lisbon, Portugal.
This man of prayer as well as of deep learning was beatified by Pope Pius VI in 1783, canonized by Leo III in 1881 and declared a Doctor of the Church for his wisdom and deep learning by John XXIII in 1959.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
ST. LAWRENCE of BRINDISI
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. III pp 172 – 173
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp 304 – 305
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – p 140
A Calendar of Saints – p 138
A Year With the Saints – July 21
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 337 – 338
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp 320 – 321
My First Book of Saints – pp 154 – 155
Saint Companions – pp 265 – 267
Saint of the Day – pp 171 – 172
Book of Saints – Part 7 – pp 14 – 15