The Third Patron, The Anchor, September 12, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
September 12, 2008

When I became a seminarian in 1993, I began to pay much more attention to the Church’s liturgical calendar. I already had a strong devotion to the saints in general, nourished by reading Butler’s Life of the Saints each night before going to bed, but when I entered Mt. St. Mary’s, I started to get headaches from the details that at times have historically driven priests, seminarians, religious, sacristans, daily communicants and all those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours a little crazy.

Through observation I learned that there was a difference between obligatory and optional memorials, which meant that certain saints’ feast days had to be celebrated while others were left up to the discretion of the priest celebrating the Mass or the person praying the breviary. Often I was left wondering what criteria the Church applied to determine that some saints were more important to remember and celebrate than others and why many of my favorites did not make the cut to be considered “mandatory”!

I also discovered that certain saints had even higher honors. The celebrations of the Apostles, for example, were called “feasts,” and their commemorations involved praying the Gloria at Mass and the Te Deum at the end of the first part of the Liturgy of the Hours. The designation of feast put them on the same order of liturgical importance as Our Lady’s birth or Visitation, and our Lord’s Presentation and Transfiguration.  

Finally I learned that some saints’ celebrations — Saints Peter and Paul and the birth of St. John the Baptist — were considered so important that they were called “solemnities” and given the same importance in the Church’s calendar as Sundays, holy days of obligation and celebrations like the Lord’s Annunciation and All Saints. They not only had the privileges of a feast, the Gloria and the Te Deum, but also required the Profession of Faith at Mass and special prayers for Evening Prayer and Night prayer.

At the end of my first year of seminary, I thought that I had most of the distinctions down.  When I returned to the Diocese for summer pastoral work, however, my working categories were blown to smitherines. It happened before sunrise on August 10.

I already knew from my reading of Butler’s the night before that it was the day the Church marked the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. When I opened my breviary that morning, I expected to see the term “memoria,” Latin for “memorial,” under St. Lawrence’s name. That would signify that it was obligatory, since optional memorials didn’t say anything after the saint’s name.

Instead I saw the term “festum,” for “feast.” At first I thought it had to be a typo. I looked to see whether there was a Te Deum at the end of the Office of Readings, and there was. Distracted, I pulled out the Sacramentary for Mass and saw that there, too, it said it was a feast. St. Lawrence wasn’t an apostle, I reasoned, so how could he have a feast?

Since that day, I have always had a fascination for what has made St. Lawrence special and at least liturgically more important in the eyes of the Church. He is the only saint in the history of the Church besides the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles whose commemoration is more than an obligatory memorial. The most historically precise reason for his liturgical pre-eminence— as I discovered much to my surprise during my seminary years in Rome — is that he, alongside Saints Peter and Paul, is the third patron of the Diocese of Rome. Because of the obvious importance of Rome in the development of the Roman Rite of the liturgy, as well as the fact that no matter where we are we are all “Roman” Catholics, the celebration of the third patron of this most prestigious See in the world has taken on a larger significance. But the more compelling reason for the St. Lawrence’s ritual distinction is, I think, what made him so important to the Catholics of Rome that he was considered as much a protector and intercessor as the two greatest apostles.

To discover that reason, we must go back 1750 years in time.

In August 258, the Roman emperor Valerian, launched a ferocious persecution against the Christians. He was convinced that the empire was growing weaker because it did not have religious unity and that the gods, upset that so many Christians were not sacrificing to them, were enacting their revenge. His persecution had two parts. The first was to decapitate the Church by immediately executing her leaders, closing places of worship, and seizing whatever property they had. Then he would require all citizens of the empire to sacrifice to the gods, confident that, without the guidance of the clergy, ordinary Christians would sacrifice — many because they did not know any better; others because they lacked the personal courage to face death rather than burn incense before the statue of a pagan god.

On August 6, the pogrom began. Roman soldiers entered the catacombs of St. Callistus, captured Pope St. Sixtus II in the middle of the celebration of the Mass, and later that day beheaded him and the two deacons serving Mass with him. As he was being led to his place of execution — St. Ambrose describes for us a century later — his young archdeacon Lawrence ran up to him deploring the fact that he, who had so often gone up with Sixtus to the altar of God, would not be able to be with him when Sixtus’ participation in the Mass would reach its culmination. The pope told his archdeacon that the Romans surely had plans for him, too, and that within a few days they would be reunited in the celestial liturgy.

The Romans did indeed have plans for Lawrence. Because the seven deacons in the city were in charge of all of the Church’s money, treasures and charitable work, the Roman prefect instructed him to assemble all of the Church’s riches Three days later, Lawrence brought him the Church’s genuine fortune: the poor Christians of the city who were so precious to the Lord that he gave his life for them. “Behold in these poor persons the treasures that I promised to show you,” he said. “The Church has no other riches. Make use of them for the advantage of Rome, the emperor and yourself.”

The infuriated leader, who was already planning to kill Lawrence after having gotten his hand on the Church’s supposed wealth, decided to do so that day in a excruciatingly painful and protracted manner: to broil him upon a gridiron above slowly burning coals.

With courage and serenity St. Lawrence went to the place of his holocaust. He was stripped, bound with chains upon an iron bed and roasted. The more piercing the flames, the greater it seemed was the fire of his divine love. After enduring with heroic cheerfulness for a great length of time, he turned to the prefect and said one of the greatest lines in hagiological history: “Assum est. Versa and manduca,” loosely, “This side is done. Turn me over and take a bite.”

He died soon after having his front side seared.

The early Christians, still facing violent persecutions, adopted him as a radiant example of charity, cheerfulness and courage in the midst of hardship. His example shines still in the darkness of persecution in places like Orissa as well as in all areas, including close to home, where Christians suffer on account of our fidelity.

As we celebrate the 1750th anniversary of St. Lawrence’s triumph, we ask him to continue to intercede for all the Catholics of the Church of Rome that we might imitate his virtues and one day share his eternal reward.