(d. 258 A.D.)
Now that the office of permanent deacon has been revived in our Latin church, it becomes easier to understand the important role played in the ancient church by the diaconal order.
One of the most glorious exemplars was St. Lawrence, a deacon of the bishop of Rome. A permanent deacon, we know, cannot offer Mass, but can preach and administer certain sacraments, and he is usually given important administrative tasks. Thus Lawrence, one of the seven deacons attached to the pope in 257 AD, was in charge of diocesan properties and charities.
These were the times of the Roman persecutions. The “ten” Roman persecutions (64 A.D.-313 AD) were not constant but spasmodic, according to the mood of the current emperors. Emperor Valerian, sterner than his predecessor, launched a new campaign to snuff out Christians. As a result, Pope Sixtus II was seized at the Roman catacombs in 258 and executed. His “business manager” Lawrence was arrested and condemned a few days later.
Little is known in detail about Lawrence, but the legend of his last days seems to be plausible.
It tells us, in the first place, that when the pope was seized, Lawrence accompanied him and asked, with tears in his eyes, “Father, where are you going without your deacon?” The pope answered, “You shall follow me in three days.”
Inspired by this prophecy, the deacon prepared for death by distributing among the poor all the church funds he had on hand, even adding to that welfare fund by selling some of the sacred vessels.
When the prefect of Rome learned of this distribution, he concluded that the Christians were very wealthy. So he summoned Lawrence and ordered him to turn over the church’s treasures, to be added to the fund supporting the Roman army.
Lawrence asked only for a few days to make an “inventory” of church possessions before he presented them.
When three days were up, the deacon returned to the prefect accompanied by a large crowd of his poor: the blind, the orphaned, the aged, the lepers, the crippled, the widows and the maidens. “These,” he said to the prefect “are the treasures of the church.” (If our winning heaven depends on our care for our neighbor, then the poor are certainly our ransom!)
The prefect was furious with Lawrence’s answer. At once he arrested him and condemned him to the most cruel death he could think of – roasting alive on a grill. That is why St. Lawrence’s symbol in his pictures and statues is a gridiron. The story goes on to say that the deacon did not hesitate at one point in his torture to tell his executioners, “Let my body be turned; one side is broiled enough!”
The martyred deacon became one of the most revered of Roman saints. Prudentius, the Christian poet, attributed to his prayers the eventual conversion of pagan Rome. A handsome basilica – still standing – was erected over his tomb. Great church writers from all over spoke his praise: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Gregory of Tours. Indeed, his name, inserted in the “Roman Canon” of the Mass (the First Eucharistic prayer) was invoked whenever the Mass was offered. Churches were dedicated to him throughout Christendom, and “Lawrence” has ever since been a popular baptismal name.
Our permanent deacons in particular should seek the patronage of this confrere. His career symbolized perfectly what we should expect of a deacon: that he serve his bishop with heart and soul, ready even to offer his life, if need be, for the good of the flock.
–Father Robert F. McNamara