By Matthew D. Ruhl, S.J.
Wednesday, August 7, 2019, Punta Gorda, Belize
In 257 the Emperor Valerian needed money to subsidize Rome’s many military engagements. He decided to inaugurate a persecution against the Christians, using that as pretext for extorting money from the Church. Pope Sixtus was martyred in Rome the following year. As one of seven Roman Deacons, a post responsible for the material goods of the Church as well as distribution of alms to the poor, Lawrence was called before the Prefect of Rome and told he should render unto Caesar what belonged to Caesar; i.e., save your life by surrendering to us all the valuables of the Church. Lawrence told the Prefect he would need three days to inventory and collect the wealth of the Church. A date three days hence was agreed upon.
Lawrence used the three days to run around Rome collecting all the poor, blind, crippled, enfeebled, lepers, orphans, and widows that the Church supported. On the appointed day, Lawrence shepherded them in to see the Prefect.
“What’s all this?” cried the Prefect.
“These,” answered Lawrence, “are the true wealth of the Church.”
The Prefect did not find this the least bit amusing. He ordered Lawrence to be slowly grilled to death on a gridiron. At one point, so the story goes, as his flesh roasted, Lawrence told his torturers shortly before dying, “I’m done on that side. You may turn me over.”
But the story is not over. His feast day, August 10th, falls in the middle of the Perseid meteor showers (July 23-August 20 with August 13th the height). In the Middle Ages these showers were referred to as “The tears of St. Lawrence” shed for the inhumanity of the human race. Go outside tonight and look up into the summer sky. Be patient. You will see shootings stars, or the tears of St. Lawrence.
Now much of the story strains credulity, but St. Lawrence was one of the most popular Saints in the post-apostolic age. Many churches bore his name. Many a Renaissance master put him on canvas. Why this popularity? Because of the beauty of his story. Whether historically accurate or not, Catholics longed to believe the Church genuinely considered the poor the true “wealth” of the Church. Centuries before there was all this talk of Social Justice, the people of the pew wanted a Church that believed in them, believed they were valuable no matter how poor or distressed they might be. The stories around St. Lawrence gave them what they were rightfully looking for, confirmation that they had worth. That is why I love St. Lawrence.
And finally, the Church, in a rare instance of true humor, declared St. Lawrence the Patron Saint of Barbecuers. Isn’t that great?! I therefore nominate St. Lawrence the Patron Saint of Kansas City, home of the world’s greatest barbecue.