No, he didn’t go to Notre Dame.
St. Lawrence was one of the most beloved saints of the early Church. A deacon in Rome, he died on August 10 in the year 258, in the persecution of the Emperor Valerian.
As we mentioned earlier this week, on the feast of another of Valerian’s victims, this particular purge was an attempt at decapitating the Church. Valerian’s edict — which is cited by St. Cyprian, among others — commanded that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. The pagan Romans were a lot like the sheriff in “Night of the Living Dead,” whose mantra was “Kill the head, and you kill the ghoul.” The pagans’ ghoul was the Catholic Church. They were wrong, though, about the strategy for elimination. Every time they mowed down clergymen, more Christians rushed in to take their place.
Lawrence, it seems, had varied duties in the Roman Church. He ministered among the poor and guarded the treasury, which included sacred relics as well as liturgical vessels. When wealthy patrons gave him their gold, he was famous for selling it to feed and clothe the city’s poor. According to a local tradition, it was Lawrence who guarded the Holy Grail, the cup of the Last Supper, and it was he who arranged its passage out of Rome during the persecution. (Grail enthusiasts who favor the Valencia cup trace it back to Lawrence.)
When the authorities finally seized Lawrence, they interrogated him about the location of the Church’s hidden treasure. St. Ambrose picks up the story here: “When the treasures of the Church were demanded from him, he promised that he would show them. On the following day he brought the poor together. When asked where the treasures were which he had promised, he pointed to the poor, saying: ‘These are the treasures of the Church.’ And truly they were treasures, in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in Him.”
When Valerian’s persecution hit, Pope Sixtus II was among the first to go, along with several of his clergy. Four days later, the beloved Lawrence went cheerfully to the place of his execution. He had always been known for his sense of humor. (I’ll bet that line about the Church’s “treasure” cracked up his captors.) And the one-liners were with him to the end. According to tradition, he was burned on a red-hot gridiron. After some minutes on the grill, Lawrence called out to his executioners to turn him over, since he was quite cooked on his underside.
The ancient basilica where he is buried still stands, though it has been extended often through the centuries. Already in Christian antiquity, Lawrence was the subject of tributes by Pope St. Damasus, St. Ambrose, and Prudentius.
May St. Lawrence intercede for us today, that we, too, may keep our sense of humor amid all life’s trials. To those around us, our sense of humor can be an actual grace.
UPDATE: Fr. Z gives the full text of Ambrose’s account of the final conversation between Lawrence and Pope Sixtus. Beautiful.