"Once the mother of false gods, but now the bride of Christ, O Rome, it is through Laurence thou art victorious! Thou hast conquered haughty monarchs and subjected nations to thine empire; but though thou hadst overcome barbarism, thy glory was incomplete till thou hadst vanquished the unclean idols. This was Laurence's victory, a combat bloody yet not tumultuous like those of Camillus or of Caesar; it was the contest of faith, wherein self is immolated, and death is overcome by death. What words, what praises suffice to celebrate such a death? How can I worthily sign so great a martyrdom?"
Thus opens the sublime poem of Prudentius, composed little more than a century after the Saint's martyrdom. In this work the poet has preserved to us the traditions existing in his own day, whereby the name of the Roman Deacon was rendered so illustrious. About the same time St. Ambrose, with his irresistible eloquence, described the meeting of St. Sixtus and his Deacon on the way to martyrdom (see Salve Maria Regina No. 157). But before both Ambrose and Prudentius, Pope St. Damasus chronicled the victory of St. Laurence's faith, in his majestic monumental inscriptions, which have such a ring of the days of triumph.
Rome was lavish in her demonstrations of honor towards the champion who had prayed for her deliverance upon his red-hot gridiron. She inserted his name in the Canon of the Mass, and moreover celebrated the anniversary of his birth to Heaven with as much solemnity as those of the glorious Apostles, and with the same privileges of a Vigil and an Octave (the Vigil is still commemorated in modern times). She has been dyed with the blood of many other witnesses of Christ, yet as though St. Laurence had a special claim upon her gratitude, every spot connected with him has been honored with a church. Amongst all those sanctuaries dedicated to him, the one which contains the martyr's body ranks next after the churches of St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major on the Esquiline, St. Peter's on the Vatican, and St. Paul outside the Walls. St. Laurence outside the Walls completes the number of the five great basilicas that formed the appanage and exclusive possession of the Roman Pontiff. They represent the Patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, which divide the world between them, and express the universal and immediate jurisdiction of the Bishops of Rome over all the churches. Thus through St. Laurence, the Eternal City is completed, and is shown to be the center of the world and the source of every grace.
Just as Sts. Peter and Paul are the riches, not of Rome alone, but of the whole world, so St. Laurence is called the honor of the world, for he, as it were, personified the courage of martyrdom. At the beginning of this month we saw St. Stephen himself come to blend his dignity of Protomartyr with the glory of St. Sixtus II's Deacon, by sharing his tomb. In St. Laurence, it seemed that both the struggle and the victory of martyrdom reached their highest point; persecution, it is true, was renewed during the next half-century, and made many victims, yet his triumph was considered as the death-blow to paganism.
"The devil," says Prudentius, "struggled fiercely with God's witness, but he was himself wounded and prostrated forever. The death of Christ's martyr gave the death-blow to the worship of idols, and from that day Vesta was powerless to prevent her temple from being deserted. All these Roman citizens, brought up in the superstitions taught by Numa, hasten, O Christ, to Thy courts, singing hymns to Thy martyr. Illustrious senators, flamens and priests of Lupercus, venerate the tombs of Apostles and Saints. We see patricians and matrons of the noblest families vowing to God the children in whom their hopes are centered. The pontiff of the idols, whose brow but yesterday was bound with the sacred fillet, now signs himself with the Cross, and the vestal virgin Claudia visits thy sanctuary, O Laurence."
It need not surprise us that this day's solemnity carries its triumphant joy from the city of the seven hills to the entire universe. "As it is impossible for Rome to be concealed," says St. Augustine, "so it is equally impossible to hide St. Laurence's crown." Everywhere, in both East and West, churches were built in his honor; and in return, as the Bishop of Hippo testifies, "the favors he conferred were innumerable, and prove the greatness of his power with God; who has ever prayed to him and has not been graciously heard?"
Let us, then, conclude with St. Maximus of Turin that "in the devotion wherewith the triumph of St. Laurence is being celebrated throughout the entire world, we must recognize that it is both holy and pleasing to God to honor, with all the fervor of our souls, the birth to Heaven of the martyr who by his radiant flames has spread the glory of his victory over the whole Church. Because of the spotless purity of soul which made him a true Levite, and because of that fullness of faith which earned him the martyr's palm, it is fitting that we should honor him almost equally with the Apostles."
Laurence has entered the lists as a martyr, and has confessed the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such is the antiphon wherewith the Church opens the First Vespers of the Feast; and in fact, by this hour he has already entered the arena; with noble irony he has challenged the authorities, and has even shed his blood.
On the very day of the martyrdom of St. Sixtus II, Cornelius Secularis, prefect of Rome, summoned St. Laurence before his tribunal, but granted him the delay necessary for gathering together the riches required by the imperial treasury. Valerian did not include the obscure members of the Church in his edicts of persecution; he aimed at ruining the Christians by prohibiting their assemblies, putting their chief men to death, and confiscating their property. This accounts for the fact that, on August 6, the faithful assembled in the cemetery of Pretextatus were dispersed, the Pontiff executed, and the chief Deacon arrested and ordered to deliver up the treasures which the Government knew to be in his keeping. "Acknowledge my just and peaceable claims," said the prefect. "It is said that at assemblies your priests are accustomed, according to the laws of your worship, to make libations in cups of gold; that silver vessels smoke with the blood of the victims, and that the torches that give light to your nocturnal mysteries are fixed in golden candlesticks. And then you have such love and care for the brotherhood: reports say you sell your lands in order to devote to their service thousands of sesterces (ancient Roman coins); so that while a son is disinherited by his holy parents and groans in poverty, his patrimony is piously hidden away in the secrecy of your temples. Bring forth these immense treasures, the shameful spoils you have won by deceiving the credulous; the public good demands them; render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, that he may have wherewith to fill his treasuries and pay his armies."
St. Laurence, untroubled by these words, and as if quite willing to obey, gently answered: "I confess you speak the truth; our Church is indeed wealthy; no one in the world, not even Augustus himself, possesses such riches. I will disclose them all to you, and I will show you the treasures of Christ. All I ask for is a short delay, which will enable me the better to perform what I have promised. For I must make an inventory of all, count them up, and value each article."
The prefect's heart swelled with joy, and gloating over the gold he hoped soon to possess, he granted him a delay of three days. Meanwhile St. Laurence hastened all over the town and assembled the legions of poor whom their Mother the Church supported; lame and blind, cripple and beggars, he called them all. None knew them better than the Archdeacon. Next he counted them, wrote down their names, and arranged them in long lines. On the appointed day he returned to the judge and thus addressed him: "Come with me and admire the incomparable riches of the sanctuary of our God." They went together to the spot where the crowds of poor were standing, clothed in rags and filling the air with their supplications. "Why do you shudder?" said St. Laurence to the prefect. "Do you call that a vile and contemptible spectacle? If you seek after wealth, know that the brightest gold is Christ, Who is the Light, and the human race redeemed by Him; for they are the sons of the Light, all these are shielded by their bodily weaknesses from the assault of pride and evil passion; soon they will lay aside their ulcers in the palace of eternal life, and will shine in marvelous glory, clothed in purple and bearing golden crowns upon their heads. See, here is the gold which I promised you—gold of a kind that fire cannot touch or thief steal from you. Think not, then, that Christ is poor: behold these choice pearls, these sparkling gems that adorn the temple, these sacred virgins, I mean, and these widows who refuse second marriage; they form the priceless necklace of the Church, they deck Her ears, they are Her bridal ornaments, and win for Her Christ's love. Behold, then, all our riches; take them: they will beautify the city of Romulus, they will increase the Emperor's treasures and enrich you yourself."
From a letter of Pope St. Cornelius, written a few years after these events, we learn that the number of widows and poor persons that the Church of Rome supported exceeded 1,500. By thus exhibiting them before the magistrate, St. Laurence knew that he endangered no one but himself, for the persecution of Valerian, as we have already observed, overlooked the inferior classes and attacked the leading members of the Church. Divine Wisdom thus confronted Caesarism and its brutality with Christianity which it so despised, but which was destined to overcome and subdue it.
This happened on August 9, 258. The first answer the furious prefect made was to order St. Laurence to be scourged and tortured upon the rack. But these tortures were only a prelude to the great ordeal he was preparing for the noble-hearted Deacon. We learn this tradition from St. Damasus, for he says that, besides the flames, St. Laurence triumphed over "blows, tortures, torments, and chains."
St. Laurence was taken down from the rack about midday. In his prison, however, he took no rest, but wounded and bleeding as he was, he baptized the converts won to Christ by the sight of his courageous suffering. He confirmed their faith, and fired their souls with a martyr's intrepidity. When the evening hour summoned Rome to its pleasures, the prefect recalled the executioners to their work, for a few hours' rest had sufficiently restored their energy to enable them to satisfy his cruelty.
Surrounded by this ill-favored company, the prefect thus addressed the valiant Deacon: "Sacrifice to the gods, or else the whole night long shall be witness of your torments." "My night has no darkness," answered St. Laurence, "and all things are full of light to me." They struck him on the mouth with stones, but he smiled and said: "I give Thee thanks, O Christ."
Then an iron bed or gridiron with three bars was brought in and the Saint was stripped of his garments and extended upon it while burning coals were placed beneath it. As they were holding him down with iron forks, St. Laurence said: "I offer myself as a sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness." The executioners continually stirred up the fire and brought fresh coals, while they still held him down with their forks. Then the Saint said: "Learn, unhappy man, how great is the power of my God; for your burning coals give me refreshment, but they will be your eternal punishment. I call Thee, O Lord, to witness: when I was accused, I did not deny Thee; when I was questioned, I confessed Thee, O Christ; on the red-hot coals I gave Thee thanks." And with his countenance radiant with heavenly beauty, he continued: "Yea, I give Thee thanks, O Lord Jesus Christ, for that Thou hast deigned to strengthen me." He then raised his eyes to his judge, and said: "See, this side is well roasted; turn me on the other and eat." Then continuing his canticle of praise to God: "I give Thee thanks, O Lord, that I have merited to enter into Thy dwelling-place." As he was on the point of death, he remembered the Church. The thought of the eternal Rome gave him fresh strength, and he breathed forth this ecstatic prayer: "O Christ, only God, O Splendor, O Power of the Father, O Maker of Heaven and earth and builder of this city's walls! Thou hast placed Rome's scepter high over all; Thou hast willed to subject the world to it, in order to unite under one law the nations which differ in manners, customs, language, genius, and sacrifice. Behold the whole human race has submitted to its empire, and all discord and dissensions disappear in its unity. Remember Thy purpose: Thou didst will to bind the immense universe together into one Christian Kingdom. O Christ, for the sake of Thy Romans, make this city Christian; for to it Thou gavest the charge of leading all the rest to sacred unity. All its members in every place are united—a very type of Thy Kingdom; the conquered universe has bowed before it. Oh! may its royal head be bowed in turn! Send Thy Gabriel and bid him heal the blindness of the sons of Iulus that they may know the true God. I see a prince who is to come—an Emperor who is a servant of God. He will not suffer Rome to remain a slave; he will close the temples and fasten them with bolts forever."
Thus he prayed, and with these last words he breathed forth his soul. Some noble Romans who had been conquered to Christ by the Martyr's admirable boldness, removed his body: the love of the Most High God had suddenly filled their hearts and dispelled their former errors. From that day the worship of the infamous gods grew cold; few people went now to the temples, but hastened to the altars of Christ. Thus St. Laurence, going unarmed to the battle, had wounded the enemy with his own sword.
The Church, which is always grateful in proportion to the service rendered Her, could not forget this glorious night. At the period when Her children's piety vied with Her own, She used to summon them together at sunset on the evening of August 9 for a first Night Office. At midnight the second Matins began, followed by the first Mass called 'de nocte, in primo mane'. Thus the Christians watched around the Holy Deacon during the hours of his glorious combat. "O God, Thou hast proved my heart, and visited it by night; Thou hast tried me by fire, and iniquity hath not been found in me. Hear, O Lord, my justice; attend to my supplication." Such is the grand Introit which, immediately after the night Vigils, hallowed the dawn of August 10, at the very moment when St. Laurence entered the eternal sanctuary to fulfill his office at the heavenly altar.
This morning, as soon as St. Laurence had given up his brave soul to his Creator, his body was taken, like precious gold from the crucible, and wrapped in linen cloths with sweet spices. As in the case of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, and of Jesus the King of Martyrs, so now, too, noble persons vied with each other in paying honor to the sacred remains. In the evening of August 10, the noble converts mentioned by Prudentius bowed their heads beneath the venerable burden; and followed by a great company of mourners, they carried him along the Tiburtian Way, and buried him in the cemetery of Cyriacus. The Church on earth mourned for Her illustrious son; but the Church in Heaven was already overflowing with joy, and each anniversary of the glorious triumph was to give fresh gladness to the world.
Our forefathers were greatly struck by the contrast between the endurance of the Holy Deacon under his cruel tortures and his tender-hearted, tearful parting with St. Sixtus II three days before. On this account, they gave to the periodical showers of falling stars, which occur around August 10, the graceful name of St. Laurence's tears: a touching instance of that popular piety which delights in raising the heart to God through the medium of natural phenomena.
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