The Church’s Treasures: St. Lawrence of Rome

When you think of the word “treasure” what immediately comes to mind? Money? Gold? Silver? Precious jewels? When you think of the church’s treasure, what do you think of? The sacred vessels of the Mass? Artwork? Frescoes? St. Lawrence of Rome, whom we celebrate today (August 10th) challenges our definitions of treasure?

Born on December 26, 225 in the town of Valencia in the region that later came to be known as Aragorn in Spain. He encountered the future Pope St. Sixtus II, a famous highly esteemed teacher, in modern-day Zaragoza. Eventually both left Spain for Italy. When Sixtus became pope in 257, he appointed Lawrence as a deacon, and although Lawrence was young, made him first among the seven deacons in Rome. He is therefore referred to at times as archdeacon, a position of great trust that included care of the treasury and riches of the Church along with the distribution of alms.

St. Cyprian notes that when a Christian was denounced, he was executed and his goods confiscated by the imperial treasury. In August 258, the Emperor Valerian declared that all bishops, priests and deacons must be put to death. Pope Sixtus II was captured at the cemetery of St. Callixtus while celebrating the liturgy and was executed on the spot.

After his death, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over all the riches of the Church. He asked for three days to gather up the wealth. He then worked quickly to distribute as much of the wealth as he could to the poor to prevent it from being confiscated. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect and when asked to hand over the wealth, he presented the poor, the lame, the crippled and declared these to be the true treasures of the Church. He is then reported to have said, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor!” The prefect was outraged and ordered him to be martyred. He was so angry he had a gridiron prepared with hot coals beneath it and had Lawrence placed on it. Lawrence was cheerful during his ordeal and towards the point of death said, “I am well done. Turn me over!” From this derives his patronage of cooks, chefs, and comedians. He is also the patron of many others including deacons, librarians, archivists, students, tanners, the poor, and also against fire. The St. Lawrence River in Canada is named after him.

He is one of the most widely venerated saints in the Roman Catholic Church and is considered to be the third patron of Rome after Saints Peter and Paul. Devotion to him was widespread by the fourth century. The church built over his tomb, the Papal Minor Basilica San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, is one of the seven principle churches of Rome and a favorite among pilgrims. Because the Perseid Meteor Shower occurs around his feast day, it is sometimes referred to as the “Tears of St. Lawrence.”

St. Lawrence reminds us of what truly matters. It is not about gold, silver, money, jewels, artwork or even sacred vessels. It’s about people, in particularly the poor, the homeless, the lame, the disabled–those on the margins of society. Jesus in St. Matthew’s gospel reminds us that we will all be held accountable for what we did for the “least of these.” What we did for them we did for him and the opposite is also true.

In one of my favorite movies, The Scarlet and the Black, which portrays Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, played masterfully by Gregory Peck, who helped hide Jews and POW’s in the Vatican during World War II. In one scene, Pope Pius XII, played by Sir John Gielgud, shows him all of the artwork and statues that were being hidden for safekeeping referring to them as the treasures of the Church and how he was responsible for making sure the Church lived on– “preserving the continuity of the centuries” as the Holy Father put it. Near the end of the film, knowing of this priest’s work and how he had risked life and limb to save those who were despised, comes to visit O’Flaherty. He says, “I once talked to you about the treasures of the Church. Perhaps I deceived myself. The true treasures of the Church, what makes it imperishable, is when someone comes to it like you, my son.”

He is right. The treasures of the Church are you and me. We are what make the Church truly rich and when we serve the poor and the bring the good news of the gospel to them we make her far richer than any Fortune 500 company could ever dream of. Let us not be caught up in the pursuit of riches, but instead let us look to the examples of men like St. Lawrence of Rome and Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. For they remind us of what truly matters in this life and where true treasure lies.