Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Lawrence, The Illustrious Martyr

detail of a painting of Saint Lawrence of Rome; early 16th century by Creator:Francesco Rizzo da Santacroce; Museum of John Paul II Collection, Warsaw, Poland; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 258.

Among the most illustrious of the martyrs is the glorious Saint Lawrence. He is honored by the whole Church. His name sanctifies one of the great rivers of America, a river whose majestic grandeur is the wonder of travelers and the inspiration of poets –

“the river whose mighty current gave
Its freshness for a hundred leagues to ocean’s briny wave.”

We know little as to the birth and education of Saint Lawrence, but the Spaniards call him their countryman. While still a youth his remarkable virtue attracted the notice of Saint Sixtus, then Archdeacon of Rome, who took him under his protection and became his instructor.

When Saint Sixtus became Pope, in 257, he ordained Lawrence deacon; and, though he was yet young, the Pontiff appointed him first among the seven deacons who served in the Church of the Eternal City. He thus became the Pope’s archdeacon. This was a charge of great importance, to which was annexed the care of the treasury of the Church and the distribution of its revenues among the poor.

In the year 257 the Emperor Valerian published his bloody edicts against the Catholic Church. He foolishly flattered himself that its destruction was merely a question of time and rigorous persecution, not knowing it to be the work of the Almighty. His plan was as simple as it was stupid and blindly brutal. He would cut off the shepherds and disperse the flocks; and hence he began his barbarously elaborate scheme by ordering all bishops, priests, and deacons to be put to death.

Pope Saint Sixtus II was seized in about a year from this date, and led to execution. While on the way Saint Lawrence followed him with tears in his eyes; and thinking himself ill-treated because he was not to die with the holy Pontiff, said:

“Father, where are you going without your son? Why do you not take your deacon with you as usual? Shall you go alone to offer yourself a sacrifice to God? What have I done to displease you that you thus cast me off?”

“My son,” replied the brave Vicar of Christ, “it is not I who leave you. Our Lord reserves you for a sharper battle. I am old and feeble, and I must die after a slight skirmish; but you, who are young and strong, shall have more glory in your triumph. Dry your tears. In three days you shall follow me.”

The Holy Father then gave Lawrence some directions about immediately distributing all the treasures of the Church among the poor, lest they should be robbed of their patrimony by its falling into the hands of the pagan persecutors. Having said this, he waved a last adieu to his faithful deacon.

Lawrence was full of joy, for he had just heard that he should soon be called to God. But a pressing duty was to be performed. He set out immediately to seek the poor widows and orphans, and gave them all the money which he had in his keeping. He even sold the sacred vessels to increase the sum This was also given to the poor.

In those early days the church at Rome was possessed of considerable riches. Besides providing for its ministers, it maintained many widows and virgins and fifteen hundred poor people. The Holy Father or his archdeacon kept a list containing the names of these persons.

Some of the officers who led the Pope to execution heard him speak of money and treasures, and took care to repeat his words to the Prefect of Rome. This grasping official at once imagined that the Christians had hidden vast treasures. He became deeply interested in the matter; for he was no less a devout worshipper of gold and silver than of Mars and Jupiter.

He sent for Saint Lawrence. “You Christians complain,” began the wily hypocrite, “that we treat you with cruelty; but now there is no question of tortures. I simply ask what you can easily give. I am told that your priests offer up sacrifices in golden chalices, that the sacred blood is received in silver cups, and that in your meetings after night you have wax tapers fixed in golden candlesticks.

“Bring these concealed treasures to light. The emperor has need of them for the support of his army. It is said that according to your doctrine you must render to Caesar the things that belong to him I do not think that your God ever caused money to be coined. He brought none into the world with Him He brought nothing but good words. Then give us the money, and be rich in words.”

“The Church,” calmly replied Saint Lawrence, “is, in truth, rich; nor has the emperor any treasure equal to its possessions. I will take pleasure in showing you a valuable part; but allow me a little time to set everything in order and to make an inventory.”

The prefect was fairly delighted. He did not understand the kind of treasure to which Lawrence referred, and fancying that he was already possessed of hidden wealth, he gladly gave the Saint a respite of three days.

During this time Lawrence went all over the city, seeking out from street to street the poor who were supported by the charity of the Church. He knew where to go, and well the poor knew him. On the third day he had his treasures gathered together. He placed them in rows before the church, and they consisted of hundreds of the aged, the decrepit, the blind, the lame, the maimed, the lepers, widows, virgins, and young orphans.

He then proceeded to the residence of the prefect, and invited him to come and see the treasures of the Church. The haughty official was astonished to behold such a number of poor wretches. To him it was a sickening sight that aroused naught but anger, fury, and disappointment. He turned about, and looked at the holy deacon with an air of fierce scorn.

“What are you displeased at?” exclaimed the dauntless Lawrence. “Behold the treasures I promised you! I have even added to them the gems and precious stones – those widows and consecrated virgins who form the Church’s crown. It has no other riches. Take these and use them for the advantage of Rome, the emperor, and yourself.”

The enraged prefect, no longer able to control himself, cried out: “Do you thus mock me? Are the ensigns of Roman power to be thus insulted? I know that you wish to die. This is your foolish vanity. But you will not take leave of life so soon as you imagine. I will see to that. I will protract your tortures. Your death shall be slow and bitter. You shall die by inches.”

Lawrence was neither annoyed nor terrified. He feared God alone. “Wicked wretch,” he replied with energy, “do you expect to frighten me with these tortures? To you they may be tortures, but to me they are none. I have long wished for such dainties.”

On hearing this the prefect was in a hurry for nothing but revenge. The Saint was stripped, and his naked body torn with a kind of whips called scorpions. After this severe scourging, plates of red-hot iron were applied to his bleeding sides. Lawrence, in spite of such appalling treatment, presented a joyful countenance, while the prefect raged with the fury of a wild beast. He could not comprehend how any human being could cheerfully endure such punishment. He even accused the martyr of being a magician, and threatened that unless he at once sacrificed to the gods he would add to his torments.

“Your torments,” answered Saint Lawrence, “will have an end, and I do not fear them Do what you will to me. I am prepared for the worst.”

The prefect at once ordered him to be beaten with leaden plummets, and soon his whole body was a bruised and torn mass. The Saint prayed to God to receive his soul; but a voice from heaven which was heard by all who stood around, told him that he had yet much to suffer.

“Romans,” shouted the brutal prefect, “do you see how the devils help and encourage this fellow, who derides both the gods and the emperor, and has no respect for their sovereign power, no any fear of torments?”

Lawrence was next placed on a rack, and his suffering body stretched so that every limb was dislocated. His flesh was torn with hooks, but he did not flinch. Calm and cheerful, he prayed and suffered. An angel was seen to wipe his face and bleeding shoulders, and the sight of the blessed spirit converted one of the soldiers, who went up to the Saint and asked to be baptized.

The frantic prefect now ordered a large gridiron to be procured. It was soon in readiness, and live coals, partly extinguished, were thrown under it that the martyr might be slowly burned. He was placed naked upon this iron bed, and bound with chains over a slow fire. His flesh was soon broiled, and little by little the cruel heat was forcing its way into his very heart and bowels. A light beautiful to behold shone from his face, and his burning body exhaled a most sweet odor. The martyr, says Saint Augustine, felt not the torments of the persecutor, so strong and vivid was his desire of possessing Christ. Thus in the midst of appalling torments he enjoyed that peace which the world cannot give – the peace of God.

Turning to the prefect, Saint Lawrence said to him, with a cheerful smile: “Let my body now be turned; one side is broiled enough.”

The cruel prefect ordered him to be turned. It was done, and the Saint said, “Eat now, for it is well done.” The prefect again insulted him; but the martyr continued in earnest prayer, with sighs and tears imploring the divine mercy with his last breath for the conversion of the city of Rome. Having finished his prayer, a ray of immortality seemed to light up his manly countenance; he lifted his eyes towards heaven, and his pure, holy, and heroic spirit went to receive the shining reward promised to those who suffer persecution for the sake of justice and religion.

“The admirers of pagan fortitude,” says Dr. MacHale, “may dwell with rapture on the many trophies which were won by the primitive patriots of Rome. They may quote the devotion of a Curtius leaping into the lake, the courage of a Sosevola flinging his hand into the fire, or the exorable fidelity of a Regulus returning to Carthage with the certainty of the exquisite tortures he was fated to endure. Yet these and similar instances of extraordinary fortitude with which Roman history abounds cannot bear a comparison with the calm and tranquil patience with which this holy servant of God bore the slow tortures of the gridiron.”

An ancient writer ascribes the entire conversion of the city of Rome to the prayers of Saint Lawrence. God even began to grant his request at the moment it was made. Several senators who were present at his death were so moved by his piety and heroic fortitude that they became Christians on the spot. The death-blow was given to idolatry. From that day it declined, and soon pagan Rome lived only in the pages of history.

How sublime is that ancient faith which can produce such a man as the glorious Saint Lawrence! We have the same holy and beautiful faith. We are Catholics. But in the practice of virtue how little heroism we commonly display! Yet virtue demands sacrifice. Pain is the path to holiness. We are in the world only to please God. We must learn the nobility of suffering. It is the true test of love. Christ suffered, the Blessed Virgin suffered, the Saints suffered; and no soul has ever become truly great and good and virtuous that has not been disciplined in the school of affliction. In short, without some suffering there can be no real greatness, no heroism, no carrying of that blessed and mysterious burden – the cross!

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Lawrence, The Illustrious Martyr”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. <>