We in modern times have urgent cause to look for inspiration and example in the ancient age of martyrs. As policies and practices that fly in the face of goodness, truth, and beauty multiply and gain strength in society, those who adhere to the commandments and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church must prepare to choose sides openly and bravely—and with a sense of humor, too. For what saint ever went to his reckoning mournfully?
Consider St. Lawrence. Young and full of fire for the faith, Lawrence and his companion, who would soon become Pope St. Sixtus II, arrived in Rome in the early third century to help bolster the Christian communities reeling under the persecution of Emperor Valerian. Valerian had been accepting and admiring of Christians in the first half of his rule, but with enemies crowding his borders, he became convinced that the gods were displeased with his leniency toward this new religion, and he reversed his position. To be Christian now meant exile or death—and, before long, far more the latter than the former.
Bishops, priests, and the faithful fled to secret chambers and catacombs to receive the sacraments and holy instruction, their resolve buffeted by the stories of their brethren breaking and offering incense to false gods—or, upon refusal, having their heads struck off. When Pope Sixtus II assumed charge of this frightened flock, he appointed seven deacons in Rome to help in his secret ministries. Lawrence was one of them, with a personality large enough to be the legend he has become.
In early August, the watchful Roman authorities suddenly seized Sixtus as he was celebrating Mass and imprisoned him in his house to await sentencing. When Lawrence arrived late and found the gathering place empty, he ran to Sixtus’s home. Gaining admission to the pope, Lawrence famously said, “Father, where are you going without your son? What priest would leave his deacon behind?” Sixtus replied, “I am not leaving you behind, my son. You will follow me in three days.” Sixtus then bestowed what money he had on Lawrence to distribute it to the poor, together with whatever he could fetch from the sale of the pope’s sacred vessels. Fra Angelico’s enchanting frescoes of Lawrence and Sixtus capture this scene beautifully. Pope St. Sixtus II was beheaded shortly after Lawrence’s departure.
As Lawrence carried out his charitable mission, he attracted the notice of no less a personage than the prefect of Rome. Imagining that the Christians had access to dazzling wealth, this official arrested Lawrence and demanded the immediate surrender of the treasures of the Church. With a gleam in his eye, Lawrence admitted to the official that the Church was rich indeed, but some time may be required to collect all of its riches for his lordship. The prefect gave Lawrence three days, just as the late pontiff had prophesied, and the deacon went to work.
After three days had passed, Lawrence stood before the prefect’s quarters with a large crowd of the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, the orphans, and the lepers. Behold, he called when the infuriated prefect appeared, in these poor and lowly are the true treasures of the Church. With these, together with the precious gems that are holy widows and virgins, is the Church’s crown composed.
In his rage, the prefect abandoned the swift death that so many Christians had met. According to pious legend, he had a great gridiron prepared, lashed Lawrence to its face, and hung him over a bed of blazing coals. By other legends, Lawrence felt no pain, nor did he make any cry as he was roasted, but instead, keeping his humor to the last, he called out at one point, “I’m well done on this side. You may turn me over now.”
No Christian should aggrandize his persecution, nor should he grumble in it. Rather, Christians should offer their suffering to the greater glory of God. This is a foretaste of the promised reward, a rejoicing in spiritual things now and to come—which gladness will be perfected in the kingdom of heaven. Many are the ways to be a martyr because many are the ways of persecuting. What is important is not the form or source of persecution, but the martyrdom. It is not important who or what persecutes or how, but why.
Christ will save us even as he saved Lawrence in the fire of his love, giving him the strength to abide the end with every grace of peace and hope and perseverance. There is nothing more that we can desire than this, especially as profane pressures grow hotter and the murmur of real religious persecution grows louder. A new age of martyrs may be upon us. And though it may not be a martyrdom of wild beasts and swords and strange tortures, there are degrees of surrendering to the secular and standing fast in the faith.
St. Lawrence gives a wonderful example of taking a stand even while strapped to his grill. He bestows his heavenly patronage not only to comedians, but also to restaurateurs and firefighters.
Nowadays, Catholics are feeling rather fried as the heat rises from secular pressures and even mandates to deny truth, to give precedence to physical or societal health over spiritual health. The love, patience, and cheerfulness Lawrence wielded all the way to the gates of heaven are thus a great beacon to us. For all of us must be ready to endure what comes with charity—even a joke or two—in the knowledge and hope of the great inside joke of heaven: that the war is already won.