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St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr: Model for Contemporary Deacons in a New Missionary Age

By Deacon Keith Fournier
August 13th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

When Valerian arrived, Deacon Lawrence presented him with the true gold and silver of the Church, the poor! The emperor was filled with rage! Beheading was not enough for this Christian Deacon. He ordered Deacon Lawrence to be burned alive, in public, on a griddle. Witnesses recorded the public martyrdom. The deacon cheerfully offered himself to the Lord Jesus and even joked with his executioners!

CHESAPEAKE, VA. (Catholic Online) - I recently spent a few days in the Archdiocese of Denver. Many readers know of my high regard for the Catholic Church in Denver. I have written in past articles of my admiration for its vibrantly faithful witness of Catholic life. The dynamically orthodox Catholic faith - ever ancient, ever new - is evident in the entire experience of Catholic life in Denver.

The highlight of my visit was spending time with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila who was installed as the Archbishop on July 18, 2012. He is a holy, humble, happy man of deep prayer who is obviously in love with the Lord and His Church; a Bishop with a father's heart for the Clergy and all of the faithful.  What a gift he is for the faithful in this wonderful Archdiocese.

On Friday evening I spent time with the Deacons who gathered with their priest/pastors at the Vigil Liturgy of the Memorial Feast of St Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr. Mass was followed by a dinner celebrating their vocation. Every year they rededicate themselves to serving Christ the Servant by pouring themselves out for the faithful.They restate their vows at Mass and then celebrate a meal with their Archbishop and other significant priests who assist them in living their vocation faithfully.   

On August 10 in the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar we commemorated the Deacon named Lawrence. I have served as a deacon for seventeen years and continue to draw great encouragement his heroic witness in the First Millennium as I seek to be faithful to my own vocation as a deacon in the Third millennium. I was moved when I discovered that this annual celebration was a part of the tradition of the diaconate community in Denver.

I regularly write about - and contend with - the challenges we currently face in this new missionary age. I find myself regularly reminding people that these times are not the most difficult the Church has faced. Nor is our situation all that new to the Church. We were born for times such as these. However, the hostility toward the Catholic Christian faith is accelerating and it will get worse. 

Deacons have a vital role to serve in the Church as an icon of Christ the Servant. They are called to give holy and heroic witness, in both word and deed. They live their lives in what is sometimes called the real world, but it is to be a life that is not of this world. (See, e.g. Romans 12:2, 1 John 2: 15 - 17)

Deacons go from the altar and the ambo into the world in order to bring the world into the Church.Deacons are  to be witnesses of the new world - to use a term loved by the early fathers for the Church. The Church is a seed of the kingdom to come. They are to live as leaven in the loaf of human culture, elevating it from within by lives lived in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.

As a result of their experiences, they are often good homilists. Church history recounts the great homilies of Deacons, such as St. Ephrem, the "harp of the Holy Spirit" and others. Then there are the deacon martyrs, including Stephen and Lawrence and so many others. Their lives of sacrificial love continue to inspire the whole church as a perpetual homily!

In 1996, on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi), I was ordained to the Order of Deacon in the Catholic Church. When I lay prostrate on the floor that day in preparation for the imposition of the hands of my Bishop and the reception of the Book of the Gospels, I knew my life would never be the same. My ordination did indeed create a mark on my soul as our theology teaches.

I love to tell the story of this Deacon/Martyr named Lawrence who helped to bring the entire pagan Roman Empire to Jesus Christ. It is particularly relevant because we are living in a modern Rome in the declining western culture in which we live and serve.

Deacon Lawrences' heroic life and death commend him to all who see the Third Christian Millennium as a new missionary age. We are called to sacrifice all for the love of Jesus Christ and His Church.However, the witness of Lawrence is of particular importance for contemporary deacons. I ask our readers to pray for all Deacons of the Church, that we all may cultivate, by cooperating with grace, the courage, character and holiness of Deacon Lawrence.

The Catholic Church is facing growing hostility from those who grow weary of our insistence upon a respect for all human life, our defense of true marriage and our insistence upon restoring the moral foundations of a free society. They seek to silence us and engage in a soft persecution, at least so far.  

They focus their animosity on the Catholic Church, because she will not compromise the truth. It is in just such times that we need for the Lord to raise up Deacons like Lawrence to stand strong in their uncompromising fidelity to the ancient yet ever new Catholic Christian faith in this new missionary age.

The same God Lawrence loved and served is pouring out his Holy Spirit in this hour upon His Church. History will record the story of when this Rome of the West returned to Jesus Christ! For now, let me share with you the story of the Deacon Martyr Lawrence, through whom all of Rome became Christian.

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The year was 258. It was a difficult beginning for what would become the First Christian Millennium. Hostility against these early followers of Jesus Christ was growing. The barbarism and severity of pagan Rome had begun to reach a fever pitch. It would soon lead to a blood lust. The newborn Christian Church, faithful to the One who had given Himself for the life of the world, continued the work of His redemption.

Roman authorities charged Christians of that era with "odium humani generis" [hatred of the human race]. The Romans claimed to be citizens of a great empire, yet they practiced primitive forms of abortion as well as "exposure", the killing of unwanted newborns. They also tried to institutionalize approval of homosexual relationships on a par with authentic marriage.

Emperor Nero in the first-century A.D. was not only overt in his homosexual relationships but wanted them to be treated as normative in the empire, to give an equal status between homosexual relationships and marriage. First and Second century Rome was a challenging mission field for these early Christians. Rome proclaimed itself the shining example to the world of its age while it violated the Natural Moral Law and embraced debauchery. Sound familiar?

The day that Deacon Lawrence experienced his birth from death to life was an ominous and frightful day in ancient Rome. Four days earlier, the great Bishop of Rome, Sixtus, was arrested by soldiers of the emperor Valerian, along with his beloved deacons, and beheaded.

Valerian had issued an edict to the Roman Senate that all the Christian clergy-bishops, priests and deacons-were to be arrested and executed. There were so many holy people among the martyrs of early Rome. That makes it even more remarkable that the life and death of this one humble Deacon-Lawrence-is attributed with all of Rome becoming Christian.

Sentenced to death in the Emperor Valerian's sweeping condemnation of all Christian clergy, Lawrence offended the Emperor  - and endeared himself to all Christians since then - by assembling before Valerian the real gold and silver of the Church, the poor.

According to the tradition, Deacon Lawrence, knowing that the fervor of Valerians' hatred was extending to all Christians who owned property, began to give it all away. He distributed the money and treasures of the Church to the city's poor-believing the clear admonition of the Savior that they were blessed and especially loved by Him.

Valerian heard the news and wanted the treasure to satisfy his unbridled lust for worldly power. So, he offered Deacon Lawrence a way out of sure death. If he would show him where the Church's great gold and silver were located, he would issue an order of clemency, sparing his life so that he could continue his work.

Valerian was delighted when the deacon asked for three days to gather all the gold and silver of the Church together in one central place! His pride and greed filled blinded him from seeing the truth.  

For three days, Deacon Lawrence went throughout the city and invited all the beloved poor, handicapped, and misfortunate  to come together. They were being supported by a thriving early Christian community who understood the Gospel imperative to recognize Jesus in the poor.

When Valerian arrived, Deacon Lawrence presented him with the true gold and silver of the Church, the poor! The emperor was filled with rage! Beheading was not enough for this Christian Deacon. He ordered Deacon Lawrence to be burned alive, in public, on a griddle. Witnesses recorded the public martyrdom. The deacon cheerfully offered himself to the Lord Jesus and even joked with his executioners!

The tradition records massive conversions to the Christian faith as a result of the holy life and death of one Deacon who understood the true heart of his vocation. He was poured out, like his Master, Jesus Christ the Servant, in redemptive love, on behalf of others. It is still said to this day that all of Rome became Christian as a result of the faithful life, and the death, of this one humble deacon. He was buried in a cemetery on the Via Tiburtina. On that spot, Constantine would later build a Basilica.

A special devotion to Lawrence, deacon and martyr, spread throughout the entire Christian community. Early Christians had no doubt that those who had gone to be with the Lord continued to pray for those who still struggled in this earthly life. They saw in Lawrence a great example of how to live, and how to die, faithful to the Gospel. Years later,

St Augustine reflected on the heroism of this great deacon in a sermon preached on his feast day, emphasizing that his life and death were an example for all Christians to emulate: "I tell you again and again my brethren, that in the Lord's garden are to be found not only the roses of His martyrs. In it there are also the lilies of the virgins, the ivy of wedded couples, and the violets of widows. On no account may any class of people despair, thinking that God has not called them."

The life and death of Deacon Lawrence speaks the timeless message of the Gospel to all who will listen.  Whether we are ever called to shed our blood in what has traditionally been called red martyrdom or simply called to offer our sacrifices daily in a continuous life of poured-out love, traditionally called white martyrdom, we continue the redemptive work of the Lord.

The Deacon and martyr Lawrence offered himself fully to Jesus Christ - and shows us the way.

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