Today is the feast of one of Rome’s most famous Saints, the deacon Lawrence, who was martyred by being roasted alive on a grill during the persecution of the Emperor Valerian in the mid-3rd century. The Roman church has long honored this native son as one of her chief Patrons, alongside Ss Peter and Peter; there are, in point of fact, more churches and chapels dedicated to him in the city than there are to the two Apostles.
There are several Saints from the early years of Christianity for whom indisputably authentic eye-witness accounts of their deaths survive: the martyrs killed at Lyon in 177, their close contemporaries martyred at Scillium in Roman Numidia, the Carthaginians Perpetua and Felicity 25 years later, etc. However, we have no such documents from the city of Rome itself. A professor of mine once explained this with a theory that during the persecutions of Diocletian in the early 4th century, the archives of the Church of Rome were destroyed. Nevertheless, by the the end of the 4th century, devotion to St Lawrence was already a solidly established tradition.
In roughly 388-90, St Ambrose, who was elected bishop of Milan in 374, composed a treatise called “De Officiis”, a title copied from a work of Cicero, and imitates the latter’s general scope. In the wake of the chaos that engulfed the Roman Republic after the assassination of Caesar, Cicero offered a treatise of moral guidance to the addressee, his son Marcus, and thence, of course, to the many others whom he knew would read it because of his reputation as an elder statesmen of the Republic. St Ambrose offers the same for the clergy of his diocese, knowing that his treatise will also be widely read as the work of a respected elder statesman of the Church.
In the first book, he offers this rhetorical account of the events leading up to the death of St Lawrence. (chapter 41)
“Non praetereamus etiam sanctum Laurentium, qui cum videret Xystum episcopum suum ad martyrium duci, flere coepit, non passionem illius, sed suam remansionem. Itaque his verbis appellare coepit: ‘Quo progrederis sine filio, pater: quo, sacerdos sancte, sine diacono properas tuo? Numquam sacrificium sine ministro offerre consueveras. quid in me ergo displicuit, pater? Num degenerem probasti? Experire certe utrum idoneum ministrum elegeris. Cui commisisti Dominici sanguinis consecrationem, cui consummandorum consortium sacramentorum, huic sanguinis tui consortium negas?’ …
(The Ordination of St Lawrence as Deacon, 1447-9, by Fra Angelico. In keeping with one of the Church’s most ancient customs, he receives the chalice from the Pope’s hand as part of the ordination rite, since the distribution of the Precious Blood at Mass was under the care of the deacons.)
Tunc Xystus ait, ‘Non ego te, fili, relinquo ac desero: sed majora tibi debentur certamina. Nos quasi senes levioris pugnae cursum recipimus: te quasi juvenem manet gloriosior de tyranno triumphus. Mox venies, flere desiste; post triduum me sequeris.’ …
And let us not pass over St Lawrence, who, on seeing Xystus his bishop led to martyrdom, began to weep, not at his suffering, but at the fact that he himself was to remain behind. Therefore with these words did he begin to address him: ‘Where, does thou go without thy son, father? Where, holy priest, dost thou hastening without thy deacon? Never wast thou wont to offer sacrifice without thy minister. At what art thou displeased in me, father? Hast thou found me unworthy? Prove thou, then, whether thou hast chosen a fitting servant. To him to whom thou hast entrusted the consecration of the Lord’s blood, to whom you have granted fellowship in partaking of the Sacraments, to him dost thou refuse a part in thy blood?’ …
Then Xystus said, ‘I leave thee not, my son, nor do I forsake thee, but greater struggles yet await thee. We as old men undergo the course of an easier fight; a more glorious triumph over the tyrant awaits thee as a young man. Soon shalt thou come, cease weeping; after three days thou shalt follow me.’ … ”
Referring then to the astonishing courage by which St Lawrence showed in mocking his tormentor as he lay on the grill:
“Hic Laurentium sanctum ad hoc nullus urgebat, nisi amor devotionis; tamen et ipse post triduum, cum illuso tyranno, impositus super craticulam exureretur, ‘Assum est’, inquit, ‘versa et manduca.’ Ita animi virtute vincebat ignis naturam.
Here nothing urged holy Lawrence so to act but his love and devotion. Yet after three days he was placed upon the gridiron by the tyrant whom he mocked, and was burnt. He said, ‘The flesh is roasted, turn it and eat.’ Thus by the courage of his spirit did he overcome the power of the fire.”
In the absence of an eyewitness account of Lawrence’s death, and knowing that St Ambrose was born of a Roman family, and was fully conversant with the traditions of the Church in that city, the medieval Church very reasonably took these as literally the last words of Ss Xystus and Lawrence. Several parts of the liturgy for the feast day of the latter were therefore composed using these words as the text, as for example, this responsory from Matins.
R. Quo progréderis sine fílio, pater? quo, sacérdos sancte, sine diácono próperas? * Tu numquam sine minístro sacrifícium offérre consuéveras. V. Quid ergo in me displícuit paternitáti tuæ? numquid degénerem me probásti? Experíre utrum idóneum minístrum elégeris, cui commisísti Domínici sánguinis dispensatiónem. Tu nunquam…
(The responsory cited above, in the summer volume of the Hartker Antiphonary, copied out at the Swiss monastery of St Gall in the last decade of the 10th century. St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 391: Antiphonarium officii. CC BY-NC 4.0)