A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Jacobello del Fiore, “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence”
Jacobello del Fiore, “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” (photo: Register Files)

“God save us from gloomy saints!” —St. Teresa of Ávila​

I'm Catholic for a lot of reasons—not the least of which is that the Church has got a great sense of humor.

Why is St. Apolonia the patron saint of dentists and those who suffer from toothaches? Because she was martyred by having her teeth pulled out.

Why is St. Hippolytus the patron saint of horses? Because he was martyred by being having each of his four limbs tied to a different horse and was thus torn apart by them.

Why is St. Lawrence of Rome the patron saint of comedians and chefs?

I'm so glad you asked.

Lawrence of Rome was actually from Spain but Italians are very rapacious when it comes to saints. Just ask St. Anthony of “Padua” (who's actually from Portugal) or St. Augustine (who's actually from northern Africa).

One of the early sources for the martyrdom was the description by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens in his Peristephanon, Hymn II. However, the legends are backed up by Damasus, Prudentius, Ambrose and Augustine.

He's believed to have been born in Huesca, Aragon which was a part of the Roman province of Hispania Tarraconensis. His parents, Orentius and Patientia, were also martyrs.

So that acorn didn't fall far from the oak tree.

“St. Larry” (c.  225–258) was one of the seven deacons of Rome who served under Pope Sixtus II. These men were martyred during the persecution by Emperor Valerian in AD 258.

Those were the days when practically every Christian name you read about was a martyr. Back then, being a baptized Christian was effectively a death sentence. The Catholic Church was horribly repressed. Many Christians fled Rome or were thrown to the lions.

Lawrence met the future Pope St. Sixtus II, a famous and highly regarded teacher in Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza, Spain.) The two left for Rome and, in AD 257, Sixtus became pope and ordained Lawrence as a deacon.

Despite Lawrence's relative youth, Sixtus appointed him first among the seven deacons who served the Church, giving him the prestigious title, “Archdeacon of Rome.” This was a position of great trust and responsibility, which included responsibility for the Church's library/archives and its treasury, from which he distributed alms to the poor.

St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, described in his writings how the Roman authorities would confiscate the goods of Christians who had been denounced before executing them. In August 258, Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and deacons in Rome should immediately be put to death. Pope Sixtus was captured on August 6 at the St. Callixtus Cemetery while celebrating Mass and executed.

According to St. Ambrose of Milan, Emperor Valerian believed that Lawrence had secreted a list of all baptized Christians in Rome.

The Emperor had his soldiers arrest the deacon and bring him to his court. Valerian, hungry for gold, demanded that Lawrence produce all the wealth of the Church within two days.

Lawrence, a Christian gifted with both sanctity and an irrepressible sense of humor, gathered up the poorest Christians in Rome including the disabled, infirmed, orphaned and widowed and brought them to the Emperor's court introducing them by saying:

The Church is truly rich, far richer than the Emperor. These are the treasures of the Church! Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.

Valerian, a typical pagan born without any discernable sense of humor, was furious. He handed St. Lawrence over to the torturers who tied him to a spit over a great roaring fire.

And as Lawrence hung there between Heaven and earth, he quipped to his pagan tormentors:

Turn me over. I am done on this side.

I know what you're thinking right now.

“Argh! Argh! Christian humor!” (Recall here that Lawrence is the Patron Saint of both comedians and chefs. Get it?)

Perhaps St. Lawrence's final punchline should have been, “Take my life … please!”

A shrine was later built over the spot of Lawrence’s martyrdom―the impressive Basilica di San Lorenzo in Rome. Among its most important treasures is the gridiron said to have been used to grill St. Lawrence. On his feast day every year, the Vatican displays a reliquary that contains the saint's burnt head.

There are several other churches in Rome dedicated to this martyr.

It seems that St. Lawrence was sentenced at San Lorenzo in Miranda, imprisoned in San Lorenzo in Fonte, and martyred at San Lorenzo in Panisperna. According to the Almanac of Philocalus for the year AD 354, Sts. Hippolytus and Justin the Confessor buried Lawrence in the Via Tiburtina in the Catacomb of Cyriaca.

The first recorded miracle attributed to St. Lawrence came from a collection known as The Acts of St Lawrence, which is now unfortunately lost. However, one of the stories from this collection was repeated in a document written by St. Gregory of Tours (AD 538–594). In it, a priest named Fr. Sanctulus was said to be rebuilding a church dedicated to St. Lawrence. It had been attacked and burnt by enemies of the Church. Fr. Sanctulus hired many workmen for the job but found he didn’t have enough food to feed everyone. The priest turned to St. Lawrence in prayer and asked him for help. At that, Fr. Sanctulus' basket was found to have a single white loaf of bread. Though this was by far too little to serve all of the men, the priest made due. He broke the bread and served the men but no matter how many times he broke the loaf, it reformed and he was able to feed the men every day for ten days.

Ever since his murder, Lawrence has fired the Christian imagination. The Perseid Meteor Shower occurs every year in mid-August almost always on August 10th, his feast day. Astronomers call the phenomenon the “Tears of St. Lawrence.” In addition, French explorer Jacques Cartier named the widest river estuary in the world, the one which separates the eastern part of United States of America and Canada, after this humorous saint. But the devotion to Lawrence doesn't stop there. This river empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The mountains north of Montreal are called the Laurentian Mountains and the eastern part of Canada is referred to as the Laurentian Shied. Saint-Laurent is one of Montreal's boroughs and the seven-mile-long St. Lawrence Boulevard spans the entire width of Montreal. And New York State's northernmost county is St. Lawrence County.

Devotion to St. Lawrence is so strong that Canada's Admiral's Fraternity erected a statue of St. Lawrence on a promontory just east of the 1000 Islands Bridge near Ivy Lea, Ontario.

And, more recently, the rescue operation for the miners trapped in the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in Chile was dubbed Operación San Lorenzo after the saint because it fell upon his feast day.

And, if you look in your closets, you might be able to find some articles designed by the famous French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, head designer of the House of Dior, who shares a name with the famous martyr, though they had very little else in common.

Interestingly, a comedian who bombs on stage is said to have “died,” while a successful comedian is said to have “killed.” Perhaps these are references to St. Lawrence's noble martyrdom.

The courage and dignity of St. Lawrence and the Church's other martyrs, even to this day, especially in Moslem and atheist dominated countries, has inspired many countless millions to turn to the Church.

And, as they say, “Whoever laughs last laughs the holiest.”