Saint of the Week
Saint Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr – Feast c. Early Third Century – 258
Feast Day August 10
Patron Saint of deacons, comics, and cooks
A Deacon heads the Church for four days, then perishes like his fellow deacons
The Church’s liturgy, like all public rituals whether sacred or secular, is inherently conservative. Its form is not easily altered. Its content shapes, more than is shaped by the Church and the wider culture. The liturgy moves through time like a great river moves through the land. It plows its own path, carving the terrain, gradually and incontrovertibly forming a new landscape. One generation is too few to notice, but a few generations pass and, suddenly, a river separates two families, a valley turns into a lake, a dam submerges a city, water destroys what once had been, and the world is different. Feast days and solemnities, most notably Christmas and Easter, shape entire cultures too: their calendars, music, food, festivals, dress, dance, language, art, architecture, and on and on. There is almost nothing that the liturgy and its calendar do not touch. Liturgy creates worlds.
Besides being culture creators, liturgical Feast Days also preserve the past for the present and the future. A Feast Day freezes time and preserves the memory of the world’s oldest mind—that of the Catholic Church. The Church does not suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. She is rejuvenated with every baptism and so is perpetually young, impervious to the dementia typical of great age. Today’s saint, the Deacon Lawrence, is celebrated with a Feast on the Church’s calendar, not just a memorial or an optional memorial. This liturgical fact is revelatory and beautiful. He was martyred so long, long ago. He is not Christ, Mary, or a pope. Yet he has a Feast Day! What is the past telling us by this? What is the Church’s perennial calendar communicating to the faithful by this interesting fact?
This Feast draws open the curtains on the events of August 258 as if they were as fresh as buns right out of the oven. Look and see the cast of characters. Emperor Valerian is to the side, sitting on his marble throne. An official reads the emperor’s decree aloud: “All bishops, priests, and deacons are to be summarily executed.” Pope Sixtus II is roughly taken away by Valerian’s soldiers during Mass in the candlelight of a catacomb on August 6. Six of Rome’s seven deacons are killed with Sixtus. In accord with the Church’s theology, they were closer to their bishop than to any priest, so they die with him. The Church has been almost decapitated. There is only one deacon left. The hunt is on for Lawrence, the ranking head of the Church. He is found. He is martyred. It is August 10. The curtain closes.
In a tradition already ancient by the third century, Rome had seven deacons to minister to the material needs of the impoverished, widows, and orphans of Rome. Lawrence excelled at this task, which he operated out of a house-church in central Rome. When the popular and well-loved Lawrence died, he was venerated with a fervor unlike almost any other early martyr. His cult spread like the fire that tradition says roasted him alive. Devotion to him spread as far north as Scandinavia, England, and Germany. Traditions large and small abounded.
The details of his martyrdom are incomplete. But holy legends have supplied what documents could not, and none of them are illogical, mythic, or banal. They might contain the essential facts—he was burned alive on a gridiron. Lawrence was buried just outside the walls of ancient Rome, where a minor basilica, also the burial site of Pope Pius IX, still stands. Numerous other churches in Rome are dedicated to his memory, including the house-church where he ministered. The current church on the site is, to this day, still enclosed inside of a larger building just as the house-church was. The deacon-martyr Lawrence gave a witness so powerful to Rome that his death may have been the no-going-back-moment which proved that Christianity was here to stay, forever, in the capital of the world.
Saint Lawrence may your example inspire all clergy, and especially deacons, to remain close to both their bishops and their people, providing faithful witness to the truths of our faith, which are worth living and dying for.
Saint of the Week
Patron Saint of Bellegra, Italy
The Pope is murdered in cold blood
The sixth pope was named the “Sixth” or, in Latin, “Sixtus.” He reigned from 115–125 A.D. The next Sixtus was today’s martyr, who reigned from one August to the next in 257–258. Sixtus II (or Sixth, the Second) is listed in the Roman Canon’s select roll call of sainted popes: “Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian…” The preservation of his name in the liturgy is compelling proof of the lasting impact of his bloody witness. After the legalization of Christianity in 313, perhaps two popes were martyred, although various others died unnatural deaths. But throughout the 200s, solid historical evidence proves that more than a dozen popes were assassinated by Roman authorities just for being Christian leaders. Many of their remains were interred in an ornate burial chamber in the catacombs of Saint Callixtus, which was excavated in the 1850s.
Sixtus II succeeded to the chair of Saint Peter at a difficult time. The on-again, off-again persecutions of the early Church were on-again in the 250s. The Roman Emperors Decius and Valerian sought the blood of Christians not only to try to decapitate the surging Church but also to confiscate the wealth and property of Christians. The tensions in Church-State relations were no less serious than internal Church tensions tearing at its unity. The persecution of Decius from 250–251 was wicked. Decius’ edict required everyone in the empire to sacrifice to a Roman god in the presence of a state official, with a signed libellus, or certificate, being issued afterward as proof that the sacrifice had been offered. Many Christians were weak and afraid and so sacrificed to gods they knew didn’t exist. Some Christians purchased a libellus, some fled to the safety of the countryside, and some refused to sacrifice and were cruelly martyred.
Christians’ divergent responses to the persecution—some heroic, some weak, some uncertain—were traumatic for the Church. Many in the African and Asiatic Church said that those who sacrificed (the lapsi) must be re-baptized. Pope Stephen I, Sixtus II’s predecessor, said that the lapsi must only repent to be reconciled with the Church. The theological positions of the two camps were each sincere, and hardened over time. There was no easy answer. After Stephen died, it seems that Pope Sixtus II was more diplomatic in seeking reconciliation with the African and Asiatic churches over this controversy, although it would not be theologically resolved until Saint Augustine wrote one hundred and fifty years later.
Sixtus II had to be consecrated as Pope in secret because of the times. In 257, the formerly peaceable Emperor Valerian issued an anti-Christian edict which forbade Christians from assembling in cemeteries. Sixtus avoided persecution for many months. But in early August 258, Valerian got serious. A new edict focused on essential targets. Bishops, priests, and deacons could be put to death without a trial. On August 6, 258, Pope Sixtus II was with his flock, seated and preaching the word of God, probably at Mass, in the catacombs. A small troop of soldiers was on the hunt. The Pope must die. With torches lighting the way, the soldiers scurried through the warren of dark and narrow passageways toward the underground chapel. Perhaps they heard some singing. They acquired their prize soon enough, and the deed was done.
Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, North Africa, received the news shortly afterward and, before being martyred himself, wrote a letter to his flock: “Valerian has issued an edict to the Senate to the effect that bishops, presbyters, and deacons shall suffer the death penalty without delay…I must also inform you that Sixtus was put to death in a catacomb on the sixth of August, and four deacons with him…Let all our people fix their minds not on death but rather on immortality…knowing that in this contest the soldiers of God and Christ are not slain but rather win their crowns.” An inscription placed on Sixtus II’s tomb over a hundred years after his death by Pope Saint Damasus, rediscovered in the 1800’s, verifies the drama of Sixtus II’s last moments. It notes that the shepherd gave his life for his flock. The faithful with Sixtus that fateful day walked up the steps of the catacomb into the daylight totally unharmed, while their pastor lay dead. The companions martyred with Sixtus were the deacons Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus and Stephanus. Deacons Felicissimus and Agapitus were also killed on the same day but not with Pope Sixtus II.
Pope Saint Sixtus II, you were a servant and a leader, a confident shepherd to a frightened flock, a central actor, not a bystander; a witness to truth, not an outside observer; a light generating others’ shadows. You are known because you were courageous. Make us faithful like you.
Saint of the Week
Patron Saint of Spain, equestrians, and pilgrims
Herod strikes again
The primary legacy of the Twelve Apostles is silence. Yes, their voices are sometimes heard in the Gospels, briefly. Yes, they traveled, evangelized, and built up the Church, discreetly. And yes, they were martyred, save John, though obliquely. Who went exactly where, and did what, is guesswork. When, how, by whom, and where each Apostle died is largely conjecture. Even most of their burial places are uncertain. After the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and especially after the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, the Apostles dispersed throughout the deserts and mountains of the Eastern Mediterranean world. They gave their backs to Jerusalem. And as they walked away, their trails were lost, sand filled their footsteps, and history’s endless cycles erased their exact tracks. With some few exceptions, most of the valuable details were forgotten. The Apostles are now twelve islands of names in a sea of silence.
Some footprints of today’s saint, James the Greater, were preserved by Scripture. James was a member of the Twelve and of the Three; Peter, James, and John were the inner core that formed a shield of fidelity encircling Jesus Christ. James and his brother, John the Evangelist, author of the fourth Gospel, were fishermen who were called from their job on a lake to become fishers of men. It’s possible that other men were called before or after James and John, and that these unknown men laughed in Christ’s face, thought Him crazy, asked a thousand questions first, or just refused to follow a man they did not know and who offered no assurances. Those who said “No” to Christ are lost to history. Christ’s was not an open invitation. He was on a mission and kept walking. There was a moment, and then the moment passed. James and John seized their Christ-moment with both hands and never let go. A moment became forever.
Peter, James, and John were in the home of Jairus when his servant was raised from the dead. On Mount Tabor they gazed in awe at the illumined face of Christ, His translucent skin radiating like the sun. And these three were at Christ’s side in the intense stillness of a Thursday evening in the Garden of Gethsemane, providing what consolation their presence could. In the Gospels, Saint James is impetuous and full of character. He was not like vanilla ice cream. Everyone likes vanilla ice cream. James’s personality seemed to be more like sandpaper or barbed wire. You felt his roughness. You got hurt if you crossed him. James wanted Christ to rain fire on the Samaritans for their obduracy. He even desired to be seated at Christ’s right hand in the Kingdom of God, which led the Lord to prophesy his fidelity unto death.
Saint James’ shocking martyrdom was dutifully recorded by the early Church. Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles states that “King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword” (Acts 12:1-2). No other Apostle’s martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament. Perhaps he was singled out by Herod because of his fiery temperament. He would not have been one to retract a statement. He and his brother, after all, earned the nickname “Sons of Thunder” from Christ himself (Mk 3:17). And so it was that James probably knelt, his neck resting on a block of wood as his head extended just past it. And then the sword fell, the blood ran, and the crown of martyrdom rested on a head without a body.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in a letter sent to the Church of Ephesus in about 110 A.D., wrote “The more I see a bishop keeping silent, the greater should be the reverence I have for him.” A vast forest grows in total silence. The martyrdom of James was like a large tree crashing to the floor of that forest. His death shook the land. Yet the forest continued growing. And it has been growing now for two thousand years. Like a great, but silent, verdant forest, the Church’s growth continues. Thousands of miles from Jerusalem and two thousand years after his death, the silence of this Apostle, as that of all the Apostles, still echoes. Every time a baby is baptized, a Mass is said, or a priest quickly walks through the door of a hospital room to anoint a dying man, the mission of the Church which the Apostles established carries on.
Saint James, you died a shocking and unjust death. May your courageous witness to Christ at the end of your life, and your impetuous generosity toward Him during your life, make all Catholics bold and forthright in their love of the things of God.
Saint of the Week
Saint Mary Magdalene
Feast Day July 22
Patron saint of perfumers, converts, and hairdressers
An Apostle to the Apostles first spreads the Good News
“Cherchez la femme “is a French phrase meaning “Look for the woman.” It is used as a convenient shortcut in movie or literary criticism to discover what is driving a plot, especially in a detective story. Why did the man risk his life? Cherchez la femme? Who had a motive to lie? Cherchez la femme? Where is the treasure buried? Cherchez la femme? It’s a cliché, of course, but clichés often convey some truth. Look for the women in the Gospels, and you will not be disappointed. Search for one woman in particular, Mary Magdalene, and you will find yourself present at all the most important Gospel events: the passion, the crucifixion, the burial, and in a garden for the resurrection, just moments after a huge stone is rolled away from a tomb, allowing the Lord to step forth into a new world. Saint Mary Magdalene is present at key moments, says key things, and is a key witness. She opens the door to Gospel scenes that would otherwise remain hidden from view.
Saint Mary Magdalene was among that troop of women who congregated on the outer edge of the twelve Apostles. These were probably women of means, who “provided for” Jesus and the Apostles “out of their resources” (Lk 8:3). When these women are named, Mary Magdalene is always named first, similar to Saint Peter’s position in the listing of the Apostles. Mary Magdalene is named many more times in the Gospels than most of the Apostles themselves, signaling her importance. The Gospel of Luke relates that seven demons were driven from her (Lk. 8: 2). But there is debate over whether Mary Magdalene is also the sinful woman who anoints Christ’s feet and if she is also Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Building on the presumption that the sinful woman was Mary Magdalene, medieval traditions wrongly described her as a repentant prostitute. Artistic depictions almost universally show her as sultry, forlorn, and repentant. Despite the dubious connection between Mary Magdalene and prostitution, this association continues today and will likely take centuries to purify.
A “combined Mary” understanding rolls all three of the above Marys—the woman from whom demons were expelled, the repentant sinner, the sister of Lazarus—into the one person of Mary Magdalene. Mary was an extremely common Jewish name. It requires, then, careful attention to the text to sift which Mary is doing what in the New Testament. Magdala was a town on the Sea of Galilee. So when Mary from Magdala is referenced, the reader can trust that her town is adjoined to her name on purpose to distinguish her from other Marys.
An old Christian tradition justly refers to Mary Magdalene as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” The resurrected Christ appeared to her first, before all others. She is the proto-witness. Mary and other women go to the tomb of Jesus to anoint His body. They see the stone rolled away and enter. The body is not there. An angel tells them to not be afraid, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter” (Mk 16:7 & Jn 20:1-2), so Mary dutifully fulfills his angelic orders. It is a woman, then, who tells the men, who spreads the news of all news to everyone else. The men come running and verify her account. The tomb is empty. As usual, Mary respectfully remains on the fringe of the Apostles. She weeps outside the tomb while Peter and John are inside. Time passes as they try to absorb what this all means until, finally, the “disciples returned to their homes” (Jn 20:10). But Mary does not go home.
And then it happens. Mary is alone again, crying. She just can’t believe it. She has to take another look. So she bends her body in half to peer into the low empty tomb once again. When she straightens up, she notices a man standing just behind her. She thinks he is a gardener. A short, awkward conversation follows and then abruptly concludes: “Mary!” “Rabbi!” (Jn 20: 16). Her name is in the mouth of God! A name is enunciated and a new life begins! At Baptism. At Confirmation. At religious vows. May we all hear the voice of the risen Christ speak our name, directly to us, just as Mary Magdalene did, when we hopefully walk for the first time in the garden of paradise: “Ashley!” ”Susan!” “Tom!” “Marty!” “Quinn!” “Juliette!”and on and on and on until the end of time.
Saint Mary Magdalene, assist all who seek your intercession to be humble followers of Christ, doing, from the margins, what is necessary to carry forward the ministry of Christ’s Church, quietly accomplishing God’s will without recognition except for its eternal reward.
Saint of the Week
FEAST DAY JULY 13
Saint Henry was born in 972 to Henry, Duke of Bavaria, Germany, and his wife Gisela of Burgundy. Saint Henry’s early life was permeated with Christianity, among those who guided his education was Bishop Wolfgang of Ratisbon, who became a saint himself. In 995, Saint Henry succeeded his father as Duke of Bavaria, and in 1002, upon the death of his cousin, Otho III, he was elected emperor. In 1014, Saint Henry undertook the long journey from Germany to Rome to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Benedict XIII.
In 1022 Saint Henry assisted Pope Benedict VIII in holding the Council of Pavia, which promoted clerical celibacy and sought to end simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical goods and offices). During his reign, Saint Henry used his wealth and position for the Church. He confirmed Benedict’s authority over Rome, was a patron of churches and monasteries, supported the Cluniac Reforms, restored episcopal sees, and founded the Diocese of Bamburg where he built a cathedral.
Saint Henry was married to Cunigunde of Luxembourg, to whom he was incredibly devoted. Although disputed by some historians, some stories of the couple’s marriage report they took vows of chastity because their union was childless.
Saint Henry died in July of 1024 and was canonized in 1146 by Pope Eugene III.
Saint of the Week
Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious 1568–1591
Feast Day June 21
Patron Saint of Catholic youth and plague victims
The Jesuit Order, from its very founding, had a sharp sense of its educational superiority, its fidelity to the Holy Father, and its mission to educate and spiritually guide the elites among the courts and aristocracies of Europe. The Order did not, however, develop a strong community identity. There were, and are, common houses. But Jesuit communities built on common prayer, meals, and apostolates were rare. Much more common was the Jesuit alone, trekking under the canopy of a Canadian forest, riding the waves like a cork in a boat off the coast of India, or hiking the narrow mountain pathways in the mists of the high Andes. Where there was one Jesuit, there were all Jesuits. Each man embodied his entire Order. It was a community of many ones. Jesuits were united by their vows, their long education, and their common mission. Actually living, praying, eating, relaxing, and working together, so crucial to the common life of other Orders, did not play an equivalent role among the Jesuits.
Jesuit superiors were aware of the dangers that isolation might pose to unity. So, they encouraged, and even mandated, a means to sew into one fabric the patches of a thousand lives being lived across the globe. Letters! Jesuits were required to write letters to their superiors, giving regular accounts of their work. These letters had to be detailed, instructive, and inspiring. After they were reviewed, the most edifying was published and distributed to Jesuit houses. Through these letters, the Order was made one. Every Jesuit knew what at least some of his brothers were doing for God and the Church. These collections of letters, known as the Jesuit Relations, were eventually distributed beyond the confines of the Order. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Relations were often exciting best sellers recounting the apostolic exploits of isolated Jesuits walking along the rim of Christendom.
It was just such an inspiring letter, or relation, from India that inspired today’s saint, Aloysius Gonzaga, to become a Jesuit. Saint Aloysius was known to his family as Luigi, Aloysius being the Latinized version of his baptismal name. He was the eldest of seven children born into an aristocratic family from Northern Italy. Kings and Queens and Cardinals and Princes ate at the family table, were family themselves, or were at least friends or acquaintances. Young Luigi knew, and detested, the frivolous existence lived by so many in his aristocratic milieux. He also suffered from various physical infirmities, which produced that vulnerability and perspective which leads so clearly and directly to a deep dependence on God.
After receiving his First Communion at about the age of twelve, he came to personally know the great future saint Cardinal Charles Borromeo, who would later be his confessor and spiritual director. Borromeo was a Jesuit. His example, together with Aloysius’ reading about the works of Jesuit missionaries, convinced him to enter the Jesuit Novitiate, against his family’s wishes. So, Aloysius went to Rome to begin his studies. And there he grew to embrace those of lesser education and refinement than himself. He volunteered to work bringing victims of a plague to a Jesuit hospital, despite his personal revulsion at the patients’ decrepit physical conditions. After his own physical limitations restricted his participation in this corporal work of mercy, he still persevered and insisted on returning to the hospital over his superiors’ objections.
While working in the hospital, Aloysius contracted the plague from a patient he personally cared for, was incapacitated shortly thereafter, and, a few months later, died on June 21, 1591. He was twenty-three. His reputation for purity, prayerfulness, and suffering led many to consider him a saint soon after his death. Aloysius was beatified just fourteen years later, in 1605, and canonized in 1726. He is buried in the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Rome. His contribution to the Jesuit canon was not a pagan tribe converted, a new ocean crossed, or an unknown language catalogued. His letter was his life, and it was to die young and to die holy.
Saint Aloysius, you laid all your treasures, including your youth, on an altar to God. May your example of generosity, and your service to the sick and dying, inspire all Catholic youth to give God the gold of their early years, not just the silver of middle age or the bronze of their retirement.