The Dalmatic and the Gridiron.
Saint Laurence was born in 225, most likely in Spain. While little is known of his youth, it is known that he studied in Zaragoza, where he met the future Pope Sixtus II. When Pope Saint Sixtus II ascended to the papacy in 257, he ordained Laurence deacon and appointed him as the first of the seven deacons serving the Church, granting Laurence the title of “archdeacon of Rome” despite his young age. This title included the care of the church’s treasury and riches, as well as the charge of the distribution of alms to the poor.
In August 258, the Roman Emperor Valerian issued an edict condemning all bishops, priests, and deacons to be put to death without delay. This persecution rapidly advanced; on 6th August 258, Pope Sixtus II was apprehended in the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus and executed along with several deacons.
According to the account of Saint Ambrose, Laurence wept when he saw Sixtus II being carried away to his martyrdom — not because Sixtus was to die, but because he himself could not join him. Sixtus comforted Laurence, answering that a greater trial and more glorious victory lay waiting for him, and that Laurence would join him in three days. The pope also asked Laurence to distribute the treasures of the church to the poor, lest they fall in the hands of the persecutors.
The prefect of Rome, having heard of these riches and desiring to obtain them, demanded them of Laurence. The saint asked for some time to gather the riches in one place; the prefect granted him three days. In that time, Laurence went throughout the streets of Rome, distributing the Church’s treasures as alms. He then gathered all the poor and the crippled. These he presented to the prefect, declaring them the true treasures of the Church. To these he added widows and consecrated virgins, whom he declared as pearls and precious stones.
In his anger, the prefect ordered Laurence to be put to death—not immediately, but rather with his tortures protracted so as to render them all the more bitter, so that he would “die by inches”.
Laurence was to be slowly roasted alive on a gridiron placed above burning coals. The saint endured this torment with remarkable patience. After suffering for some time over the fire, he turned to his executioners, cheerfully saying, “I am sufficiently roasted on one side; turn me over and eat my flesh.” He thus won the palm of martyrdom on 10th August 258.
In religious art, Saint Laurence is often depicted wearing a dalmatic and holding a gridiron. The dalmatic is the vestment proper to deacons; the gridiron is the instrument of his martyrdom.
The saint has been long and widely venerated in the Church, which keeps his feast day on 10th August. His name appears in the Communicantes of the Roman Canon of the Mass. He is also patron of Rome, Rotterdam, Canada, Sri Lanka, and of many other cities and dioceses.
Six churches in Rome are dedicated after various moments of his life: the Minor Basilica of St Laurence in Damaso is located where he performed his duties as deacon; the Minor Basilica of St Mary in Domnica alla Navicella is situated where he distributed alms to the poor; the Annexed Church of St Laurence in Miranda was where he was sentenced; he was imprisoned at what is now the Annexed Church of St Laurence in Fonte; the Church of St Laurence in Panisperna lies on his place of martyrdom; the Papal Minor Basilica of St Laurence outside the Walls marks the place of his burial. Today, the stone on which the saint was laid upon after his death can be venerated in the Minor Basilica of St Laurence outside the Walls. A relic of the gridiron is kept in Rome, in the Church of Saint Laurence in Lucina.
Due to his martyrdom on the gridiron over a fire, Saint Laurence is patron of cooks and chefs, and he is invoked to protect against fires. His cheerful remark to his executioners to be turned over on the gridiron has also made him the patron of comedians. He is also patron of deacons, librarians, archivists, tanners, miners, and the poor.
The Perseid meteor shower, linked with debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, usually peaks in activity in the beginning of August. Due to its proximity to the feast day of Saint Laurence on 10th August, the meteor shower is sometimes called the “tears of Saint Laurence”.
In this day and age where an increasingly secularised society threatens to snuff out the faith in the public square, let us invoke this well-renowned martyr in the following prayer:
“O glorious Saint Laurence, Martyr and Deacon, who, being subjected to the most bitter torments, didst not lose thy faith nor thy constancy in confessing Jesus Christ; obtain in like manner for us such an active and solid faith, that we shall never be ashamed to be true followers of Jesus Christ, and fervent Christians in word and in deed.”