The Treasures of the Church

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Francesco Trevisani

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Francesco Trevisani

One of the most enduring legacies of our faith is the memorialization of outstanding Christian men and women whose stories have been passed down from generation to generation, even when we know little about their lives or even the exact years in which they lived. This is the case with Saint Lawrence, martyr, whose feast we celebrate today and who lived in the third century under Pope Sixtus II, but of whom we know little of his life before the last days leading up to his death. What we do know is that the story for which he is remembered exemplifies the best of Christian living and for that reason it resonates in every age.

Lawrence was a deacon in the Church of Rome who was entrusted with the oversight of the material assets of the Church, in particular the distribution of money and goods to the poor and needy. However, shortly after Pope Sixtus was arrested in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus and summarily executed under the edict of Emperor Valerian, the Roman prefect demanded that the goods of the Church be given over by him to the state.

Saint Ambrose relates in a later account that Lawrence then gathered the poor, blind, lame, orphaned and widows. When the official asked where all of the promised riches were, Lawrence responded, “These are the treasures of the Church” (De officiis ministrorum, II:28).

According to tradition, Lawrence was then condemned to death by roasting on a red-hot gridiron. In time, a small shrine and then a basilica church were built over his tomb.

Saint Lawrence lived during one of the persecutions of Rome and by his charitable spirit and supreme witness, he exemplifies why the Church only grew in number and size by the end of the fourth century.

Those who follow Christ lead lives full of charity. Tertullian, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the martyrs, noted that Christians were most famous for the indiscriminate kindness they showed to their neighbors (Apologeticum, ch. 39). They lived lives of generosity, justice, and purity; and such a life made them happy. Christians had happy homes, and their pagan neighbors more and more wanted to have what Christians had.

“Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members,” teaches Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 186). The Christian life is not a solitary experience. The social teaching of the Gospel is an essential part of its whole message.

This social dimension of the Gospel is very important to the conversation that we are having across the country about what unity of community looks like. A community is bound together by a “common good,” that is, by a goal that is shared, loved and sought after together by its members.

From Christ himself the Church learned that we should not selfishly seek earthly treasures. Rather, as children of the one Father, we should share property generously, show special solicitude for the poor and afflicted, and seek to structure our earthly lives in such a ways that the kingdom of God may begin to appear in our midst.

This is what the deacon Saint Lawrence embodied and it is what he proclaimed to the Romans in presenting those in need as the treasures of the Church. It is also what we in the body of Christ continue to embody today in our emphasis on charitable works.