While St. Lawrence is one of the greatest deacons in the Church’s history, his feastday has over time fallen into obscurity and most average Catholics are unfamiliar with the customs and practices associated with his feastday. The Feast of St. Lawrence was of such importance it was a Holy Day of Obligation for a long time. It remained a holy day in the modern-day United States until 1777 and in Ireland until 1778. The Vigil preceding the Feast of St. Lawrence was as a day of fasting in times past as well. Rediscovering some of these lost practices and learning the life of St. Lawrence can help us to live out an authentic Catholic life.
The Life of St. Lawrence
St. Lawrence was born in Huesca, Spain in the third century. He was an archdeacon of Rome whose job was to care for the goods of the Church and distribute alms. On August 6, 258, Pope St. Sixtus II and six deacons were martyred. This left St. Lawrence as the highest-ranking Church official in Rome. Just before then, Pope St. Sixtus II foretold St. Lawrence that he would join him in martyrdom for the faith in four days because St. Lawrence wished to die with the Pope.
St. Lawrence said: “Father, where are you going without your son? Where are you hastening, O priest, without your deacon? Never before did you offer the holy Sacrifice without assistants. In what way have I displeased you? In what way have you found me unfaithful in my office? Oh, try me again and prove to yourself whether you have chosen an unworthy minister for the service of the Church. So far you have been trusting me with distributing the Blood of the Lord.” To this Pope Sixtus II replied, “I am not forsaking you, my son; a severer trial is awaiting you for your faith in Christ. The Lord is considerate toward me because I am a weak old man. But for you, a most glorious triumph is in store. Cease to weep, for already after three days you will follow me”
St. Lawrence, under the command of the pope, began to give all of the Church’s goods to the poor. While he was doing this task, a blind man named Crescentius asked him to heal his blindness by laying hands on him. St. Lawrence made the Sign of the Cross over him, and his vision was restored. Lawrence was soon arrested and in prison still healed many blind men. The guard, named Hippolytus, was so impressed by the Faith that he accepted it and also died as a martyr.
On August 10, 258, Lawrence was told to bring along the treasure entrusted by the pope to his execution. After being given two days’ time to collect the goods, St. Lawrence arrived with a multitude of Rome’s crippled, blind, and sick. St. Lawrence announced to the judge: “Here are the treasures of the Church!” Before he was arrested, though, he had dispersed the material wealth of the Church including many documents, which saved years of early Church history.
He was tortured, scourged, and scorched with glowing plates. In the midst of it, he prayed: “Lord Jesus Christ, God from God, have mercy on Your servant!” A solider named Romanus exclaimed: “I see before you an incomparably beautiful youth. Hasten and baptize me.” Romanus had observed during this torture how an angel dried the wounds of Lawrence with a linen cloth.
As he was taken back to the judge he said, “My God I honor and Him alone I serve. Therefore I do not fear your torments; this night shall become as brightest day and as light without any darkness.”
St. Lawrence was grilled to death on August 10, 258. As he died, he prayed for the conversion of Rome so that from it the Faith of Christ would spread. Following his death, idolatry began to decline throughout Rome. He also said, “Now you may turn me over, my body is roasted enough on this side.” Then he said, “At last I am finished; you may now take from me and eat.” He turned to God and exclaimed: “I thank You, O Lord, that I am permitted to enter Your portals.” His body was buried in the cemetery of Saint Cyriaca on the road to Tivoli. The gridiron that is believed to have been his deathbed is in San Lorenzo in Lucina.
The Connection of St. Lawrence and St. Sixtus’ Feastdays
St. Lawrence’s Feastday appropriately falls on the date of his death and entrance into Heaven – August 10th. Three days beforehand, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Sixtus II and his companions. Pope Sixtus II was one of the first victims of the persecutions by Emperor Valerian I. Four deacons, Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus, and Stephanus, were apprehended at the same cemetery as Pope Sixtus II. Pope Sixtus II was beheaded in his chair, which was later enshrined behind his tomb. Two other deacons, Felicissimus and Agapitus, were martyred the same day as the other four deacons.
The Vigil of St. Lawrence on August 9th
August 9th is a liturgical oddity in many respects in the 1962 Calendar and Divine Office. Whereas in the pre-1955 Office, August 9th is the Feastday of St. John Vianney with a Commemoration of the Vigil of St. Lawrence and a Commemoration of St. Romanus, in the 1962 Office it is the Vigil of St. Lawrence with a Commemoration of St. Romanus. St. Romanus was a soldier converted to Christ by the preaching of Lawrence, who baptized him while in jail awaiting execution. St. Romanus was beheaded the day before Lawrence was martyred.
While nearly all Vigils were removed between 1954 and 1962 from the Calendar (e.g., Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, Vigils for the Apostles feastdays, Vigil of All Saints), the Vigil of St. Lawrence alone remained. And what is unique is that in the 1962 Office Vespers is of the Vigil of St. Lawrence and not the First Vespers for St. Lawrence. This is a true oddity as the New Liturgical Movement discussed in a 2018 article.
Many of our forefathers in the Faith kept August 9th as a day of penance in preparation for St. Lawrence’s Feastday. In Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California which were included in the ecclesiastical province of Mexico, the feasts and were regulated by the Third Council of Mexico in 1585, and the fast days for Catholics in those initial colonies in the modern day United States consisted of “all days in Lent except Sunday; eves of Christmas, Whit Sunday, St Mathias, St John the Baptist, St Peter and St Paul, St James, St Lawrence, Assumption, St Bartholomew, St Matthew, St Simon and St Jude, All Saints, St Andrew, and St Thomas” (The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Volume 11).
In keeping with the ancient custom for this Vigil, let us observe it as a day of fasting and abstinence. In years when the Vigil falls on a Sunday, the fasting and abstinence were anticipated on Saturday prior to the changes under Pope St. Pius X.
The Feast of St. Lawrence as a Holy Day of Obligation
In 1642, His Holiness Pope Urban VIII issued the papal bull Universa Per Orbem which altered the required Holy Days of Obligation for the Universal Church to consist of 35 such days as well as the principal patrons of one’s locality. St. Lawrence was on that list for the Universal Church.
The Diocesan Synod held in 1688 by Bishop Palacios of Santiago de Cuba fixed as holy days for that diocese, which included modern day Florida, a number of days including the Feast of St. Lawrence. And the same was true for colonies in other parts of the New World. Quoting from the archives of the Archdiocese of Quebec, the American Catholic Quarterly Review lists the Holy Days in place there as of 1694:
The holy days of obligation as recognized officially in 1694 were Christmas, St Stephen, St John, the Evangelist, Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, St Matthew, St Joseph ‘patron of the country,’ Annunciation, St Philip and St James, St John the Baptist, St Peter and St Paul, St James, St Anne, St Lawrence, Assumption, St Bartholomew, St Louis ‘titular of the Cathedral of Quebec,’ Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, St Matthew, St Michael, St Simon and St Jude, All Saints, St Andrew, St Francis Xavier, the Conception of the Blessed Virgin ‘titular the Cathedral,’ St Thomas, Easter Monday and Tuesday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday and Tuesday, Corpus Christi, and the patronal feast of each parish.
These holy days were likewise in force in many current American states under Quebec’s jurisdiction as the journal elaborates:
These were the holy days observed in the French settlements in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as in Louisiana, Mobile, and the country west of the Mississippi till that district passing under the Spanish rule was reclaimed about 1776 as part of the diocese of Santiago de Cuba. East of the Mississippi they continued to be in force certainly till the Holy See detached those parts of its territory from the diocese of Quebec and annexed them to the newly erected diocese of Baltimore.
Before 1777, British Catholics in the colonies and in Great Britain itself kept St. Lawrence as a Holy Day as well. It was not until March 9, 1777, that Pope Pius VI “dispensed all Catholics in the kingdom of Great Britain from the precept of hearing Mass and abstaining from servile works on all holy days except the Sundays of the year, the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Annunciation, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday, Corpus Christi, St Peter and St Paul, Assumption, and All Saints.” At that time, the precept of hearing Mass on the Feast of St. Lawrence ceased.
While modern Catholics will have no memory of St. Lawrence’s Day as a Holy Day of Obligation, only a few centuries ago our ancestors kept his feast as a day of obligatory Mass attendance. And in Ireland, it also remained as such a day until 1778. By the time of St. Pius X and the 1917 Code, it – along with many other days – was universally abolished as Holy Day of Obligation.
Octave of St. Lawrence
It should also be recalled that the Feast of St. Lawrence had an Octave associated with it that stretched back to around the 7th century. By the mid-1950s before it was abolished, it was commemorated on August 17th in the Mass of St. Hyacinth. The New Liturgical Movement writes:
Like all of the most important feasts, that of St. Lawrence was traditionally celebrated with an octave; the octave day has a proper Mass, like the octave of Ss. Peter and Paul, sharing only the Epistle and Gospel with the feast day. The introit of this Mass is taken from Psalm 16, which is also said at Matins of St. Lawrence: ‘Thou hast proved my heart, and visited it by night, thou hast tried me by fire: and iniquity hath not been found in me.’ The words ‘visited (my heart) by night’ refer to the Emperor’s threat to torture Lawrence for the length of the night, to which the great Levite answered, ‘My night hath no darkness, but in it, all things shine brightly in the light.’
Sundays Named in Terms of Time After St. Lawrence
In one interesting fact, the Feast of St. Lawrence was of such importance that in some old liturgical books Sundays were named as “after St. Lawrence” as we would refer to a numbered Sunday “after Pentecost” as Fr. Weiser relates in “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs”:
In the calendar of the Western Church each Sunday has its own Mass formula. The oldest Masses are those of the Easter season, from the first Sunday of Lent to Pentecost. They are found in Sacramentaries (liturgical books) of the seventh century, and probably are of earlier origin. In subsequent centuries were added the Mass texts for the Sundays after Epiphany and the Sundays of Advent and pre-Lent. The twenty-four Sundays after Pentecost were first introduced in smaller groups (four after Pentecost, five after Peter and Paul, five after Lawrence, and six after Michael).
Besides fasting and abstaining on August 9th, and hearing Holy Mass on August 10th, we should reflect on our own charity for the poor at this time. St. Lawrence gave his life for Christ, preached, brought about conversions, and cared for the spiritual and physical demands of the poor. We should pray often for the poor when we see them. And at the same time, we should find concrete ways the help alleviate their physical suffering. Since giving outright money to the homeless is not always the best answer, finding Catholic homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and outreach programs grounded in authentic Catholicism is the best we can be help them. See how you can impact both the physical and spiritual lives of the poor in your own area in honor of St. Lawrence who remarked, in reference to the sick and poor, before his death: “Here are the treasures of the Church!”
St. Lawrence, ora pro nobis!
Matthew Plese is a Third Order Dominican who resides in Chicago, IL. Matthew is a practicing Certified Public Accountant and Catechist. He is the President of CatechismClass.com, an online based organization whose mission is to make the best in Catholic religious education and Sacramental preparation available for those who need it. Matthew writes a monthly piece on apologetics and catechesis for Catholic Family News and a weekly column for the Fatima Center. He is also the author of Catholic Book Summaries: 54 Traditional and Contemporary Classics; Eschatology: The Catholic Study of the Four Last Things; Understanding the Precepts of the Church, and The Roman Catechism Explained for the Modern World as well as The Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting & Abstinence. He also blogs at A Catholic Life.