The richest deacon in the Church? The fiery faith of St Lawrence of Rome

Today is the feast day of St Lawrence of Rome, an early Church deacon, martyr and bold advocate for the poor.

Born in Valencia on December 26, 225, Lawrence was ordained as a young man as one of the seven deacons of Rome under Pope St Sixtus – and was trusted with special stewardship of Church wealth and the giving of alms to the poor.

'The Martyrdom of St Lawrence' by Palma il Giovane.Wikimedia Commons

However, deadly persecution loomed for the early Church. In August 258 the Emperor Valerian ordered the immediate execution of all Christian bishops, priests and deacons.

Pope St Sixtus was doomed, but Rome's prefect offered special provision for Lawrence. Since the deacon had control of the Church's finances, he could go free if he simply handed them over to Rome.

The story tells that Lawrence agreed, but told the official: 'It will take me a few days. The Church is very rich.'

The cunning deacon played the prefect, however. He took the Church's financial wealth and gave it away to the needy. He then presented the 'true riches' of the Church to the prefect: the city's poor, the crippled and the blind. 'Come out and see the wondrous riches of God,' Lawrence declared, adding in one account: 'The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.'

For this Lawrence would face Valerian's fatal sentence. On August 10 the furious prefect had Lawrence face a slow death: hung up on a grill and roasted over burning hot coals. However, according to legend, after the deacon had suffered for a long period in one position he called out: 'I'm well done. Turn me over!'

For this puckish moment of martyrdom Lawrence became the patron saint of cooks, chefs and comedians, as well as the poor.

Lawrence's name and legacy lives on today across schools, hospitals and churches in both the Catholic and Anglican Churches. In 2010 the rescue operation for the Chilean miners in the famous Copiapó mining accident was named after Lawrence: Operacíon San Lorenzo.