Deacon Lawrence and His Contemporary Brothers
By: Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
The year was 258. It was a difficult beginning for what would become the First Christian Millennium. Hostility against these early followers of Jesus Christ was growing. The barbarism and severity of pagan Rome had begun to reach a fever pitch. It would soon lead to a blood lust. The newborn Christian Church, faithful to the One who had given Himself for the life of the world, continued the work of His redemption.
Roman authorities charged Christians of that era with "odium humani generis" [hatred of the human race]. The Romans claimed to be citizens of a great empire, yet they practiced primitive forms of abortion as well as "exposure", the killing of unwanted newborns. They also tried to institutionalize approval of homosexual relationships on a par with authentic marriage. Emperor Nero in the first-century A.D. was not only overt in his homosexual relationships but sought to make them normative in the empire, to give an equal status between homosexual relationships and marriage. First and Second century Rome was a challenging mission field for these early Christians. Rome proclaimed itself the shining example to the world of its age while it violated the natural law and embraced debauchery.
The day that Deacon Lawrence experienced his birth from death to life was an ominous and frightful day in ancient Rome. Four days earlier, the great Bishop of Rome, Sixtus, was arrested by soldiers of the emperor Valerian, along with his beloved deacons, and beheaded. Valerian had issued an edict to the Roman Senate that all the Christian clergy--bishops, priests and deacons--were to be arrested and executed. There were so many holy people among the martyrs of early Rome. That makes it even more remarkable that the life and death of this one humble deacon--Lawrence--is attributed with "all of Rome becoming Christian."
Sentenced to death in the Emperor Valerian's sweeping condemnation of all Christian clergy, Lawrence offended the Emperor--and thereby endeared himself to all Christians since--by assembling before Valerian the "gold and silver" of the Church. According to the tradition, Deacon Lawrence, knowing that the fervor of Valerians' hatred was extending to all Christians who owned property, began to give it all away. He distributed the money and treasures of the Church to the city's poor--believing the clear admonition of the Savior that they were blessed and especially loved by Him.
Valerian heard the news and wanted the treasure to satisfy his unbridled lust for worldly power. So, he offered Deacon Lawrence a way out of sure death. If he would show him where the Church's great gold and silver were located, he would issue an order of clemency, sparing his life so that he could continue his work. Valerian was delighted when the deacon asked for three days to gather all the gold and silver of the Church together in one central place!
For three days, Deacon Lawrence went throughout the city and invited all the beloved poor, handicapped, and misfortunate, who were all being supported by a thriving early Christian community who understood the Gospel imperative, to come together. When Valerian arrived, Deacon Lawrence presented him with the true "gold and silver" of the Church! The emperor was filled with rage! Beheading was not enough for this Christian Deacon. He ordered Deacon Lawrence to be burned alive, in public, on a griddle. Witnesses recorded the public martyrdom. The deacon cheerfully offered himself to the Lord Jesus and even joked with his executioners!
The tradition records massive conversions to the Christian faith as a result of the holy life and death of one Deacon who understood the true heart of his vocation. He was poured out, like his Master, Jesus Christ the Servant, in redemptive love, on behalf of others. It is still said to this day that all of Rome became Christian as a result of the faithful life, and the death, of this one humble deacon. He was buried in a cemetery on the Via Tiburtina. On that spot, Constantine would later build a Basilica.
A special devotion to Lawrence, deacon and martyr, spread throughout the entire Christian community. Early Christians had no doubt that those who had gone to be with the Lord continued to pray for those who still struggled in this earthly life. They saw in Lawrence a great example of how to live, and how to die, faithful to the Gospel. Years later, St Augustine would reflect on the heroism of this great deacon in a sermon preached on his feast day, emphasizing that his life and death were an example for all Christians to emulate:
"I tell you again and again my brethren, that in the Lord's garden are to be found not only the roses of His martyrs. In it there are also the lilies of the virgins, the ivy of wedded couples, and the violets of widows. On no account may any class of people despair, thinking that God has not called them."
The life and death of Deacon Lawrence still speaks the timeless message of the Gospel to all who will listen. As we live our lives faithfully--no matter what our vocation--we are to make the message our own. Whether we are ever called to shed our blood in what has traditionally been called "red martyrdom" or simply called to offer our sacrifices daily in a continuous life of poured-out love (traditionally called "white martyrdom"), we continue the redemptive work of the One to whom Lawrence offered himself fully, Jesus Christ.
The Brothers of Lawrence and our history
As a Deacon of the Catholic Church, the life and ministry of Lawrence is of particular interest to me. I am numbered among the fastest growing order of Catholic clergy in many parts of the world of our age; one that I believe is a new missionary age. I have written extensively comparing our age to the first few centuries of the Church, the age of Deacon Lawrence. I believe that the parallels between the Third Christian Millennium increase daily. We live in a "culture of death", as did Deacon Lawrence, and the Church is still the only hope of transforming it into a "culture of life" and a "civilization of love". The Lord of the harvest is calling missionaries in our day, in every vocation. Deacons are a great resource. The diaconate has a rich history. On this feast of Lawrence the Deacon; let's spend a little time examining the re-establishment of the Order of Deacon in the Western Catholic Church.
During the undivided Church's first five centuries, this ministry flourished everywhere. But for various reasons, the order declined in the West as a distinct rank of clerical service, and eventually disappeared. It was relegated to a "transitional" order given to candidates on their way to priestly ordination. Today, we distinguish between transitional and "permanent" deacons. However, this distinction does not create two ranks of deacons, but clarifies the direction in which the particular deacon is headed. The "transitional" deacon is on his way to priestly ordination.
In the Eastern Church, Catholic and Orthodox, the diaconate remained a part of the permanent rank of sacred orders without interruption from the time of the Apostles until now. As we walk forward into the Third Millennium and experience the resource of this order of clergy as a part of the missionary work of the Church, we can learn much from our Eastern Catholic brethren on how to develop the life and ministry of Deacons in the Western Church and in the world of our age.
In our efforts to ensure that deacons are approachable servants of the faithful, we have tended to avoid terminology that some people thought might separate Deacons from the lay faithful in an inappropriate way. The problem with that approach is that the distinctiveness of the office - and its unique gift to the whole Church - can suffer as a result. Deacons are no longer laymen. They are Clergy. In fact, they are the first order of clergy who are especially connected to the Bishop by their ordination "not unto the priesthood", but "unto service. They need to be who they are now, for the entire Body of Christ, and to take their unique role, as did Deacon Lawrence, in the world into which she is still sent on a redemptive mission.
Many Eastern Catholics refer to their deacons as "Father Deacon." They recognize the office as a gift for the whole church. They have developed important liturgical and pastoral roles over centuries that are particularly identified with the office of Deacon. Deacons continue to be identified in a special way with their Bishop and with a call to the works of administration, charity and service to the poor and the needy. When the Diaconate is referred to in the Divine Liturgy of the East, it is always as the "Diaconate in Christ". The Deacon is received and revered as a sign and representative of Christ the Deacon, Christ the Servant, who continues His ministry among the men and women of every age.
The Council of Trent (1545-63) called for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent rank of orders for the entire Church. But it was not until the Second Vatican Council, four centuries later, that this direction was implemented. The Council Fathers explicitly stated their purpose as threefold: to enhance the Church, to strengthen with sacred orders those men already engaged in diaconal functions, and to provide assistance to areas suffering clerical shortages.
It is interesting to me, as one who has been involved in pro-life work my entire adult life, that among those calling for this restoration were the survivors of a group of suffering servants of the Lord Jesus who referred to themselves as "The Deacons Circle." These were priests who suffered at the Dachau death camp during World War II. While suffering, they prayed for the renewal of the whole Church. They believed the Holy Spirit was inspiring them to call for a re-institution of a permanent diaconate that could serve sacramentally and vocationally as an order of clergy in the midst of the world. I have long believed that this was no co-incidence. We live in a culture of death and the Church needs the resources of heaven to transform it into a new culture of life. Deacons are a great resource for the Church in this age.
The priests of the Circle who survived Dachau continued to meet and pray, and eventually they presented their discernment to the Holy Father and the leaders of the Vatican Council. On June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI implemented the Council's decision to re-institute a permanent diaconate for the universal Church with the apostolic letter "Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem". He also established revised norms for the ordination of all clergy, deacons, priests and bishops. These norms passed into the Code of Canon Law.
According to "The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons," issued jointly by the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, the deacon is "a sacred minister and member of the hierarchy." He is ordained to the first rank of sacred orders, not to the priesthood or the episcopacy. He is no longer a layman, but a member of the clergy. Like other clerics, the deacon participates in the threefold ministry of Jesus Christ; the "diaconia of the liturgy, the word, and of charity." He represents "Christ the Servant" in his unique clerical vocation.
The deacon teaches the Word of God, sanctifies through the sacraments (in the West), and helps lead the community in its religious life. He assists at the altar, proclaims the Gospel and preaches and distributes the Eucharist as an ordinary minister. In the West, he blesses marriages, presides over funerals, administers viaticum to the sick, can preside over exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and leads Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest. "The deacon does not celebrate the mystery; rather, he effectively represents on the one hand, the people of God, and specifically, helps them to unite their lives to the offering of Christ; while on the other, in the name of Christ himself, he helps the church to participate in the fruits of that sacrifice," according to the declaration.
Because they receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, deacons are sent by Christ to serve God's people. They are called to do so out of the depths of an interior life centered in the Eucharist, and fueled by a life of prayer, which proceeds into diaconal action. Like other clerics, they recite the Divine Office and are to cultivate the habit of penance. They are called in these documents to link their love for the Lord and His Church to a special love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in her "Fiat" represents the full surrender of love to the invitation of God.
Since most deacons are married and have children, they also have the opportunity and special calling to demonstrate the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage and the holiness of a consecrated family life. They are called to "give clear witness to the sanctity of marriage and family." The wives of permanent deacons are called to support the ordained ministry of their husbands. As "The Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons" states, "The more they [deacon and wife] grow in mutual love, the greater their dedication to their children and the more significant their example for the Christian community" The married deacon and his wife are called to "show how the obligations of family life, work and ministry can be harmonized in the Church's mission". Deacons and their wives and children can be "a great encouragement to others who are working to promote family life," according to these Vatican documents.
The married deacon makes a unique contribution to the renewal of Christian marriage and family life at a time when the Church has such a need to demonstrate the truth concerning marriage and the family built upon it to a new pagan age. The married Deacon is a married clergyman. He is challenged to a life of faith, fidelity and chaste love- in the married state. His example of clerical service in the married state does not detract from the prophetic and wonderful witness of consecrated celibacy; it is complementary and provides a framework for catechetical development and teaching on the nuptial mystery which lies the heart of both faithful marriage and consecrated celibacy.
Though the "permanent" diaconate was re-opened to married men of mature age; it was also opened to and encouraged as a permanent rank of orders for celibate men. The decision for marriage or celibacy is to be made before ordination to the order of Deacon as was the ancient practice. If a married deacon loses his wife, he pledges to remain celibate. In fact, it is possible that he could consider a further call to order of priest if the Lord so moved him and the Church invited him. This has already been demonstrated in the lived experience of the renewed deaconate in the Western Church.
In addition to this important witness, the deacon is also distinct in the "secularity" of his vocation. Often engaged in works of social justice or charity, he is a clergyman in the midst of the secular world. He goes from the altar and the ambo into the world in a prophetic way, bringing Christ to those for whom He gave His life. His ministry is evangelistic. Through the witness and example of the Deacon configured to Him in love, Jesus the Servant continues to reach out to bring all men and women into His Body on earth, the Church. In a unique and distinct way, the Deacon thereby engages in the "New Evangelization" to which our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, called all members of the Church to at this critical moment in human history.
Customs have developed which reflect the deacon's unique role as distinct from both priest and lay minister. They express themselves in the vestments of liturgical worship. For instance, proper liturgical dress for a deacon is an alb, a cincture, a diaconal stole and a dalmatic. In the West, he is also authorized to wear a cope at baptisms, weddings or while presiding over the exposition and benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
However, since he usually pursues secular work, he is not "obliged" to wear clerical garb as are transitional deacons or priests. The custom pertaining to the wearing of a clerical collar differs according to local practice when the deacon is engaged in sacramental, pastoral, or liturgical service. In my own Diocese, we are encouraged to wear clerical clothes when we are engaged in clerical ministry.
Similarly, formal and popular titles help to distinguish the deacon. Such titles of course, are not badges of honor, but rather "crosses" given to the one who holds any clerical office. Deacons understand that. Such titles preserve the order of service in the Body of Christ. Just as we call a priest "Father," and should not presume to call him by his first name, a permanent deacon, like a transitional deacon, should be called "Deacon." In formal writing a deacon, at least in some dioceses, uses the title "Reverend Mr.", reflecting in a unique way both his clerical and "secular" role.
Because of the long lack of a witness of a diaconate in the Western Church, the reaction to this ministry by other clergy and lay faithful has sometimes been mixed and confused. Yet, as time unfolds, more and more members of the Church are coming to understand the role of this expression of Holy Orders as a gift to both the Church and the world. The role of the deacon does not detract from the vital role of an empowered lay faithful. In fact, it enriches it. The deacon should not be seen as a "threat" to the irreplaceable ministry of the priest. A vibrant diaconate enhances and expands the ministry of the priesthood.
Bishops should encourage the diaconate, because it is for them that deacons are particularly ordained. Other than the deacon, only the Bishop is authorized to wear the dalmatic. This custom symbolizes the deep relationship between a Bishop and his deacons.
I have served with love, honor, and humility both as both a lay leader and as a deacon. To serve the Lord and His Church is the greatest privilege of my life. My wife and children have been a source of great strength to me on this journey, and I hope our family has been a strong witness to our deep love for the Catholic Church. When I was called forth to holy orders, my Bishop thought that in my ministry as a layman I was already engaged in "diaconal functions" and that the grace of orders was a part of my ongoing call. He referred to my evangelistic, ecumenical, pro-life and pro-family apostolate as an example of being an "anonymous diaconate."
He thought that this was precisely what the Council Fathers had in mind when they restored this ancient order. I am grateful for his insight and his invitation. I also think it is a helpful insight into how the process of discernment for this vocation should be structured. I knew the grace of a call to ordained ministry. My ordination was a profound experience. It changed me "ontologically", as the theology of the Sacrament proclaims, create a "mark" on my soul. My ministry as a deacon is not "better" than my ministry as a lay leader, but it is profoundly different. I now serve as a member of the Catholic clergy in everything that I do: evangelization, apologetics, and ecumenism, as well as in my service in the world.
I do not believe that it is accidental that the same Church Council that called for a renewed emphasis on the role of the lay faithful also re-instituted this rank of clerical service in the Western Church. All of us, whether bishops, priests, deacons, lay faithful, or consecrated religious are a part of the one mission of the one Church. Each of us, though all equal in the sight of God, play vitally important, but different, roles in the Body of Christ. Let us pray for each other that we may all remain faithful to our individual vocations. Let us pray that all deacons - this order of clergy set aside for Word, service and Sacrament-will flourish in this Third Christian Millennium and that - from our midst - there might come many Lawrence's for the Third Christian Millennium.
As a Deacon, I always know on this special Feast day that am joined as a brother to Lawrence and all the deacons throughout the history of the Church. So too are thousands of other ordained servants who, like me, are living this vocation in the Third Christian Millennium. Please, pray for Deacons. That, like the Deacon Lawrence, we may live lives that are configured to the Jesus the Deacon. Pray that we have the heroic courage to walk, unafraid, into the challenges of this Third Christian Millennium - just as Deacon Lawrence walked into the challenges of the First Millennium. Pray that, like him, we can also help the "new Rome" of our age become Christian.
St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr, pray for us.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. His eighth book, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" is now available in bookstores. He is currently a PHD student in Historical Theology at the Catholic University of America.
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