St. Lawrence was one deacon out of seven Pope St. Sixtus II in the 3rd century. During times of persecution the early Church would often celebrate Mass in either the catacombs underground or inconspicuously at the local cemeteries.
On one particular occasion, Pope St. Sixtus II had celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in a cemetery. St. Lawrence, his deacon, was there to assist the pope. During the Mass, however, Roman soldiers, while besieging those in attendance and disrupting the service, arrested Pope St. Sixtus II. Immediately, the Roman officials decided to execute the twenty-fourth pope. As they were taking him away St. Lawrence said to him weeping, "Father, where are you going without your deacon?" The pope replied, "I am not leaving you, my son, in three days you will follow me."
With great confidence and joy, St. Lawrence wasted no time giving his money away to the poor. And as for those expensive vessels he possessed, he sold them so he could give away even more money. Then the Prefect of Rome, a pagan who despised Christians, assumed that the Church had a many treasures hidden away somewhere. With this assumption, he ordered the saintly deacon to turn in all of the Church’s treasures. Instead of gathering all of the expensive items the Prefect thought he had, St. Lawrence summoned all of the poor and sick people to him. He then presented these people to the Prefect and said, “This is the Church’s treasures!”
Well, you can imagine how this angered the Roman government. The deacon’s punishment for being a wise guy was a slow and barbaric death. As one source states:
“The Saint was tied on top of an iron grill over a slow fire that roasted his flesh little by little, but Lawrence was burning with so much love of God that he almost did not feel the flames. In fact, God gave him so much strength and joy that he even joked. ‘Turn me over,’ he said to the judge. ‘I'm done on this side!’”
St. Lawrence’s last words may seem unrealistically comical, but the fact is that many Saints approached their death with a great sense of levity at times. They really did have heaven on the forefront of their minds.
Another thing they had on their minds was the poor. Like St. Lawrence, every single canonized Saint loved the poor, associated with the poor and made the poor and the needy a very high priority in their day to day ministries. Unfortunately, the love of the poor in the twenty-first century has taken on political and “social justice-like” connotations. Under this shadow, causes are advanced in the name of the poor but without any consideration for their moral and spiritual needs. For instance, I have seen Stations of the Cross in some Catholic institutions with pictures of poor for each station. The traditional pictures of Christ were, sadly, missing. It was if the religion of philanthropy was being celebrated and not authentic Christianity. Furthermore, under this same shadow principles of socialism are often advanced when there is an exclusive emphasis on humanitarian needs.
As the deacon St. Lawrence demonstrates, when Christ is loved above all, the human person is rightly loved. But the needs of the spirit always take precedence over that of the body. On the other hand, serving people’s spiritual and moral needs can never be an excuse not to serve the poor, the mentally ill, the elderly and even those men and women who are incarcerated. In fact, it is often said that the presence of Christ in the poor is the “eighth sacrament.” If our Lord’s presence in the poor was familiar to all Christians, it would certainly interfere with the political demagogues who exploit them.