By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
August 11th, 12th and 13th, will be the peak nights for viewing the Perseid meteor shower, when fifty to one hundred meteors an hour will flash across the sky. This most spectacular meteor shower coincides with the feast of St. Lawrence and has been called “St. Lawrence’s Tears” for centuries in European Catholic countries.
Because it’s usually overcast in Southeast, I’ve never been able to see the meteor shower (perhaps this year?). Unfortunately, even if the night sky is clear, the light of the moon, which will be full, will make it impossible to see all but the brightest meteors. If the sky is clear, I plan to bundle up and head outdoors to try and see the “Tears of St. Lawrence” myself.
Nonetheless, regardless of the weather and the night sky, I always look forward to the feast of St. Lawrence in August. St. Lawrence exemplifies the love of the poor and those in need, the heart of Christian life and diaconal ministry, which is why Vince Hansen and I asked to be ordained deacons on his feast day back in 2006.
In Pope Benedict’s encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), he singled out the remarkable story of St. Lawrence. “Charitable activity on behalf of the poor and suffering was naturally an essential part of the Church of Rome from the very beginning” (DCE no.23).
According to tradition Lawrence was born in Valencia, Spain, and served as one of the seven deacons of Rome under Pope St. Sixtus II. In the year 258, Emperor Valerian launched a persecution of the Church in the Roman empire. He banned Christian gatherings, especially in cemeteries and catacombs and decreed that bishops, priests and deacons be summarily executed upon detection.
Sixtus and six deacons were apprehended celebrating the Eucharist at the catacomb of St. Praetextatus on the outskirts of Rome; they were beheaded on the spot. According to several early Christian writers, including the Church Father, St. Ambrose, Lawrence, remained at large and in anticipation of his martyrdom, began to sell the possessions of the Church and distribute the proceeds to the poor.
Reportedly, when the prefect of Rome heard of his action, he had the deacon brought before him and demanded all the Church’s treasure for the emperor. Lawrence agreed to his demand and after three days returned to the prefect accompanied by the poor, the blind, the crippled and the orphaned, and told him ‘ these are the treasures of the Church.’
The prefect was furious and had Lawrence bound to a red-hot gridiron. He endured his sufferings with tears, yes, but also with great courage and even humor. Reportedly he told his executioners that they could turn him over, that he was done on one side. His death and example allegedly led to the conversion of the people of Rome.
Pope Benedict, reflecting on St. Lawrence’s characterization of the poor as the real treasure of the Church, noted that “whatever historical reliability one attributes to these details, Lawrence has always remained present in the Church’s memory as a great exponent of ecclesial charity” (DCE no.23).
Pope Benedict pointed out that “ …love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word” (DCE no.22).
What this means is that charity, love of the poor and those in need embodied in service, is never optional for disciples of Jesus. Each of us, without exception, are called to live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy personally and to support as our means allow, the organized charitable ministries of Church.
Our commitment to the service of charity is not a matter of obligation, as Pope Benedict stressed, “the Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diaconia)” (DCE no.25).
It is for this reason, I wonder if this is why our liturgical tradition as it has developed over the centuries, has deacons serving at both the altar and the ambo, placing them at the very heart of the Eucharistic celebration, to serve as a visible sign of the connection between the Eucharist and charity.
Consider the ministry of the deacon at Mass. In the introductory rites, it is the deacon who invites the holy people of God to implore God’s mercy. So that confessing our need for the Lord’s mercy, we in turn might be merciful to others.
At the climax of the Liturgy of the Word, it is the ordained minister of charity, the deacon, who proclaims the Gospel, where we hear the words of the one who came, not to be served, but to serve. Who announced the coming of the Kingdom in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4: 18-19).
The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the Universal Prayer (General Intercessions), during which he announces the petitions on behalf of the Church, the world and those in need. Our liturgical tradition assigns this responsibility to the deacon because as one ordained to the ministry of charity, he should be particularly attuned to the needs of the poor and those who suffer any affliction.
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the deacon assists the priest receiving the gifts of the people, for the Eucharistic sacrifice and the offerings for the poor.
At the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer and in the distribution of Holy Communion, the deacon’s role is to minister the cup. The cup symbolizes a life given over to service in imitation of the kenotic, sacrificial love of Jesus, who, out of love for us, poured out his lifeblood on our behalf.
At the end of Mass, it is the deacon’s part to send forth the assembly, using one of three formulas:
Go forth, the Mass is ended.
Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord
Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.
Having heard the proclaimed word of God and received the Body and Blood of Jesus from the altar, the dismissal charges all of the faithful with putting the Word and Sacrament into action, by embodying the love of Christ.
The collect for the feast of St. Lawrence asks:
Grant that we may love what he loved
and put into practice what he taught.
May God deepen within each of us the love of the poor and those in need, who St. Lawrence loved for Jesus’s sake. Make our love for the poor the visible sign in our world of the mercy and compassion of God.