I will be entering third theology this year, and at the end of this year God willing I will be ordained a deacon. My ordination is less than one year away! For myself and the other members of The Rome Experience who will be ordained within a year, this can be a frightening thought. So it was with great joy that a classmate and I had the opportunity to go and pray at the Basilica of St. Lawrence, the Patron Saint of Deacons.
The remains of St. Lawrence are joined with Sts. Justin Martyr and Stephen, two other prominent deacons in the early church. The witness they gave in laying down their lives for the church is a striking example for any seminarian entering upon deaconate. Lawrence was grilled alive and upon entering the Basilica the first thing one will notice is a statue of St. Lawrence holding a grill. What a reminder of the radical call to follow Christ! And if that is not enough, the directly across from Lawrence is Stephen, himself holding a pile of large stone. Stephen was stoned to death and thus became the first martyr of the church. His dying prayer was that God would forgive those who were stoning him, one of whom was St. Paul. So before even walking past the pews, pilgrims are greeted with these two statues, setting the stage so to speak for the rest of the Basilica.
Next we had the opportunity to pray at the actual remains of Lawrence, who is joined with relics of Justin and Stephen. Lawrence’s body lies underneath the main altar of the church. This location is fitting, as early Christians would celebrate mass at the tombs of Christian martyrs throughout the catacombs of Rome. We walked down the stairs and silently prayed to Lawrence, kneeling on the cold, hard marble floor. The Basilica is a bit off the beaten path, so there were hardly any pilgrims and so we had the place practically to ourselves. In the darkness underneath the altar I prayed that if it were God’s will, I would be a good and holy deacon like Lawrence, Justin, and Stephen. It really was a powerful moment, and one that I don’t think I’ll soon forget. There were some lilies that adorned the remains of Lawrence, which drew to mind the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. The smell itself provoked prayer. After all, Christ conquered sin and death and his Resurrection gives hope to us all of our future resurrection. Lawrence, Justin, and Stephen each faced a horrific death, yet through the witness of their martyrdom they have joined Christ in conquering sin and death and are now worthy of being called ‘Saints.’ The smell of the lilies serves as a reminder of their act of supreme love and beckons us Christians to live our lives with the same zeal for the heart of Christ.
Upon our exit I firmly believe that both of us ‘deacons-to-be’ walked away from the Basilica of St. Lawrence having received not only a powerful witness of Christian living, but a living intercession of three very holy deacons who are in communion with God himself! What better ordination gift could we have received?