Persecution was a daily reality for third-century Christians in Rome. And in 258, the Emperor Valerian began another massive round. He issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death, and he gave the Imperial treasury power to confiscate all money and possessions from Christians.
In light of the news, Pope Sixtus II quickly ordained a young Spanish theologian, Lawrence, to become archdeacon of Rome. The important position put Lawrence in charge of the Church’s riches, and it gave him responsibility for the Church’s outreach to the poor. The pope sensed his own days were numbered and therefore commissioned Lawrence to protect the Church’s treasure.
On August 6, 258, Valerian captured Pope Sixtus while he celebrated the liturgy, and had him beheaded. Afterwards, he set his sights on the pope’s young protégé, Lawrence. But before killing him, the Emperor demanded the archdeacon turn over all the riches of the Church. He gave Lawrence three days to round it up.
Lawrence worked swiftly. He sold the Church’s vessels and gave the money to widows and the sick. He distributed all the Church’s property to the poor. On the third day, the Emperor summoned Lawrence to his palace and asked for the treasure. With great aplomb, Lawrence entered the palace, stopped, and then gestured back to the door where, streaming in behind him, poured crowds of poor, crippled, blind, and suffering people. “These are the true treasures of the Church,” he boldly proclaimed. One early account even has him adding, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than the Emperor.”
Unsurprisingly, Lawrence’s act of defiance infuriated the Emperor. Valerian ordered his death that same day via grilling on a rack. Hundreds of year later, Lawrence is still remembered for his final jest: while being barbecued alive, he quipped to his executioners, “I’m well done. Turn me over!”
Although his quip is how many people remember Lawrence, we shouldn’t forget his insight regarding the Church’s real treasure. Many people criticize the Church for being too opulent and rich, and the criticism is true. She is unfathomably wealthy. But that wealth is bound not in buildings, art, and vessels but in her suffering and vulnerable faithful, who though poor in spirit have inherited a kingdom surpassing even the glories of Rome.