(Published in Leadership magazine, Uganda – July 2016)
Martyrs’ death often astonish us. They continue to inspire us. That is why thousands and millions walk to Namugongo martyrs shrine, in Uganda, East Africa make pilgrimage to venerate our own martyrs. There is a current of thought running among all martyrs, whether they belong to the ancient Church of Rome or persecuted Church of World War period or in our own period such as what is happening in Syria, Libya and Yemen of today.
According to the Roman Missal “Lawrence, the renowned Deacon of the Roman Church, confirmed his service of charity by martyrdom under Valerian (258), four days after the decapitation of Pope Sixtus II. According to a tradition widely diffused by the fourth century, he patiently sustained a terrible martyrdom on the grid-iron, having distributed the goods of the community to the poor whom he regarded as the true treasure of the Church”.
Lawrence is believed to have been born in Spain around 230 AD, at Osca, a town in Aragon, near the foot of the Pyrenees. As a youth he was sent to Saragoza to complete his humanistic and theological studies. It was here that he first encountered the future Pope Sixtus II (Pope between 257-258), who was of Greek origin. Church celebrates the feast of Lawrence on 10th August.
St. Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage accounts the martyrdom of Roman martyrs this: “The Emperor Valerian has consigned to the Senate a decree by which he has determined that all Bishops, Priests and Deacons will be immediately put to death”. Cyprian then continues: “I communicate to you that Pope Sixtus suffered martyrdom on 6 August together with four Deacons while they were in a cemetery. The Roman authorities have established a norm according to which all Christians who have been denounced must be executed and their goods confiscated by the Imperial treasury”.
St, Ambrose, Church’s eminent theologian and historian writes particularly about the death of St. Lawrence, the deacon and his Spiritual Father Bishop Sixtus in a moving account thus: “St Lawrence wept when he saw his Bishop, Sixtus, led out to his martyrdom. He wept not because he was being let out to die but because he would survive Sixtus. He cried out to him in a loud voice: ‘Where are you going Father, without your son? Where do you hasten to, holy Bishop, without your Deacon? You cannot offer sacrifice without a minister. Father, are you displeased with something in me? Do you think me unworthy? Show us a sign that you have found a worthy minister. Do you not wish that he to whom you gave the Lord’s blood and with whom you have shared the sacred mysteries should spill his own blood with you? Beware that in your praise your own judgment should not falter. Despise the pupil and shame the Master. Do not forget that great and famous men are victorious more in the deeds of their disciples than in their own. Abraham made sacrifice of his own son, Peter instead sent Stephen. Father, show us your own strength in your sons; sacrifice him whom you have raised, to attain eternal reward in that glorious company, secure in your judgment”.
In reply Sixtus says: “I will not leave you, I will not abandon you my son. More difficult trials are kept for you. A shorter race is set for us who are older. For you who are young a more glorious triumph over tyranny is reserved. Soon, you will see, cry no more, after three days you will follow me. It is fitting that such an interval should be set between Bishop and Levite. It would not have been fitting for you to die under the guidance of a martyr, as though you needed help from him. Why do want to share in my martyrdom? I leave its entire inheritance to you. Why do need me present? The weak pupil precedes the master, the strong, who have no further need of instruction, follow and conquer without him. Thus Elijah left Elisha. I entrust the success of my strength to you”.
St. Ambrose, another theologian says, “In the case of Lawrence, nothing urged him to offer himself as a victim but the desire to be a holocaust for Christ. Three days after the death of Sixtus, while the terror raged, Lawrence would be burned on the grid-iron: “This side is done, turn and eat”. With such strength of soul he conquered the flames of the fire”.
We the readers of martyrs’ stories very well know that to accept such a cruel death with calm and serenity is possible only by people who are greatly spiritual and firmly rooted in faith. Lawrence, who would subsequently become the head of the deacons of the Roman Church, was remarkable for his human qualities, his subtlety of mind and for his intelligence. The accounts of martyrdom of Pope Sixtus and Deacon Lawrence show the existence of a great friendship and discipleship between master and disciple, a communion of life and friendship rooted in faith and veneration.
Let these martyrs stories not remain a mere accounts of terrible suffering and death. Let it continue to inspire us day after day in our faith and morals. Can we compare our faith with that of theirs? Do we allow our baptismal promises to touch our daily life? Can we compare our virtues and characters with theirs? What kinds of emotions run through our mind when we think of martyrs? What does their personal life of charity, good morals, faithfulness and supreme charity teaches us in today’s context? Let the martyrs help us to find answers to these faith challenges.