Born Guilio Cesare Russo to a family of Venetian merchants, but far to the south, in the village of Brindisi, right down on the heel of the boot of Italy, our saint today took the name of Lawrence when he entered the Order of the Capuchins, a strict reform of the Franciscans, so-called after the distinctive hood – capuccia – of their habit. (The capuchin monkey, who also appear sort of hooded – and quite cute – are called after the friars – and keep reading to see how we got the cappuccino).
Guilio was one of the brightest students of his age, his genius recognized very early on – far advanced of his confreres. He was also one of the most ‘pious’, in the best sense of that term. He seems to have seen from his childhood that life is all about eternity, and he did not have much time for usual games and pastimes of our early years. There is nothing wrong with them, and much right, but God chooses some as His shock troops of the age, as part of that ‘eschatological’ purpose of the religious life, reminding the rest of us that we will all face judgment for what we have done with our own talents and time.
So Guilio joined the strictest Order he could find, and took the name Lawrence. His talents recognized, he became much involved in the ecclesiastical and political affairs of the age, but always maintained his deep personal devotion, and would often fall into ecstasy while saying Mass. By the time he was finished his studies, he could read, speak and understand Latin, Hebrew, Greek, German, Bohemian, Spanish, and French fluently – of course, along with his native Italian. Preaching to the Jews in Italy, the rabbis thought the friar must be a Jewish convert, he could converse in their language like a native-born speaker. I read once that the saint, when the question was put to him ‘What would happen if all the Bibles in the world were destroyed?’, replied ‘Well, I would write them out again’. And by that he at least meant the Vulgate, but one wonders about their original languages also. Grace does build on nature, and saints are capable of some remarkable things.
Preaching missions throughout Italy and Europe, the saint, with his simple, direct, yet profound sermons – still preserved – converted untold numbers, with even his mere presence leading to repentance. All his words flowed from the Word, that is, Christ and Scripture, which are in some ways the same, as our saint wrote:
For the word of God is light to the mind and fire to the will, enabling man to know and to love God. To the interior man who lives by grace for the Spirit of God, it is bread and water; but it is a bread sweeter than honey from the comb, a water better than milk or wine. For the soul it is a spiritual treasure-house of merits, and so is called gold and very precious stones. For the heart that is obstinately hardened in vice it is a hammer; and against the devil, the world and the flesh it is a sword that slays every sin.
Friar Lawrence was eventually elected to the highest level of his Order, as Vicar-General, and was also employed as an ambassador for the Vatican. He preached and even spiritually led crusades against the ‘Turks’, zealous Muslims still waging their centuries-long jihad against Christendom. At one battle, in the assault upon Szekes-Fehervar in Hungary in September of 1601, holding the gateway to Europe, the Christian defenders , a mere 18,000, faced seemingly impossible odds against 80,000 Muslims. But Father Lawrence roused the troops, going up and down the field of battle, unscathed. It was said he was a whole platoon unto himself, and the Christians won handily, with up to 30,000 of the invaders lost. This was a prelude to the later miraculous defeat of Islamic jihadists in 1683, at the gates of Vienna, by Jan Sobieski, which broke the back of Turkish military might. (Even if they are now making a bit of a comeback rally, without need of a military invasion).
As an aside, it was after that battle that another Capuchin friar discovered amongst the scattered and abandoned provisions of the Turks, who had made a frantic retreat, a curious granular substance which, when mixed with hot water, produced a lovely, rich brew that soon became quite the sensation They called it ‘cappuccino‘ – little Capuchin – in honour of Lawrence and the sons of Saint Francis, who had helped win the day.
After a fruitful life well lived, Saint Lawrence died on his 60th birthday, July 22nd, 1619. He was canonized in 1881 by Pope Leo XIII, with his works, sermons and learning earning him the title of Doctor of the Church. A few more saints like him, and, as the Devil confessed to the Cure D’Ars two centuries later, his kingdom would be destroyed, and the whole world converted.
Well, why not?
Saint Lawrence of Brindisi, ora pro nobis!