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 of their habit (and the monkeys, who also appear sort of hooded – and quite cute – are called after the friars).
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 games and the usual pastimes of our early years – nothing wrong them, and much right, but God chooses some as the shock troops of the age, as part of that ‘eschatological’ purpose of the religious life – to remind us that we will all face judgment for what we have done with our own talents and time.
Saint Lawrence, although much involved in the ecclesiastical and political affairs of the age, 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 saint 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.
Friar Lawrence led his Order, eventually elected to the highest level of Vicar-General, and was also employed as an ambassador for the Vatican. He preached and even spiritually led crusades against the ‘Turks’, who were still waging their centuries-long jihad against Christendom, via Hungary. At one battle, in the assault upon Szekes-Fehervar, the Christians, a mere 18,000 were up against 80,000 Muslims – insuperable odds. But Father Lawrence roused the troops, 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 – but they are now making a bit of a comeback rally).
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 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!