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Today, as we continue our pilgrimage to the Lenten Station Churches, we visit San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls. Almost two weeks ago we visited San Lorenzo in Panisperna, where Saint Lawrence died and where his instrument of martyrdom is kept.
Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls is where he was buried. Though I told the story of his martyrdom last time, it’s certainly worth repeating here. Pope Sixtus II was headed to his own execution when he passed by Lawrence, a deacon of the Church. Lawrence asked the Holy Father why he could not come with him so that he too could die for his faith. The pope told Lawrence that he would join him in death in three days but he first had to distribute the Church’s riches to the poor. Lawrence was in charge of the Church’s material possessions and so he set out to do just that. He gave away all that he could. On the third day he was summoned to appear before the Prefect of Rome and instructed to bring all the Church’s treasures. He gathered up the poor, the sick, the crippled and the blind and brought them before the Prefect. He told him that these were the true treasures of the Church. Thinking he was being mocked, the Prefect sentenced Lawrence to death by fire. He was burned alive on an iron grill. When the time was right, Lawrence asked the executioner to turn him over because he was already done on one side.
His remains were brought to this site and buried in the catacombs. Constantine had a basilica built over Saint Lawrence’s tomb and it was declared, along with Rome’s four major basilicas, a patriarchal basilica. That is a basilica associated with one of the five ancient patriarchal sees of Christendom. In this case, Jerusalem.
What’s interesting about the church is that the present structure is actually the result of the union of two distinct churches. The first church is the one built by Constantine, later rebuilt by Pope Pelagius II. The other church was built by Sixtus II. The churches were so close that the apses were almost touching. Pope Honorius III came along several hundred years later and demolished both apses, tore down the wall separating the two churches and joined them. He kept the old basilica’s confessio, so what we now have is a basilica with the main altar in the center of the central nave. Something quite unique in church architecture.
Inside the church is a slab of marble that contains drops of blood from Saint Lawrence.
Also here is the chapel of Blessed Pius IX, founder of the North American College seminary here in Rome. Inside one of the mosaics is the American flag. It’s worn by a woman kneeling beside the Holy Father.
Under the main altar is the tomb of Saint Lawrence and our protomartyr, Saint Stephen. Our Church’s first martyr, Saint Stephen was brought here from Constantinople by Pope Pelagius II when he restored Constantine’s original basilica.