Thursday, February 25, 2010

San Lorenzo in Panisperna

Greetings, friends and countrymen. It's Andrew again, humble author of TPT and guest blogger for today. It's funny how this station church practice has taught me more about the city of Rome, which I thought I knew pretty well already. Yesterday, on my early morning walk to the Basilica of St. Mary Major for the station Mass there, I passed a church with an interesting facade and wondered if it might be a station church somewhere down the road. Lo and behold, it happens to be today's station church, San Lorenzo in Panisperna.

The church is named for St. Lawrence, one of Rome's most famous martyrs and one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic Church. A deacon of the Roman Church in the mid-3rd century, St. Lawrence was put in charge of the administration of Church property and keeping its records. When the emperor Valerian, hoping to quash the young Christian religion, asked Lawrence to give him the treasures of the Church, Lawrence is said to have returned a day later with all of the sick, lame, and orphaned in Rome that he could find and declared, "These are the treasures of the church!" Valerian, of course, did not take kindly to this bit of spiritual wisdom and threw him to prison. Lawrence further enraged the emperor and his court when he successfully converted his jailer and the jailer's family. Valerian ordered the deacon to be roasted alive. Lawrence nonetheless kept his sense of humor about him since tradition says that he advised his executioner, "You may turn me over, I'm done on this side." No joke, he's still the patron saint of chefs!

The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, behind the high altar, by Pasquale Cati, a student of Michelangelo.

The church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna is reputedly the oldest church in Rome related to the saint's life. Though it has now been passed in importance by the place where St. Lawrence is buried, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori Le Mura (also a Lenten station church, coming up in a few Sundays), the church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna was erected on the site of the saint's martyrdom some time in the mid-4th century. Not much is written about the church until the Middle Ages, when it was attached to an abbey, run first by the Benedictines and then by the Poor Clares. The word Panisperna, roughly translated "ham sandwich", likely comes from this time, when the sisters at San Lorenzo would distribute food to the city's poor along the road that runs in front of the church. (Others say it's because the church known to hand out really great ham sandwiches to the medieval pilgrims who were visiting Rome and walking from the Basilica of St. Mary Major to St. Peter's Basilica.) San Lorenzo is still run by the Franciscan order and continues to have an active ministry to the poor.

Steps from the Via Panisperna lead up to the courtyard in front of the church's portico, separating it from the street.

Beneath one of the side altars on the right hand side of the church rests the relics of St. Crispin and St. Crispinian. The two brothers, born into a noble Roman family in the third century, converted to Christianity and had to flee to Gaul because of their faith. There, they preached the Gospel and made shoes by night in order to get by. They were successful in spreading the Christian faith, enough in fact to make the emperor and the local governor take notice. Crispin and Crispinian were tortured and beheaded ca. 286 AD and their bodies were brought back to Rome some time in the Middle Ages. According to some accounts, the local governor, inspired by their faith, converted to Christianity himself and was later martyred.

The Feast of Sts. Crispin and Crispinian occurs on October 25 and has long been commemorated in England. Historically, it is most famous for being the day on which the famous Battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, when an English force led by Henry V defeated a much vaster French army. In Shakespeare's Henry V, one of the most famous passages from the Bard is given by Henry to his men in the moments preceding the battle -- the famous "St. Crispin's Day speech." Below, Kenneth Branagh delivers the speech in his film version from 1989:

The Mass readings for today speak to us of the importance of asking God in prayer for all that we need and, even more, of the assurance of God answering those prayers. Jesus tells us, just as he told his disciples: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door shall be opened to you" (Mt 7:7). God is infinitely near to us, waiting to grant us what we need, whatever is best for us, if only we turn to him to ask. The saints surely knew this, especially perhaps the martyrs who must have turned to God in their hour of need, not so much to be rescued from their fate but to have the strength of perseverance in enduring it. What kind of amazing courage Lawrence must have had to face the grill of martyrdom! Surely such courage is only the fruit of intense prayer, prayer that relies confidently and solely on God. In this season of Lent, when we are called especially to rededicate ourselves to prayer, may the lives of the saints remind us of prayer's daily and indispensable role in our lives as Christians, remembering as Jesus tells us "how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him" (Mt. 7:11).

San Lorenzo's ceiling fresco The Glory of St Lawrence by Antonio Bicchierai

The station church practice is in full force, now more than a week into it. Pray that we may continue to persevere in this worthy Lenten practice!

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