The Thirtieth Doctor of the Church

by Msgr. Paul E. Campbell, M.A., Litt.D., Ed.D.


A biography of St. Lawrence of Brindisi who was canonzied by Pope Leo XIII and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope John XXIII.

Larger Work

The Homiletic and Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., January 1961

Writing in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (November, 1959), the Reverend Cuthbert Gumbinger, O.F.M.Cap., S.T.D., pro-vicar apostolic of the Bluefields Vicariate, Nicaragua, Central America, and superior of the Capuchins in that vicariate, tells very simply the story of the honor conferred upon a distinguished member of his religious family. "On March 19, 1959, Pope John XXIII signed the brief declaring St. Lawrence of Brindisi a Doctor of the Church, with the title Apostolic Doctor. He is the first Capuchin Franciscan thus to be honored, the third Doctor of the entire Franciscan family (St. Bonaventure and St. Anthony are the others), the thirtieth saint to be declared a Doctor by the Church, and the seventh to be so honored in this century."

Two months before, the Reverend Giles Staab, O.F.M.Cap., called the attention of the readers of The Catholic Home Journal (September, 1959) to the elevation of St. Lawrence Brindisi to the rank of a Doctor of the Church. His article told in biographical form and in simple language some of the interesting details in the life of St. Lawrence. We learn that the saint was born in Brindisi, the home town of Pope John XXIII, in the southeast part of Italy, on July 22, 1559. His parents were William Russo and Elizabeth Masella, both descended from ancient and noble families. In baptism the boy was called Julius Cesar, after the two martyrs, St. Julius and St. Cesarius. Spiritual things attracted Julius from his earliest years, and his neighbors frequently called him "the little angel."


He was but twelve years of age when his father died, and his widowed mother lavished all her affection on Julius, her only child. When, some time later, he wished to enter a monastery, his mother felt crushed. Finally moved by the grace of God, she gave her consent. First, young Russo entered a seminary in Venice conducted by his uncle, a diocesan priest in charge of the education of clerics belonging to St. Mark's Basilica. Seeking to develop himself spiritually through total detachment, absolute poverty, and rigorous fasts, he sought out the bearded followers of St. Francis. Julius entered the Capuchin novitiate at Verona, February 18, 1575. There he received the name of Brother Lawrence of Brindisi.

Wholeheartedly he entered into the recreations as well as the austerities of Capuchin life. Even as a youth he gave proof of great zeal and added rigors of his own to the austerities of the rule. Imprudent zeal of this type is not rare in a religious novitiate, and Lawrence's health began to break. An infection of the chest brought on sleepless nights. It was feared by older friars that he would not be able to bear the rigors of Capuchin life. He passed for his profession by just one vote. Though his adult life was to be a story of sickness, his health improved in time to admit him to solemn profession, March 24, 1576.


His early education had been entrusted to the conventuals of Brindisi. Under their tutelage the young Julius progressed rapidly; when barely six he had already given indication of his future success in oratory. Consequently, writes Father Candide, O.M.Cap., in The Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. IX), he was always the one chosen to address, in accordance with the Italian custom, a short sermon to his compatriots on the Infant Jesus during the Christmas festivities. He pursued further studies at Venice with the clerics of St. Mark's, as we have seen. After his reception into the Order of Capuchins, Lawrence made his philosophical and theological studies at the University of Padua, and in 1582 was ordained a priest. An excellent memory enabled him to master not only the principal European languages, but also most of the Semitic tongues. It was said he knew the entire original text of the Bible. This knowledge, in the eyes of many, could be accounted for only by supernatural assistance, and, during the process of beatification, the examiners of the saint's writings rendered the following judgment: "Vere inter sanctos Ecclesiae doctores adnumerari potest."


On October 12, 1960 more than four hundred North American Capuchin monks gathered in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, to assist in the solemn pontifical votive Mass celebrated there by Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, and honoring St. Lawrence Brindisi, sixteenth-century Capuchin monk and Doctor of the Church. The speaker at this Mass was Bishop John J. Wright of Pittsburgh. Catholics need the prudence of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, said Bishop Wright, as they approach the modern ecumenical movement and seek to unite Christianity in the face of a new threat from the East. "Today, in the face of the threat of Communism and atheism from the East, a new spirit of ecumenicism is abroad and Christendom is beginning to dream of unity again.

"This spirit is quite the reverse of the passionate spirit of division and of nationalistic hatred which split Christendom in the days of St. Lawrence who was trying by means of diplomacy, preaching, and prayer to check the growing division of Christians.

"For this new spirit of ecumenicism, we may be grateful. However, it too calls for the supernatural gift of prudence characterized by St. Lawrence in his day.

"We must be alert and vigilant lest any word or ill-considered action on our part lead to either of two scandals. One would be to alienate our separated brethren, and the other, equally evil, if not more so, would be to compromise the ancient faith that he, with all the saints, labored with zeal, prudence, and fortitude to preserve.

"The fortitude with which St. Lawrence faced the Turkish invaders is also needed today to face the Communists and the followers of materialist atheism."


The unusual talents of our saint, added to a rare virtue, fitted him for the most diverse missions. When still a deacon, writes Father Candide, he preached the Lenten sermons in Venice, and his success was so great that he was called successively to all the principal cities of the peninsula. His numerous journeys enabled him to evangelize at different periods most of the countries of Europe. Despite all his traveling, preaching, and diplomatic missions, St. Lawrence wrote some eight hundred sermons in Latin, which fill eleven of his fifteen huge Opera Omnia volumes, published in a critical edition from 1928 to 1956. From this critical edition of the saint's writings (beautifully bound and illustrated), we can understand why his contemporaries universally praised the faith, the zeal, and the scholarship of the humble Capuchin. From his sermons modern theologians, philosophers, and humanistic scholars have taken ample material for many monographs expounding his thought.

He sought in his sermons to reach men's hearts and convert them, and on all occasions he adapted his style of discourse to the spiritual needs of his hearers. Needless to say, a man of his genius was frequently selected for the various offices of his Order.

From 1596 to 1602 he fixed his residence in Rome where he could better function as general definitor of the Capuchins. Here Pope Clement VIII assigned him the task of instructing prospective converts among the Jews. His knowledge of the Hebrew language stood him in good stead and he led a great number to recognize the truth of the Christian religion. His saintliness and kindliness brought the grace of conversion to many, and the Holy Father sent him to other cities, where he was equally successful in attracting the Jews to follow in his footsteps.

He was now assigned to establish Capuchin houses in Germany and Austria. He founded convents in Vienna, Prague, and Graz. These three foundations became the nuclei of three important Capuchin provinces. Milan, Paris, Marseilles, and Spain received him in turn. His reputation for holiness had gone before him, and the people came long distances to hear him preach and to receive his blessing. His administration was characterized by wise firmness and fatherly tenderness. Until his death in 1619 he remained a trusted advisor to his successors as vicar general, a title changed by Pope Paul V to that of minister general.


In 1601 St. Lawrence was named chaplain of the Imperial army, then about to march against the Turks. The victory of Lepanto (1571) was a great triumph to Christian arms, but it had merely checked the Mussulman invasion; several battles were still necessary to secure the final victory of the Christian armies. In 1595 Mohammed III conquered a large part of Hungary. The emperor sent Lawrence of Brindisi to the German princes to solicit their support. They responded to his appeal and the governor of Brittany, the Duke of Mercoeur, joined the Imperial army and took command. The generals held a council of war, but hesitated to pit their 18,000 men against an army of 80,000 Turks. They contemplated attacking Albe-Royal (now Stuhlweissenburg), but appealed to Lawrence for advice. He was adamant in his resolve to attack, and he communicated to the entire army in a glowing speech the ardor and confidence with which he was himself animated.

Feeble and unable to march, he mounted on horseback and, crucifix in hand, led the army into battle. That he was not wounded was deemed miraculous. The Turks yielded up the city, after the loss of 30,000 men. They outnumbered the Christians, and within a few days offered battle a second time. Lawrence again rode at the head of the troops. Flourishing his crucifix, with the confident cry, "Victory is ours," he rode into battle. The Turks were utterly defeated, and the honor of the double victory was attributed by the entire army to Lawrence of Brindisi.


The year 1605 marked the end of his term as vicar-general. Lawrence was now sent by the Pope to evangelize Germany. His presence confirmed the faith of many German Catholics, stirred a great number to the practice of virtue, and rescued many from heresy. His saintliness and numerous miracles led to many conversions. The Catholic princes of Germany formed the alliance called the "Catholic League," and the Emperor Rudolph sent Lawrence to Phillip II of Spain to persuade him to join the League. This mission accomplished, Lawrence received a double mandate: to represent the interests of the pope and of Madrid at the court of Maximilian of Bavaria, head of the League. Lawrence was both nuncio and ambassador, and served as commissary general of his Order for the provinces of Tyrol and Bavaria. When disagreement arose among the Catholic princes, his diplomacy restored harmony among them. For a second time he conducted a missionary campaign throughout Germany, and for eight months traveled in Bavaria, Saxony, and the Palatinate.


Only a dedicated apostle could have found time amid his various undertakings for the practice of personal sanctification. His biographers have left us in no doubt regarding his intense inner life. In the practice of the religious virtues, writes Father Candide, St. Lawrence equals the greatest saints. "He had to a high degree the gift of contemplation, and very rarely celebrated Holy Mass without falling into ecstasies. After the Holy Sacrifice, his great devotion was the Rosary and the Office of the Blessed Virgin. As in the case of St. Francis of Assisi, there was something poetical about his piety, which often burst forth into canticles to the Blessed Virgin. It was in Mary's name that he worked his miracles, and his favorite blessing was 'Nos cum prole pia benedicat Virgo Maria.' Having withdrawn to the monastery of Caserta in 1618, Lawrence was hoping to enjoy a few days of seclusion, but he was requested by the leading men of Naples to go to Spain and apprise Philip III of the conduct of Viceroy Ossuna. In spite of many obstacles raised by the latter, the saint sailed from Genoa and carried out his mission successfully. But the fatigues of the journey exhausted his feeble strength. He was unable to travel homeward, and after a few days of great suffering died at Lisbon in the native land of St. Anthony (July 22, 1619) as he had predicted when he set out on his journey. The process of beatification, several times interrupted by various circumstances, was concluded in 1783. The canonization took place on December 8, 1881.

In his homily at Mass on the occasion of the canonization of Lawrence of Brindisi, Pope Leo XIII said: "The canonization of saints is always a subject of joy to the Catholic Church and her visible Head. The memory of Blessed Lawrence . . . is most opportunely revived amongst the people of the present day. This great servant of God, under the humble garb of St. Francis, possessed the choicest endowments of nature and the loftiest gifts of grace. His unceasing and marvelous labors, undertaken solely for the benefit of others, shed a splendid lustre on the seraphic order, and, indeed, on all the religious orders, which, though persecuted and vilified by the impious of our day, deserve the gratitude of humanity. . . . Wherefore, in raising to the honors of the altar this great Franciscan, we are comforted by the hope that, through his aid, nations and princes may listen to the voice of the Church, and, returning to the path of righteousness, may escape the dangers that menace them with irreparable ruin."


St. Lawrence of Brindisi is the lumen ac decus of the Capuchins and a glory to the entire Franciscan Order. He spent his whole religious life in prayer, study, teaching, preaching, and writing. He did not hesitate to accept offices in his Order as assigned by his superiors, and he occupied the post of minister general for a long period. He traveled over Europe in the interests of the Church and the Order, and frequently he was called upon to act as the confidant and legate of popes and kings. Cross in hand, like another John Capistran, Lawrence led the Christian troops with distinction against the Turks. Nations and rulers saw in Lawrence an apostle of peace. Even the Jews loved him, for he preached to them frequently, and defended them.

Lawrence was a prolific writer, but the sixteen great works that he composed were not published during his life. Fortunately the manuscripts were bound and kept by the Venetian Capuchins, of whose province Lawrence had been a member. A combination of circumstances delayed until modern times the publication of his remarkable sermons and scriptural writings. The Capuchin Order was occupied with the cause of Lawrence's canonization for 257 years (1624-1881). For twenty three years the manuscripts of the Saint were examined by the Roman officials of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Various suppressions of religious orders by secular authorities held up the process of canonization and seriously retarded the editing of the works of Lawrence. Adding to the difficulty was the peculiar kind of personal marks and abbreviations, a kind of shorthand, that Lawrence used in writing. His manuscripts cannot be read without assiduous study.

The Capuchin Order and others revered him as a learned and holy teacher, but it was essential that his works be published if they were to be made known to the world. For years little progress was made. Finally in 1926 the Venetian Capuchin provincial undertook the work with the help of competent scholars of his province. Today we see the fruit of that project. The August, 1960, issue of the Annals of the Capuchin Province of St. Augustine tells us that the works of St. Lawrence have been divided into ten volumes and are printed in quarto. Two of the volumes are divided into three tomes, and one volume, into two tomes. A list of his works follows:

I. Mariale: sermons on Our Lady.
II. Lutheranismi Hypotyposis (in three tomes): refutation of Lutheranism in general and of P. Leiser in particular.
III. Explanatio in Genesim: commentary on the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
IV. Quadragesimale Primum: Lenten sermons.
V. Quadragesimale Secundum (in three tomes): Lenten and Easter sermons.
VI. Quadragesimale Tertium: Lenten sermons.
VII. Adventus: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany sermons.
VIII. Dominicalia: sermons for the Sundays after Easter and Pentecost.
IX. Sanctorale: sermons on the saints.
X. Quadragesimale Quartum and Sermones de Tempore (in two tomes). Lenten and Easter sermons in the first tome; in the second tome are found various sermons on the Sundays of the year and special feasts. Two small works of St. Lawrence are also included in the second tome: 1) Commentariolum de Rebus Austriae et Bohemiae (deals with his work and impressions in Austria and Bohemia, and written in obedience to the will of the Procurator General) ; 2) De Numeris Amorosis (a dissertation on the mystical numbers of Scripture).


Many among the Roman pontiffs have given testimony to the culture and erudition of St. Lawrence of Brindisi. Those of the popes who were his contemporaries entrusted certain types of work to the Saint because of his scholarly attainments. Thus, at the command of Gregory XIII, Lawrence preached many sermons to the Jews both in Rome and other cities. The Holy Father knew that Lawrence would be welcome among them because of his profound knowledge of Hebrew and the Bible. Clement VIII also loved the Jewish people and commissioned Lawrence to continue his good work among them in Italy and elsewhere. Sent to Bohemia by Pope Clement, Lawrence had great success in his work against the heretics, and brought many back to the true Church. Pope Paul V bade Lawrence continue his preaching to the Jews and requested him to preach to heretics in various countries and to act as his ambassador to various Catholic princes. Pope Paul gave direction that St. Lawrence be admitted to audience after the manner of cardinals. Of Lawrence himself Pope Paul V wrote: "Religionis zelus, Sacrarum literarum scientia, aliaque Religiosae virtutis, quibus personam Laurentii insignitam esse..."

Pope Leo XIII, the pope who canonized Lawrence of Brindisi, crowned the long process which the Order had carried on for 257 years. He gave marked praise to the zeal, erudition, preaching, and apostolic labors of the great Capuchin. There is a tradition in the Capuchin Order that Popes Leo XIII and Pius X desired the publication of the works of St. Lawrence for the good of souls and the increase of the Saint's glory. A striking tribute is paid to St. Lawrence by the cardinal secretary of Pope Leo XIII: "An apostolic man, powerful in word and in work, who by his holiness of life and by his learned preaching was able, as delegate of the popes, to win the good graces of Christian princes and to combat the heresies of the sixteenth century, which threatened to invade the Christian nations like a torrent."

In 1535 Bishop Ferdinand Taddei of Jacarezinho uttered a tribute of Lawrence that now seems prophetic. Commenting on the first four volumes of his works Bishop Ferdinand wrote: "We shall have a new Doctor of the Church in St. Lawrence of Brindisi." The Archbishop of Brindisi in 1933 had this to say: ". . . the publication of the works of the great Capuchin, conducted so expertly, will serve to pave the way to the title of Doctor, which would fit him so well."

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