St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Apostolic Doctor
by Cuthbert Gumbinger, O.F.M.Cap., S.T.D.
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.1 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.
St. Lawrence was born in Brindisi, Italy, July 22, 1559, the son of Guglielmo Rossi and Elizabetta Masella. In baptism he received the name Giulio Cesare. Educated by the Conventual Franciscan Friars, the youth went to Venice to complete his studies. He had a facility for languages and learned to speak French, German, Latin, and Spanish in addition to his native Italian. He also has a thorough knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac.
He became a Capuchin in the Venetian Province of the Order in 1575, studied philosophy and theology at the University of Padua, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1582. Soon he acquired fame as a preacher and was in demand not only in Italian pulpits, but also in those of other lands as well. His superiors, as well as popes and kings, were quick to recognize his prudence and other virtues and gifts, that his services for the benefit of others were employed from 1590 till his death in 1619. He ruled several provinces of his Order in Italy and the Alps, acted as delegate of popes to various rulers and gave counsel to the latter for many years.
Sent in 1599 to Austria and Bohemia to help in the fight against Protestantism, Lawrence took with him twelve other friars whom he dispatched to Vienna, Graz, and Prague. Even before his arrival in these countries, Lawrence was known as an austere religious, a cultured and famous preacher, and an efficacious controversialist. By the age of forty, he had preached throughout most of Italy. So great an impression did his sermons make in Prague that the Protestants were aroused to action and tried in vain to have Emperor Rudolf II expel Lawrence from the realm.
In 1595 the Turks entered Hungary. When Europe rose up against them, the Imperial Army chose Lawrence to be head of all the chaplains. After one of the most decisive battles of the ensuing war, October 9-12, 1601, at Stuhlwissenburg (Alba Reale), in which only 18,000 Christians fought 80,000 Turks under Mohammed III, many of the officers and men of the Christian army gave Lawrence the merit of having led them to victory. Filled with courage, Lawrence took command, grasped his famous Cross with which he worked miracles, and led the soldiers to battle and victory. (His Cross is still used by the Superior Generals of the Capuchin Order.) Lawrence himself tells us of this great battle in his work Commentariolum de rebus Austriae et Bohemiae, wherein, too, he laments the fact that he lost the chance of shedding his blood as a martyr for Christ.
Controversialist and Diplomat
Following three years as Vicar General of his Order (1602-1605), Lawrence engaged in a preaching crusade against the heretics in Prague (1606-1610) and in Munich (1610-1613) where he was well received by his intimate friend, Duke Maximilian II. He labored at the constitution of the League of German Catholic Princes which would oppose the Union of Protestant Princes and, as the result of an official mission to the court of Madrid, Lawrence obtained the adhesion of Phillip III to this plan, as well as financial aid for it. Through the intervention of Cardinal Dietrichstein, Commissary General of the Empire at the court of Paul V, Lawrence was kept for a time in Munich.
Other diplomatic missions followed. He was sent to Tyrol by Paul V to bring about peace; then to Madrid as papal representative. From 1613 to 1618 Lawrence was an Assistant General of his Order, after which period he retired to a friary to devote himself to prayer and study. However, Paul V sent him on another diplomatic mission to Madrid and Lisbon (1618-1619) in defense of the city of Naples against the tyranny of the Vice-Roy Pietro Teller Giron di Osuna. His mission accomplished, Lawrence was on his way back to Italy when he took sick at Lisbon. He died there on his sixtieth birthday, July 22, 1619. His body rests at Lisbon in a monastery of the Poor Clares. He was beatified by Pope Pius VI in 1783 and canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1881.
Saint and Scholar
Lawrence is generally represented contemplating the crucifix and holding the book of his sermons; or holding onto the Cross as in battle; or celebrating Holy Mass, the Child Jesus appearing before him. The Capuchin breviary says of him on July 23: "Ordained a priest, he devoted himself entirely to the salvation of souls. He did not spare labors, vigils, nor life itself, which was in danger more than once, so that he could win all to Christ. He entered the courts of princes, as well as gatherings of Jews and heretics; and he traversed almost all Europe showing the people the way of eternal salvation. He converted innumerable sinners and some very wicked women; he brought heretics to abjure false doctrines and confuted the Jews. God Himself confirmed by following signs the sanctity and wisdom of so great a man. [The victory over the Turks is mentioned.] He was conspicuous for all the virtues in a heroic degree as well as for the gifts of counsel and prudence . . . Remembering the sufferings of Jesus Christ, he could not refrain from tears. He honored the Mother of God with a very tender love, and to her he ascribed whatever he had received from Christ. Greatly devoted to prayer, he used whatever time he could for it and was often lifted up in ecstasy. He was famous for the gift of prophecy and the reading of hearts. On account of his eminent sanctity he was most acceptable to the Apostolic See and to nearly all the princes of Europe."
His Opera Omnia
Despite all his traveling, preaching, and diplomatic missions, St. Lawrence wrote (either entirely or at least in résumé) some 800 sermons in Latin (only nine in Italian) which fill eleven of his fifteen huge Opera Omnia volumes, published in a critical edition from 1928 to 1956. Sacred Scripture is used extensively to illuminate the entire exposition of the truths of Catholic faith and morals.
One can easily see how the saint attracted his audiences by his clear doctrine, his forceful arguments, his exquisite use of Holy Scripture from both Old and New Testaments, and his profound erudition. History, mythology, law, legend, science, and art are pressed into service, together with theology and philosophy, to make his sermons exemplars of the art of preaching.
From the 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. All this is confirmed in pontifical acts and in the breviary for his feast. From his sermons modern theologians, philosophers, and humanistic scholars have taken ample material for many monographs regarding his thought.
Lawrence not only taught, but was busy also in the ministry. In his sermons one finds topics that are not treated by the Summae of the Scholastics, e.g., the Royalty of Christ and the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady. His missionary and doctrinal activity is comparable to that of his confrere and fellow Doctor, St. Anthony of Padua.
Specialists in Mariology declare that the sixty-two sermons of Lawrence's Mariale form a complete summa of this matter, prominent in Marian literature not only at his time, but ever since.
The Saint explains the primary principle of Marian theology: the physical and divine maternity of Mary in regard to Christ, the God-Man, and her spiritual maternity in regard to all Christians. He develops also the secondary principles: uniqueness, convenience, eminence, and likeness to Christ the Redeemer in regard to Marian truths. The saint proves the singular privileges of the Mother of God: her immunity from all sins, even original; her fullness of grace; her perpetual virginity of soul and body, and her glorious Assumption into Heaven, body and soul. Lawrence also presents and defends the specific mission of Mary, both in the eternal decrees of God and in the facts of her being the Mother of Christ and the spiritual Mother of His Mystical Body. He teaches also that she is Mediatress of all graces and Queen of the Universe. Finally, the Saint defends the legitimacy, the nature, and the acts of Marian cult against the attacks of the Protestants.
St. Lawrence had a rich personality, wonderful talents, and a fine appearance. "He looks like St. Paul," people said of him. Preaching, to him, was "magnum et superhumanum munus" because it demands in the preacher "vitae sanctitas et doctrinae veritas." At the age of twenty-two, while still only a deacon (1851), he himself was given the rare privilege of preaching to the people. Because he deemed preaching his true vocation, Lawrence kept up his lifelong zeal for it by prayer, penance, and study. He often said: "God called me to be a Franciscan for the conversion of sinners and heretics." The pulpit in the middle ages, and even at the time of St. Lawrence, was a true "cathedra," less professorial than that of the universities, but more frequented by the people, and it had a vast and immediate influence on them. Means of communication were scarce in those days, and so the pulpit was the microphone of the crowds. A good preacher was "the man of the day," and his sermons were events to chronicle for the town and the whole nation. Some of this fame still continued in later times with other preachers like Sts. Leonard of Port Maurice, Paul of the Cross, Gasper del Bufalo, and others who, like Sts. Vincent Ferrer and Bernardine of Siena, could be called "Trumpets of Heaven."
Lawrence knew that to be a good preacher he had to know not only theology and philosophy, but especially Holy Scripture. He studied the Bible from early youth with extraordinary zeal. He said that he could have rewritten it entirely in its original languages merely from memory! Popes Gregory XIII and Clement VIII ordered the Saint to preach exegetical sermons to the Jews in Rome and other cities to convince them that Christ is the divine Messias and that the Christian religion alone is the true one. Lawrence claimed that his excellent knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic was a God-given charism.
Assigned to teach the Scriptures to his young confreres, Lawrence put his heart and soul into it. Between the ages of twenty-five and thirty he composed his Explanatio in Genesim (on the first eleven chapters of Genesis). This has also been praised by critics for its masterful philosophic method of seeking the literal sense, for its sureness and vastness of exegetical information (Talmudic and Patristic, as well as more recent authors, are used by him). He gives some of his own opinions, critically weighs those of others, even some venerable in age and authority. In his doctrinal "excursus" we see the theologian who treats God the Creator, His attributes, the angels, the nature of man, the state of original justice, free will, the institution of marriage, etc. In the light of present exegetical studies, this work of Lawrence has particular interest.
The saint's up-to-date mastery of biblical science, which the Protestants opposed to tradition, to the Scholastics, and to the ecclesiastical magisterium, gave Lawrence an undisputed authority in controversies with the innovators. Lawrence rightly considered the Protestant heresy a degeneration of Christian truth, a dissolution not only of Catholic unity, but also of the civil and political unity of Europe. Besides fighting heresy through his diplomatic missions, Lawrence was eager to meet eminent teachers of heresy in open debate. He was encouraged in this by princes and by learned priests and laymen.
Thus we have the three volumes which the Saint wrote against Protestant theologian Polycarp Leiser, who was a writer and a preacher at the court of the Elector of Saxony. Lawrence had encounters with Leiser in Prague, and his Lutheranismi hypotyposis is the result of all these disputes. This work is a practical manual of the Catholic Faith and a confutation of Protestant interpretation of Scripture. The Saint quotes about forty reformers, including Luther, and refutes them all. He ably defends such doctrines as revelation, tradition, the one true Church; Scripture, original sin, justification and grace, faith and good works, the cult of Mary and the saints, the Holy Eucharist as sacrifice and sacrament, celibacy and purgatory. Lawrence also examines the sad social consequences of false doctrines. This work, like his others, has a perennial appeal and can be used even today.
Today studies are appearing constantly on the personality and doctrine of St. Lawrence and a critical life of the saint will soon appear in Italian in several volumes.
For priests, St. Lawrence as "the Apostolic Doctor" offers a new model for our studies and preaching.
1. The decree, which begins with the words, "Celsitudo ex humilitate," states that the Saint's feast will be observed on July 21.
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