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Three saints for the week …
10th August St Laurence, Deacon and Martyr (d. 258)
Laurence was one of the seven deacons of the Church of Rome and was executed on 10th August 258, four days after Pope St Sixtus II and his companions, it is thought by being burned alive on a gridiron … By now, few of the facts of his life are known for certain: he was probably a Spaniard from Toledo. A basilica was built over his tomb fifty years after his death, by the Emperor Constantine, and the anniversary of his martyrdom was kept as a solemn feast – with considerably more solemnity than that of Pope Sixtus II (we do not know why). By the sixth century, it was one of the most important feasts throughout much of western Christendom. His name occurs (with Sixtus’) in the earliest Canon of the Mass.
11th August St Clare of Assisi (1193-1253)
She was born at Assisi and came under the influence of St Francis. She left home at the age of 18 and, under Francis’s guidance, began a community that grew to become the order of the Poor Clares (she was later joined both by her sister and by her widowed mother). In its radical attachment to poverty the Rule of the order was much more severe than that of any other order of nuns. In 1215 Clare obtained from the Pope the privilege of owning nothing, so that the nuns of the order were to be sustained by alms and nothing else. Such a rule was (like the Franciscan rule) both a challenge to established structures and a risk to those who followed it, and successive Popes tried to modify it. In 1247 Pope Innocent IV promulgated a new Rule that allowed the ownership of communal property: Clare rewrote it. A later attempt at mitigation in 1263 partly succeeded (perhaps because Clare was dead by then): some communities followed the old, strict rule and some followed the new. Clare was a noted contemplative and a caring mother to her nuns. She died at Assisi on this day in 1253.
14th August St Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)
He was born on 8 January 1894 in occupied Poland: he joined the Franciscans in Lwów in 1910, and was ordained to the priesthood eight years later, as his country became free and independent for the first time in over 120 years. He believed that the world was passing through a time of intense spiritual crisis, and that Christians must fight for the world’s salvation with all the means of modern communication. He founded a newspaper, and a sodality called the Knights of Mary Immaculate, which spread widely both in Poland and abroad. In 1927 he founded a community, a ‘city of Mary’, at Terezin: centred round the Franciscan friary, it attracted many lay people, and became self-supporting, publishing many periodicals and running its own radio station. In 1930 he went to Japan, studied Buddhism and Shintoism, and through the Japanese edition of his newspaper spread the Christian message in a way that was in harmony with Japanese culture. In Nagasaki, he set up a ‘Garden of the Immaculate’, which survived the atomic bomb. He also travelled to Malabar and to Moscow, but was recalled to Poland in 1936 for reasons of health. When the Nazis invaded in 1939, the community at Terezin sheltered thousands of refugees, most of them Jews. In 1941 he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he helped and succoured the inmates. In August of that year a prisoner escaped, and in reprisal the authorities chose ten people to die by starvation. One of the men had a family, and Maximilian Kolbe offered to take his place. The offer was accepted, and he spent his last days comforting his fellow prisoners before being given a lethal injection on 14th August. The man he saved was present at his canonization in 1982. The cell in which he died, in the centre of Auschwitz 1, is now a shrine to his memory. St Maximilian’s martyrdom, however, is possibly the least important thing about him. We are none of us likely to find ourselves in a position to emulate his sacrifice, and speculation as to the heroic way in which we would have behaved in his place is a pernicious waste of time. What is important is that he acted the way he did because of who he was – or, rather, because of who he had become. It is because of who he had become that we revere him as a saint: he would have been a saint (though perhaps not canonized) even if he had not been martyred. And that process of becoming is something we can all emulate. We can all become people for whom doing the right thing is obvious, natural, and easy. It requires no heroism, no special gifts: just perseverance, and prayer. He is the patron saint of amateur-radio operators, of drug addicts, of political prisoners, of journalists, of prisoners, and of the pro-life movement.