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Catholic Heroes… St. Lawrence O’Toole

September 6, 2022 saints No Comments


This Irish saint existed parallel to the life of St. Thomas Becket. Some of his biography can be difficult to follow, given Gaelic history and language, so we try to anglicize everything possible in this article. But his feast fast approaches, November 14, a time to acquaint ourselves with his holy life.
Lawrence was the youngest of four sons in Kilkea, County Kildare, born to King Muirchertach Ua Tuathail. But given the hierarchy of the time, his father was subject to other “over-kings,” and young Lawrence was given at the young age of ten as a hostage to Dermot MacMurrough. When it was discovered the boy was being ill-treated and living with only the barest necessities of life, his family intervened and things improved; however, the boy discovered it an ideal preparation for religious life!
This was lucky, as his father had wanted one of his sons to be promised to the Church; Laurence wished this to be his chosen lot in life.
The monastery where he lived was at Glendalough, an area steeped in monastic history, being first used as a monastic community in the sixth century by St. Kevin. When his archbishop died, who was also the abbot, St. Lawrence was universally chosen to be the abbot, despite his youthful age of 25. By age 26, he was unanimously elected the archbishop of Dublin. At the time Danes and Norwegians were in power, so he was the first Irishman appointed to the See.
A reformer, he was keen to wed the best of the Irish and Western European churches together. He became an Augustinian and brought the order in to help renew the abbey. This included rebuilding churches, emphasizing the use of Gregorian chant, and helping the people, who suffered extreme poverty. He made annual Lenten retreats, going off though on his own to pray and fast in a cave in Glendalough. The area is so beautiful, it seems a wonderful location to renew oneself spiritually, surrounded by God’s magnificent creation.
In terms of his ascetism, he added to the usual monastic practices of his order. He fasted on bread and water on Fridays. He wore a hair shirt. And an excellent host, he took care to serve a good meal. However, he would color his water to look like wine, so as to live simply but not discomfit his guests.
Lawrence was a man with a gift of negotiation, and all seemed to trust in him. When some savage Normans breached the walls of the city of Dublin, to pillage and rape, he managed to stop them. His brother, King Diarmit, was an asset. Diarmit took some Norse towns, and gave his daughter in marriage to a leader of the Normans. To simplify, let us merely say that peace was made with the Normans.
Henry II — the one-time friend of Thomas Becket — met with Lawrence in 1171-1172. Around this time Lawrence was attacked in the church by a man of unsound mind. Though his head had been violently struck and many thought he might not survive, the archbishop asked for water, washed his wound, blessed it, and went on to celebrate Mass. Perhaps for this reason some like to compare him a bit with Thomas Becket. However, the event was not provoked by the king and Archbishop Lawrence mostly got along with Henry.
Their meeting led to the Treaty of Windsor and a twofold effect: Normans recognized Henry’s governance of their areas, but Henry II ceded Irish (specifically due Ua Conchobair’s governance) to them. Not long after in 1179 Laurence was called to Rome for the Third Council of the Lateran in Rome, where he was named a papal legate. On his return, reforms continued apace and many of those committing abuses were relieved of their duties and sent away.
On his way to confront King Henry II in the Collegiate Church of Our Lady & St. Lorcán of Eu, Normandy, about abuses of his solders, he passed away in Eu, France. The miracles that began to follow were many and so plentiful, that it came to pass that our saint was canonized a mere 45 years after his passing.
They built a church where St. Lawrence had passed away, the Collegiate Church of Our Lady & St. Lorcán of Eu, and the reclining figure on his tomb represents him “just so” with his beard, vestments, and mitre. There is a story that in 1552 a Sir Rowland Standish brought his skull to England for veneration, which disappeared at the Reformation. This may be misinformation, as the church where he died, mentioned above, still has a skull they say belongs to our saint.
However, as commentator Paul Harvey used to say, that is not the end of the story.
Recall that St. Lawrence remains Dublin’s patron saint! His heart eventually made its way to Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, where it was placed for public veneration. When and where is a mystery, however. Despite the fact that Anglicans are not keen on venerating the saints, they consider St. Laurence’s heart invaluable. According to the Journal of the Co. Kildare Archeological Society and Surrounding Districts, it was discovered amongst old things like church “rubbish” in the 1800s. Other sources say it had been venerated for generations. In any case, more recently the alleged relic had been kept in the Peace Chapel of St. Laud. That is, until it was stolen by thieves in 2012.
The heart-shaped reliquary rested on a pillow and was secured to the wall. The cage in which in the reliquary rested was also secured to the wall. The thieves stole the relic, and only the relic. The heist of the heart! Would it ever be found? Retrieved? The thieves caught? In this case appeals were made for a return of the relic, no questions asked.
Six years after its theft, police were left a tip and able to retrieve the heart of the saint from a town park, unharmed, great news for the saint and his relic, both still much loved 800 years after his death.
There were some incidents in the life of the saint where egregious incidents happened and the saint, in sorrow, turned to prayer and fasting and some say thus he effected a “miraculous curse,” meaning God’s justice was done. This is certainly an odd use of the term. In one case a brigand who had murdered and raped was captured, blinded and died. The second occasion involved a heinous case of men setting upon a Eucharistic procession, thrashing or killing those involved and sacrilegiously grinding the Eucharist in their foul mouths. Again the saint took to prayer and fasting, and the men were caught and hung.
Media reports stated that the thieves believed the heart of St. Lawrence was “cursed,” as various persons attached to them experienced heart attacks. This is why they allegedly returned the relic.
Whatever the case, the Church never “curses” anyone. But beware the justice of God! In the Gospel of Matthew when the apostles could not cast out devils, Jesus said: “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (17:20). Never underestimate the power of sacrificial prayer and fasting for good! St. Lawrence seems determined to rest his heart in Dublin, and so he has.

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