Saint Laurence O’Toole, Bishop

November 14

Today is the feast day of Saint Laurence O’Toole.  Ora pro nobis.

Laurence, nee Lorcán Ua Tuathail, was born in Castledermot, in Kildare County (Ireland) about 1125. The son of the chieftain of Leinster, his birth caused such great joy to his father, that in thanksgiving, to honor Christ, he pardoned a vassal who was an enemy and even chose him to sponsor the young child. As the family processed to Church for baptism, they were stopped by a man who was regarded as a prophet, and who told them in verse that the child would be magnificent on earth and glorious in heaven, and that his name must be Laurence. Despite plans to name him otherwise, the chieftain bestowed upon his son the name Laurence.

Over the first ten years of Laurence’s life, he was raised in the faith tradition by his mother and father. During that time, his father’s role as chieftain was gradually usurped by a rival family, the MacMurroughs, and eventually, they seized power in the region. To guarantee his loyalty, the former chieftain was forced to deliver young Laurence (just 10 years old) to the MacMurroughs as hostage.

Laurence was sent in chains to a remote place, where he got very little to eat; he hadn’t even enough clothes to keep him warm in the winter. For two years, even though he was a king’s son, he learnt what it was like to be poor and to be oppressed.

After two years, it was agreed that Laurence would be released. He was sent to a monastery at Glendalough, and the monks made him welcome. It was agreed that his father would come and collect him there. But Laurence soon came to love Glendalough. He liked joining the monks in prayer. After his two years as a hostage, he realised that wealth and power were not important.

He felt very close to God in Glendalough. He asked his father’s permission to stay there, and become a monk, and his father agreed. When he was still only 25, Laurence was elected Abbot of the monastery. As the leader of the community he encouraged the monks in their learning. There was always a welcome in the monastery for the poor. When there was a famine in the area, Laurence sold some of the treasures of Glendalough to provide food for those who were hungry.

On the death of the bishop, who was also Abbot of a monastery of the same city, Laurence was chosen Abbot in 1150, though only twenty years old, and doubting his competence. Nonetheless he governed with a paternal spirit, employing all his revenues during a famine in the province, to procure food for the needy, remedies for the sick, and aid of all kinds for the unfortunate. Never did he use his revenues, even when prosperity returned, for anything but care of the poor, repairs for ruined or decrepit churches or the construction of new ones, and the foundation of hospitals. When the see of Glendenoch became vacant once more in 1161, it was Saint Laurence who was chosen to fill it; and although he could not resolve to accept that new dignity, he was obliged soon afterwards to become Archbishop of Dublin, and he was told that to refuse would be to resist the Will of God.

Naturally, Laurence acquiesced and took upon him the care of the city, becoming the first native-born Irishman to hold the position.

As archbishop, Laurence immediately undertook reform of the clergy, instituting the rules of Saint Augustine. He, himself, followed the rules to exacting standards, sharing their table, their prayer and their silence. He also embarked on a spiritual retreat each year, finding a cave (known as Saint Kevin’s Cave) a few miles from the city, and spending forty days there, praying, meditating, and fasting on only bread, water, and vegetables. Upon his return, each year, his sermons were filled with such vigor and zeal against the disorders of the province, many—even the most opposed—were converted! Saint Laurence lived a life of austerity. He constantly wore a hair shirt under his ecclesiastical robes, never ate meat, fasted every Friday, and never drank wine – although he would color his water to make it look like wine and not bring attention to himself at table.

When Laurence was approximately 43 (around the year 1171), it was required of him to go to England to see the king, Henry II, who was then at Canterbury. He was received by the Benedictine monks of Christ Church with the greatest honor and respect, and the following day, performed a miracle before the eyes of many. During Mass, as Laurence was processing to the alter to celebrate, he was struck on the head by a religious zealot, hoping to make a martyr of him. To the consternation of all present, he appeared to be mortally wounded. However, Laurence calmly asked for some water, which he blessed, and then requested that his head be washed with it. As soon as the blessed water touched his wound, the blood stopped flowing, he rose, and celebrated the Mass. Not only did he publicly forgive his attacker, but also obtained pardon from the king for his crime. Word spread of his deeds, and through his model and his prayers, many alienated faithful were returned to the Church.

His prayers brought about many miracles, including the return to their senses for those who had become alienated, a miracle rare in the history of religion. After he attended a General Council in Rome in 1179, the Pope made him his legate for all of Ireland, and he visited all its provinces to re-establish ecclesiastical discipline everywhere.

In 1175 Henry II of England became offended with Roderick, the monarch of Ireland, and Saint Laurence undertook another journey to England to negotiate a reconciliation between them. Henry was so moved by his piety, charity and prudence that he granted him everything he asked, and left the whole negotiation to his discretion. Saint Laurence died while still in France, in the city of Eu on the border of Normandy and Picardy. He was unable to make a testament, as this perfect Archbishop had given all he had, and literally had nothing to leave to others. He ended his journey on the 14th of November, 1180, and was buried in the church of the abbey at Eu.  Laurence was canonized in 1225. His heart was transferred to Christ Church in Dublin.The 900 year old heart was stolen in March 2012.

Image: Relic of St Laurence O’Toole (Lorcán Ua Tuathail) in Collégiale Notre-Dame et Saint-Laurent, Eu, Normandy. It includes the skull of the Saint (8)

Research by REGINA Staff


Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 13

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