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Saint of the week

The Patriarch whose fervour worried his mother

St Laurence Giustiniani (September 5) was born an aristocrat but became renowned for his extreme asceticism

By on Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Gentile Bellini depicts St Laurence in this painting from 1465

Gentile Bellini depicts St Laurence in this painting from 1465

Laurence Giustiniani (1381-1455), lived all his life in Venice and is recognised as the first Patriarch of that city. An aristocrat by birth, he became renowned for his extreme asceticism. The only proper use for wealth, he believed, was in charity.

Laurence’s father died early, leaving the boy in charge of his mother. Though herself a devout woman she could not but worry about the intensity of the boy’s religion, for from an early age Laurence’s chief joy seemed to be self-mortification.

She trailed various matrimonial prospects before him. Laurence, however, was fixated by a very different sort of girl, who appeared to him in a vision as the personification of the Eternal Wisdom.
“Why do you seek rest for your mind in external things?” this apparition demanded. “What you desire is to be found only with me. By taking me for your companion and your lot, you shall be possessed of its boundless treasure.”

Laurence therefore embraced a life of absolute poverty in the monastery of San Giorgio on the island of Alga, a mile or so from Venice.

The former child of privilege now begged for alms in the street. When told that he was making himself ridiculous, he replied: “Let us go boldly in quest of scorn. We have done nothing if we have renounced the world only in words.”

The destruction of the monastery’s storehouse by fire seemed to him a blessing. “Why have we vowed poverty?” he demanded of a less sanguine brother.

In 1404 San Giorgio’s became a congregation of canons regular. Laurence was ordained priest in 1406, and served as prior and then general of the congregation (from 1424 to 1431). 

He received very few novices, believing that the necessary fervour would be impossible to maintain with large numbers. Among postulants, he looked for humility before all other qualities. 

On the same principle, he informed the governors of Venice that they would never achieve anything unless they first persuaded themselves that they were of no account whatsoever.

Laurence’s reputation grew, and in 1433 Pope Eugenius IV appointed him to the bishopric of Castello, which included part of Venice. While generally admired, Laurence incurred hostility by disapproving of stage entertainments. Praise and obloquy alike, however, he received with complete indifference.

In helping the poor, he preferred to give food and clothes, being always wary of money. It was no business of a priest, he held, to spend his time counting farthings.

In 1451 the see of Castello was suppressed and Laurence, despite his protestations, was appointed Patriarch of Venice. In his last illness he worried only about being over-cosseted. A Christian, he insisted, should die in sackcloth and ashes.

Lawrence Giustiniani left several ascetical and mystical writings. He was canonised in 1690.