By nature of our vocations, Christ calls us fathers and husbands to die, to a martyrdom of self. He calls us to lay down our lives for our brides and our families, dying to our selfish desires. St. Paul could not be clearer on this point (see Ephesians 5:25-27). It is a metaphorical death, to be sure, and one which leads to a new life with our families.
Some men, however, go beyond mere manhood, beyond the natural virtues we all strive to live out, as Christ calls us to live. These men, these saints, not only give up their lives symbolically in marriage, as all men do who exchange wedding vows, but also literally in their deaths as martyrs for the Faith. There are few of these married martyr saints, and each one of them gives the Church a shining example of the call all of us have to holiness.
Of this elite band of brothers, St. Lorenzo Ruiz remains relatively obscure, a saint better known in Catholic trivia circles than in spiritual discussions. That is a shame, for we Christian men, especially husbands and fathers, gain much from reflecting on this true man of Christ and his life of love and service.
An Ordinary Life
St. Lorenzo was born around 1600 in the Binondo district of Manila to a Catholic Chinese and Filipino couple. In a way, his early life was strikingly similar to that of most cradle Catholic men. Lorenzo first learned the Faith in the home, taught by his parents. He attended a school run by Spanish Dominican friars, as well as serving as an altar boy and a sacristan for the church in his district of Manila (which was largely inhabited by Chinese emigrants and their families).
The Dominicans, for their part, taught Lorenzo Spanish, as well as how to read and write. So good was his penmanship, that he eventually became a professional calligrapher and a clerk. Inspired by the Dominicans, Lorenzo joined the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary. Contemporaries noticed, in a particular way, his honesty and trustworthiness, to the point that the Dominican friars made him their unofficial messenger as well.
Lorenzo soon married a Filipino woman named Rosario, and with her had three children. He continued to work as a clerk and as a translator for the Spaniards, and their life remained normal. Lorenzo kept his close ties with the Dominicans and helped them in ministering to the people in Manila, especially those in the Binondo district. Life for Lorenzo was simple, ordinary.
It was through this ordinary life of virtue that Lorenzo became an extraordinary man. Ordinary men, when faced with persecution, seek safety, and rightly so. We all have our responsibilities to family, to work, and to our own lives. Yet God calls us on our mission in our ordinary lives, breaking into our complacency, calling us out of our routine, comfortable lives, so that we might serve Him fully.
With Extraordinary Virtue
For Lorenzo Ruiz, the catalyst that led to his eventual martyrdom was a false accusation of murder.
The year 1636 opened no differently than the others in Lorenzo Ruiz’s nearly forty-year long life. By the year’s end, however, the devout father and husband would find himself a prisoner in a foreign, hostile land, undergoing tortures that would break an ordinary man. Yet this man, who had lived such an ordinary life thus far, had prepared by prayer and right living for such days, weeks, and months of torture.
The ordeal began in June of 1636. The details of what transpired are fuzzy. What historians know is that some Spaniards falsely accused Lorenzo of murdering another Spaniard. Rather than face a hostile show trial, Lorenzo turned to his friends and mentors, the Dominicans. They struck an agreement, and Lorenzo was soon on a small ship headed for Japan with a group of Dominican missionaries (whether he knew they were going to Japan as missionaries seems a matter of historical debate). They planned on landing in a favorable portion of the country, as the harsh, anti-Western (and thereby anti-Catholic) Tokugawa Shogunate ruled seventeenth century Japan. However, the missionaries’ plans went horribly awry, and a storm put them on shore near Okinawa, which the Shogunate ruled.
The Japanese arrested the missionaries and shipped them to Nagasaki, over 700 miles away. There they imprisoned Lorenzo and his companions. The missionaries defied the shogun’s order to abandon the Catholic Faith and leave Japan (the missionaries agreed to leave but not to apostatize). As a result, Lorenzo and his companions suffered unbelievable physical and psychological tortures for over a year. Torturers crushed, stabbed, soaked, pressed, and cut their bodies. Their torturers made it very clear that if the Catholics abandoned their Faith, they would earn their freedom.
To a man, despite moments of spiritual struggle, the companions held fast to the Faith. Lorenzo in particular had a moment of spiritual darkness, in which he nearly apostatized to escape the torture. Then he became emboldened, and in his newfound courage, he comforted his companions. He himself found comfort in the rosary, praying as often as he could.
Then came the day of execution. The Japanese hung the missionaries upside-down over a pit, adding weights to the prisoners to add pressure, slowly pulling them downward. The prisoners’ heads were cut to allow blood collecting there to bleed out, preventing the prisoners from losing consciousness and to prolong their suffering. Lorenzo and another lay companion died that way; the priests with them were beheaded a few days later.
Despite this horrific torture, Lorenzo and all of his companions remained true to the Faith. At one point in this whole ordeal, whether while he was being tortured or during the trial against him, Lorenzo declared his Catholic Faith and devotion to God, saying, “Had I many thousands of lives I would offer them all for him. Never shall I apostatize. You may kill me if that is what you want. To die for God—such is my will.”
Living for our Death
St. Lorenzo Ruiz died as he lived: a servant of the Lord. Only the grace given to him through his ordinary, daily life in Manila sustained him in his hour of spiritual need. By dying a little bit each day, and by giving up his own selfishness so that he might be a devoted husband and father, he prepared his heart to accept God’s second vocation for him, that of a martyr. It was in living the ordinary well that Lorenzo Ruiz found the pattern for following the extraordinary virtues
The questions we must ask ourselves are: How are we living our ordinary lives? Do we see God’s hand in the mundane, the boring, and the typical? What is God calling me to do, or what sort of saint is he preparing me to be? Have I given my life to Christ?
As Pope St. John Paul II explains, “Lorenzo Ruiz . . . reminds us that everyone’s life and the whole of one’s life must be at Christ’s disposal. Christianity means daily giving, in response to the gift of Christ who came into the world so that all might have life and have it to the full.”
If we can answer the above questions honestly, then we are one step closer to walking with St. Lorenzo and his companions in eternity and living eternal life to the fullest.