Julius Caesar Russo was born at Brindisi (Apulia) Italy, on July 22, 1559, the son of Elizabeth Masella and William Russo. After his father died, Julius was sent to the Conventual friars as an oblate. Upon the subsequent death of his mother, Julius moved to Venice to be under the guidance of an uncle, a priest, who enrolled him in a private school.
At Venice, Julius was captivated by the Capuchins who lived on Giudecca Island. Especially attracted by their austerity, he entered the Capuchin novitiate at Verona on February 19, 1575, taking the name, Lawrence. He made profession of vows on March 24, 1576. Following profession, Lawrence was sent to Padua to study logic and then returned to Venice to study philosophy and theology. He was exceptionally intelligent, enamored of scripture, both as a source for intellectual stimulation and for spiritual growth. Thus motivated, Lawrence studied the biblical languages and even impressed rabbinical scholars with his linguistic fluency. Eventually he became proficient in seven languages. Lawrence balanced his studies with meditation and austere penitential practices. He was ordained to the presbyterate on December 18, 1582 by the patriarch of Venice, John Trevisan.
Lawrence quickly became recognized as an effective, scriptural preacher. Physically robust, his body was proportional in such a way as to make him appear very masculine and full of dignity. He enjoyed a depth of feeling and spontaneous dignity that attracted others and commanded their respect. He possessed a penetrating gaze and an authoritative voice. His gestures were spontaneous and energetic which gave him a dramatic flare. He also had a great memory. He was able to think and analyze quickly, with clarity of thought and precision of words that enabled him to improvise with great facility and efficacy. His erudition was vast. In addition, his holiness was profoundly persuasive.
When he preached, Lawrence impressed people with an integrity of intellect, sentiment and soul. He allowed himself to be emotionally moved by the thoughts he expressed which, in turn, moved his listeners all the more. Lawrence prepared for his preaching through prolonged prayer and penance. He would meditate for hours on the gospel of the day. Due to his fluency in the biblical languages and his knowledge of talmudic and rabbinic studies, Lawrence preached even among the Jewish population.
For three years, Lawrence was assigned as professor, then as local minister and novice director, and once again as preacher. His renown extended far beyond the borders of the Venetian province. The general minister, Jerome of Polizzi, intended to make use of Lawrence's skills. Lawrence was elected vicar provincial of the Tuscan province. He subsequently held the office of provincial minister of the Venetian province, then of the Swiss province, and, in 1596, was elected general definitor of the Order.
In 1593, the Capuchin Order was implanted in central Europe with the establishment of a fraternity at Innsbruck, the Tirolian capital. This was accomplished through the intervention of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his consort, Anna Catherine. The second establishment came in 1596 when, as provincial minister of Venice, Lawrence accepted a new foundation at Salzburg by invitation of the archbishop-prince Wolfgang Theodoric von Raitenau. Lawrence began establishing a chain of friaries connecting Venice, Trent, and the Tirol. In 1599, under Lawrence's guidance, Capuchin missionaries, esteemed as a major force for spiritual and clerical renewal (as were the Jesuits), were invited into various parts of ultramontane Europe. The general chapter of 1599 gave Lawrence a mandate to bring the Order beyond the Alps by selecting competent Capuchins from the various provinces for this mission. The beginnings of this missionary endeavor met with great hardship. The friars were confronted with substantial anti-Catholicism, epidemics, cold, and derision. Nonetheless, it was a purifying experience for them. They set out first to evangelize inactive Catholics. Through open and informal dialogue in homes, the friars facilitated the return of many to the faith. In 1600, Lawrence established a friary at Vienna, and one at Graz in Styria.
In 1601, Lawrence was with the emperor's troops at Albareale when the Turks began their attack. So outnumbered were the imperial forces that defeat seemed a near certainty. Nonetheless, Lawrence faced every danger with the troops, giving moral support in word and action, and stood as a physical symbol of invulnerability. Thus inspired, and against all odds, the imperial troops defeated the Turks.
In 1602, Lawrence was elected general vicar of the Order. At that time, the Capuchins were divided into 30 provinces with about 9,000 friars. Lawrence was mandated to conduct a visitation of all the provinces, including the transalpine jurisdictions. The 43-year-old Lawrence set out on foot immediately. The itinerary for his first year in office led through Italy, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Lawrence then resumed his visitation of the Italian provinces. Despite a typical day's journey covering 25 to 30 miles on foot, when Lawrence arrived at his destination he never failed to be present at the midnight and daytime offices, always followed the rigorous penances and fasts of the Order, and insisted on not being shown any preferential treatment. Familiarity and affability marked his fraternal visits. His term as general minister ended in May of 1605, and at the beginning of 1606, he returned to central Europe. With the Capuchin friary and church situated next to the imperial palace at Prague, Lawrence was anxious to preach in the church in order to influence (and at times denounce) the most powerful personages of reformation Europe. Facing a renewed threat of religious and political upheaval by the Evangelical Union, Lawrence was appointed by the Duke of Bavaria as ambassador to Spain and Italy, to seek financial aid and military support for the Catholic League in their campaign against the Lutheran and Calvinist forces. On his return, Lawrence's mediation skills were called upon to settle a dispute between Prague and Monaco. The Catholic League was viable only through the efforts and accomplishments of Lawrence. For the following three years, Lawrence was papal nuncio to Monaco. To facilitate access between Lawrence and Duke Maximilian, an underground tunnel was built linking the friary to the ducal palace.
In 1613, Lawrence was elected general definitor for the third time and was sent to visit the province of Genoa (which included the Piedmont and Liguria). The Genoese province was experiencing internal tension due to the fact that friars held differing political allegiances. Upon completion of his visitation, at the provincial chapter at Pavia on September 13, 1613, the Genoese capitulars elected Lawrence (against his will) as their provincial minister. The Savoy duke was not amused, and refused Lawrence permission to set foot in Liguria. The tension of the "independents" was a cross for Lawrence throughout his three years as provincial minister.
In 1616, Lawrence returned to his home province of Venice. His retirement at Bassano was interrupted in 1618 by a papal mandate commissioning him as a mediator of peace to Milan. There, Lawrence convinced the Spanish governor, Peter of Toledo, to accept a peace treaty with Charles Emmanuel I.
On July 22, 1619, his 60th birthday, Lawrence died at Belem near Lisbon, Portugal, while on a diplomatic mission. The cause for Lawrence's canonization was introduced four years after his death. However, the process was delayed due to a decree of Urban VIII prohibiting the introduction of any cause until at least 50 years after death.
Pius VI beatified Lawrence on May 23, 1783, and Leo XIII canonized him on December 8, 1881. Lawrence was declared the Apostolic Doctor by John XXIII on March 19, 1959.
Lawrence's writings span homiletic, scriptural, apologetic, autobiographical, and Mariological themes.
The above is by Patrick McSherry OFM Cap and taken from the Capuchin Franciscan Sacramentary (© 1995 North American Capuchin Conference).