by Catherine Fournier
Feast Day: January
Patron: archers, armourers, athletes, iron
mongers, lacemakers, laceworkers, police, racquet
makers, soldiers, dying people, enemies of religion,
Symbol:arrows of martyrdom; naked youth
tied to a tree and shot with arrows; arrows; crown
Sebastien seemed to have everything going for him. He was the son of a wealthy Roman family, with all the education, privilege and opportunities that offered. When he grew up he became an officer of the Imperial Roman army and captain of the guard. Not only that, he was a good friend and favorite of Diocletian the Emperor. Sebastien could have anything he wanted, had any kind of life he wanted.
The emperor hated Christians. He started a 'persecution' of Christians, which meant that they were arrested and executed if they did not reject God and Jesus Christ. Many brave and holy early Christians achieved their Heavenly reward by choosing to remain faithful to God and suffering martyrdom.
It is not clear when Sebastien became a Christian. He may have converted as a young adult, and kept it secret from his friends and family. But when Diocletian began his persecution of the Christians, Sebastien decided to end his secrecy. He visited his Christian brothers in prison, bringing them supplies and some comfort. Sebastien reported to have healed by making the sign of the Cross over the wife of a brother soldier.
This bravery and integrity in the face of persecution converted soldiers and a governor to the Christian faith. Obviously, the God and faith of the Christians was more important and more compelling than life itself. Eventually, he was discovered. Charged as a Christian, Diocletian asked Sebastien to deny his faith. Sebastien refused. He was taken outside the city, tied to a tree, shot with arrows, and left for dead. Much to Diocletian's surprise, Sebastien survived being shot with arrows. When he had recovered, he returned to reproach and preach to Diocletian. The emperor then had him beaten to death.
During the 14th century the unpredictable and random nature of infection with the Black Death caused people to compare the plague to their villages being shot by an army of nature's archers. In desperation they prayed for the intercession of a saint associated with archery, and Saint Sebastien became associated with the plague.
According to legend (there are few firm facts from this period), Sebastien was born at Narbonne, Gaul (now part of France). He became a soldier in the Roman army at Rome in about 283. He entered the Roman army under Emperor Carinus in order to defend the confessors and martyrs of his day without drawing attention to himself. Tradition asserts that he encouraged Marcellian and Marcus, under sentence of death, to remain firm in their faith.
Sebastien made numerous converts: among them were the master of the rolls, Nicostratus, who was in charge of prisoners and his wife, Zoe, a deaf mute whom he cured; the jailer Claudius; Chromatius, Prefect of Rome, whom he cured of gout; and Chromatius' son, Tiburtius. His conviction of his faith was a powerful witness. Chromatius set the prisoners free, freed his slaves, and resigned as prefect.
Sebastien was named captain in the praetorian guards by Emperor Diocletian. He did not know that Sebastien was a Christian. When it was discovered during Maximian's persecution of the Christians that Sebastien was indeed a Christian, he was ordered executed. He was shot with arrows and left for dead, but when the widow of St. Castulus went to recover his body, she found he was still alive and nursed him back to health. Soon after, Sebastien intercepted the Emperor, denounced him for his cruelty to Christians, and was beaten to death on the Emperor's orders.
Saint Sebastien was venerated at Milan as early as the time of St. Ambrose and was buried on the Appian Way. He is patron of archers, athletes, and soldiers, and is appealed to for protection against plagues. He is patron saint of athletes because of his physical endurance and his energetic way of spreading and defending the Faith. Sebastien is also patron to all soldiers. He was declared patron of plague sufferers for his reported cures of those afflicted with many diseases. His constancy of faith in the face of persecution, his endurance of suffering for his faith, his fidelity to Christ in spite of many temptations, and his concern and care for his fellow Christians can all serve as examples to us today.
Despite the fact that Saint Sebastien is a Roman martyr, little more than this can be definitively proved about him.
In the "Depositio martyrum" of the chronologer of 354 (shortly after his martyrdom in other words) it is mentioned that Sebastien was buried on the Via Appia. St. Ambrose ("In Psalmum cxviii"; "Sermo", XX, no. sliv in PL, XV, 1497) states that Sebastien came from Milan and even in the time of St. Ambrose was venerated there. This adds no detail to his biography however.
The Acts, probably written at the beginning of the fifth century and formerly ascribed erroneously to Ambrose, relate that he was an officer in the imperial bodyguard and had secretly performed many acts of love and charity for his brethren in the Faith. When he was finally discovered to be a Christian, in 286, he was handed over to the Mauretanian archers, who pierced him with arrows; he was healed, however, by the widowed St. Irene. Once healed, he returned to confront the emperor again. He was finally killed by the blows of a club. These stories are unhistorical and not worthy of belief.
The earliest mosaic picture of St. Sebastien, which probably belongs to the year 682, shows a grown, bearded man in court dress but contains no trace of an arrow. It was the art of the Renaissance that first portrayed him as a youth pierced by arrows. It is unclear as to where the tradition of arrows arose. In 367 a basilica which was one of the seven chief churches of Rome was built over his grave.
The present church was completed in 1611 by Scipio Cardinal Borghese. His relics in part were taken in the year 826 to St. Medard at Soissons. Sebastien is considered a protector against the plague. Celebrated answers to prayer for his protection against the plague are related of Rome in 680, Milan in 1575, and Lisbon in 1599.
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