January 20: Saint Sebastian, Martyr—Optional Memorial
c. 255–c. 288
Patron Saint of archers, pinmakers, athletes, against epidemics, and of a holy death
Liturgical Color: Red
The Lord Jesus, Whom I serve, has raised me, as it were, from the dead, for this very purpose, that once more I might meet you, and protest, in the presence of all the people here assembled, that you are guilty of the most cruel injustice, when you persecute His servants, whom you know to be innocent. Repent, therefore, of your crimes before it is too late. ~The Acts of the Early Martyrs, Fastré S.J.
The glorious crown of martyrdom was placed on the head of Saint Sebastian not once but twice. He was born at Narbonne, Gaul (modern-day France), but was raised in Milan, Italy. During his childhood, the persecution of Christians was temporarily on hold, only to resume when Sebastian reached adolescence. Sebastian was a strong Christian who desired to assist those being persecuted for the faith. This holy desire led Sebastian to join the Roman army under the Emperor Carinus in 283, where he kept his Christian faith secret so he could have access to jailed Christians. In 284, Diocletian became Emperor and made Sebastian one of his bodyguards and intelligence officers, not knowing that Sebastian was a Christian. Shortly after this promotion, Sebastian discovered that Marcus and Marcellianus, brothers imprisoned for their faith, were being pressured by their pagan family and friends to save their lives by denying Christ. Their very own pagan parents pleaded, teary-eyed, with their twin sons to deny Christ.
Sebastian knew it was risky, but he openly revealed to all at the jail that he was a Christian. He exhorted the imprisoned brothers to stay strong in the faith, even if it meant their deaths. Sebastian preached so persuasively that eventually the brothers’ parents, the jailer, sixteen other prisoners, and more than sixty other family and friends were converted and baptized. Two of these received miraculous healings at the same time. When the ailing governor of Rome, Chromatius, heard about these healings, he sent for Sebastian. Sebastian then healed the governor himself and subsequently instructed him in the faith. After Chromatius and his son were baptized by the priest Polycarp, a future saint and martyr, Chromatius left his governorship and assisted in the conversion of many others to the Christian faith.
Sebastian and Polycarp decided that one of them should go with Chromatius and many of the new converts to the countryside for safety while the other would stay in Rome to help the persecuted Christians. After consulting the pope, it was decided that Sebastian would remain in Rome to be the “Defender of the Church,” since he enjoyed the favor of the emperor. During the following two years, despite his high status and access to the emperor, several of Sebastian’s converts were nonetheless martyred, including the twin brothers Marcus and Marcellianus.
In the year 286, the Emperor Diocletian found out that Sebastian was a Christian. Feeling betrayed, he ordered Sebastian’s death. The execution was to be public and brutal in an attempt to intimidate other Christians. Sebastian was bound, arrested, tied to a post, and blindfolded. The archers stretched their bows and were ordered to fill him with as many arrows “as an urchin is full of pricks” (The Golden Legend Vol. II). After penetrating his torso and limbs with arrows, they untied him and left his pierced body for dead. But Sebastian did not die! Instead, a holy woman named Irene came to bury his body and found him still alive! She was the wife of Saint Castulus, an officer in the Diocletian’s household, who had been martyred earlier that year. Irene carefully removed Sebastian’s arrows, took him to her home and nursed him back to health. Saint Irene would herself die a martyr just two years later.
After he had regained his health, many urged Sebastian to flee for his life. Instead, Sebastian presented himself before the emperor and firmly accosted him for his cruelty toward Christians. A nineteenth-century biographer placed these words on Sebastian’s lips as he confronted the most powerful man in the world: “Hearken to me O Prince! The priests of your temples deceive you by their wicked falsehoods against the Christians. They tell you, that we are enemies of the Empire; yet it is by our prayer that the Empire is made to prosper. Cease your unjust persecutions against us, and remember the day of reckoning is near at hand when you, too, shall be judged by an all-knowing Judge. (The Acts of the Early Martyrs, Fastré S.J.) The emperor, angered by Sebastian’s words and shocked that Sebastian was still alive, ordered again that he be executed. This time, Sebastian was beaten to death with clubs and thrown into a sewer.
After Sebastian’s death, he appeared in a vision to a holy woman named Lucina and asked her to remove his remains from the sewer and bury him in the catacombs of Callixtus. She did so that night. A basilica was later built there in his memory. This church and cemetery remain an important pilgrimage site today. In the centuries that followed his martyrdom, Saint Sebastian became well-known for his intercessory power, especially in fighting off the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century. More recently, he has also been honored as the patron saint of athletes because of his dogged perseverance.
Saint Sebastian, you received the glorious crown of martyrdom twice. Your courage and fidelity to Christ in the face of persecution was unwavering. Your encouragement of the persecuted was heroic. Please pray for me, that I may have your same unwavering courage and thus equally fulfill God’s will, no matter how high the cost. Saint Sebastian, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.