January 20 – St. Sebastian

January 19, 2015

A.D. 288.

The skullcap reliquary of Saint Sebastian in the Church St. Sebastian in Ebersberg, Bavaria, Germany. Photo by J. Patrick Fischer.

The skullcap reliquary of Saint Sebastian in the Church St. Sebastian in Ebersberg, Bavaria, Germany. Photo by J. Patrick Fischer. The relic lies under the hat, which can be removed.

St. Sebastian was born at Narbonne, in Gaul, but his parents were of Milan, in Italy, and he was brought up in that city. He was a fervent servant of Christ, and though his natural inclinations gave him an aversion to a military life, yet, to be better able, without suspicion, to assist the confessors and martyrs in their sufferings, he went to Rome, and entered the army under the Emperor Carinus, about the year 283. It happened that the martyrs, Marcus and Marcellianus, under sentence of death, appeared in danger of being shaken in their faith by the tears of their friends: Sebastian seeing this, stept in, and made them a long exhortation to constancy, which he delivered with the holy fire that strongly affected all his hearers. Zoë, the wife of Nicostratus, having for six years lost the use of speech, by a palsy in her tongue, fell at his feet, and spoke distinctly, by the saint’s making the sign of the cross on her mouth. She, with her husband Nicostratus, who was master of the rolls, [1] the parents of Marcus and Marcellianus, the jailor Claudius, and sixteen other prisoners, were converted; and Nicostratus, who had charge of the prisoners, took them to his own house, where Polycarp, a holy priest, instructed and baptized them. Chromatius, governor of Rome, being informed of this, and that Tranquillinus, the father of Saints Marcus and Marcellianus, had been cured of the gout by receiving baptism, desired to be instructed in the faith, being himself grievously afflicted with the same distemper. Accordingly, having sent for Sebastian, he was cured by him, and baptized with his son Tiburtius. He then enlarged the converted prisoners, made his slaves free, and resigned his prefectship.

After being shot with arrows and left for dead, Saint Sebastian Succored by the Holy Women

After being shot with arrows and left for dead, St. Sebastian is nursed back to health by Irene and her friend.

Not long after, in the year 285, Carinus was defeated and slain in Illyricum by Dioclesian, who, the year following, made Maximian his colleague in the empire. The persecution was still carried on by the magistrates, in the same manner as under Carinus, without any new edicts. Dioclesian, admiring the courage and virtue of St. Sebastian, who concealed his religion, would fain have him near his person, and created him captain of a company of the pretorian guards, which was a considerable dignity. When Dioclesian went into the East, Maximian, who remained in the West, honoured our saint with the same distinction and respect. Chromatius, with the emperor’s consent, retired into the country in Campania, taking many new converts along with him. It was a contest of zeal, out of a mutual desire of martyrdom, between St. Sebastian and the priest Polycarp, which of them should accompany this troop, to complete their instruction, and which should remain in the city, to encourage and assist the martyrs, which latter was the more dangerous province. St. Austin wished to see such contests of charity amongst the ministers of the church. [2] Pope Caius, who was appealed to, judged it most proper, that Sebastian should stay in Rome, as a defender of the church. In the year 286, the persecution growing hot, the pope and others concealed themselves in the imperial palace, as a place of the greatest safety, in the apartments of one Castulus, a Christian officer of the court. St. Zoë was first apprehended, praying at St. Peter’s tomb on the feast of the apostles. She was stifled with smoke, being hung by the heels over a fire. Tranquillinus, ashamed to be less courageous than a woman, went to pray at the tomb of St. Paul, and was seized by the populace, and stoned to death. Nicostratus, Claudius, Castorius, and Victorinus were taken, and after being thrice tortured, were thrown into the sea. Tiburtius, betrayed by a false brother, was beheaded. Castulus, accused by the same wretch, was thrice put on the rack, and afterwards buried alive. Marcus and Marcellianus were nailed by the feet to a post, and having remained in that torment for twenty-four hours, were shot to death with arrows.

St. Sebastian being clubbed to death. Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Paolo Veronese.

St. Sebastian being clubbed to death. Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Paolo Veronese.

St. Sebastian, having sent so many martyrs to heaven before him, was himself impeached before the Emperor Dioclesian; who, having grievously reproached him with ingratitude, delivered him over to certain archers of Mauritania, to be shot to death. His body was covered with arrows, and he left for dead. Irene, the widow of St. Castulus, going to bury him, found him still alive, and took him to her lodgings, where, by care, he recovered of his wounds, but refused to fly, and even placed himself one day by a staircase, where the emperor was to pass, whom he first accosted, reproaching him for his unjust cruelties against the Christians. This freedom of speech, and from a person too whom he supposed to have been dead, greatly astonished the emperor; but recovering from his surprise, he gave orders for his being seized and beat to death with cudgels, and his body thrown into the common sewer. A pious lady called Lucina, admonished by the martyr in a vision, got it privately removed, and buried it in the catacombs, 3 at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus. A church was afterwards built over his relics, by Pope Damasus, which is one of the seven ancient stationary churches at Rome, but not one of the seven principal churches of that city, as some moderns mistake; it neither being one of the five patriarchal churches, nor one of the seventy-two old churches which give titles to cardinals.

Lucina and friends removing the body of St. Sebastian from the sewer.

Lucina and friends removing the body of St. Sebastian from the sewer.

Vandelbert, St. Ado, Eginard, Sigebert, and other contemporary authors relate, that in the reign of Lewis Debonnair, Pope Eugenius II. gave the body of St. Sebastian to Hilduin, abbot of St. Denys, who brought it into France, and it was deposited at Saint Medard’s at Soissons, on the 9th of December, in 826, with it is said to have been brought a considerable portion of the relics of St. Gregory the Great. The rich shrines of SS. Sebastian, Gregory, and Medard, were plundered by the Calvinists, in 1564, and the sacred bones thrown into a ditch in which there was water. Upon the declaration of two eye-witnesses, they were afterwards found by the Catholics; and in 1578, enclosed in three new shrines, though the bones of the three saints could not be distinguished from each other. 4 The head of this martyr, which was given to St. Willibrord, by Pope Sergius, is kept at Esternach, in the dutchy of Luxemburg. Portions of his relics are shown in the cathedral at St. Victor’s; the Theatins and Minims at Paris; in four churches at Mantua; at Malaca, Seville, Toulouse, Munich in the ducal palace, Tournay in the cathedral, Antwerp in the church of the Jesuits, and at Brussels, in the chapel of the court, not at St. Gudula’s as some have mistaken. 5 St. Sebastian has been always honoured by the church, as one of her most illustrious martyrs. We read in the life of Paul the deacon, in what manner, in the year 680, Rome was freed from a raging pestilence, by the patronage of this saint. Milan, in 1575, Lisbon, in 1599, and other places, have experienced, in like calamities, the miraculous effects of his intercession with God in their behalf.

Note 1. Primiscrinius.
Note 2. Ep. 180.
Note 3. On Catacombs, see in S. Calixtus. Oct. 14.
Note 4. Chatelain, notes, p. 355. Baillet.
Note 5. Bollandus, and Chatel. ib.
From his acts, written before the end of the fourth age. The gladiators, who were abolished by Honorius, in 403, subsisted when these acts were compiled. See Bollandus, who thinks St. Ambrose wrote them; also Tillemont, T. 4. p. 551.

(The Lives of the Saints, by Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73).  Volume I: January, pp. 183-185)


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