St. Sebastian became a popular saint in Kerala because there are many churches in his name and many people have his name. People invoked the patronage of this saint when plague was spreading out of control in Europe. European missionaries introduced St. Sebastian’s devotion in Kerala because of the plagues in the past. The heroic life of this saint for evangelization and his double martyrdom are worth reflection for our spiritual upliftment.
Biography: Service in the Army
Sebastian was born at Narbonne, Gaul in the modern France. His parents were from a wealthy royal family in Milan, Italy. Sebastian’s education was in Milan. He went to Rome and joined the Royal Imperial army under the Roman Emperor Carinus in 283. Sebastian secretly became a Christian and moved through the ranks of the army as a captain of the guard and an imperial officer. He eventually became a favorite of Emperor Diocletian who promoted Sebastian to serve in the Praetorian Guard to protect the emperor.
Support to Christian prisoners
Emperor Diocletian hated Christians and ordered to torture and kill them. Hiding his Christian identity, Sebastian supported the persecuted Christians by visiting them in prison, bringing supplies and comfort. Though a successful army officer of the Roman emperor, Sebastian’s passion was to encourage the wavered Christians to keep up their faith while facing martyrdom and to convert the prisoners to Christianity. Several of them became martyrs for Christ because of Sebastian’s influence.
While Sebastian was serving as a Praetorian Guard, soldiers imprisoned twin brothers Marcus and Marcellian for refusing to offer sacrifice to Roman gods. Though deacons of the church, they were wavering in their faith because of their death sentence and pressure from family and friends to give up their faith. They had 30 days to decide on worship Roman gods or face death penalty. Their parents and friends continued pleading with them to renounce Christianity for the sake of their loving family. However, Sebastian made a long exhortation to keep up their faith and face martyrdom. His fiery Spirit-filled speech influenced all his listeners in favor of faith.
Sebastian was a gifted healer and converted his fellow soldiers and even the Roman governor. Zoe, the wife of Nicostratus who oversaw the prisoners, had lost her speech for six years by a paralysis in her tongue. She fell at the feet of Sebastian who made a sign of the cross on her mouth and soon she spoke. This miracle caused the conversion of Zoe, her husband Nicostratus, the parents of Marcus and Marcellianus, the jailer Claudius, and sixteen other prisoners. A holy priest, Polycarp gave them religious instruction and baptized them. Tranquillinus, the father of SS. Marcus and Marcellianus, got cured of gout when he received baptism.
When the Roman governor Chromatius heard Tranquillinus’ cure, he desired baptism and wanted to get healing from his sickness. At the governor’s request, Sebastian cured the governor. He also converted the governor and his son Tiburtius to Christianity. The governor facilitated the prisoners’ conversion, freed sixteen fellow converts from prison, and resigned from his civil position.
With the Roman governor Chromatius’ conversion, the Emperor Diocletian came to realize that Sebastian was a Christian. Diocletian arrested Zoe and the other Christians and ordered them for execution. Sebastian, who had a close connection with the emperor, tried to change the emperor’s mind. Sebastian revealed that he too was a Christian. Instead of being persuaded, Diocletian was angry at Sebastian for hiding his religious affiliation and being dishonest to the emperor.
Diocletian ordered to kill Sebastian in the most painful way. The emperor’s direction was to kill Sebastian by having him tied to a tree for target practice in a training field. The soldiers stripped off Sebastian’s clothes, tied him to a tree, and archers used his alive body for target practice. His fellow soldiers shot him arrow after arrow till he was full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks and thus left him there to die.
The soldiers left believing that Sebastian was dead. At night, a devout woman, Irene of Rome, took his body for burial. Irene’s Christian husband St. Castulus was a servant to Diocletian and a martyr for Christ. Irene noticed that Sebastian was still alive. So, she took him to her home and treated his wounds.
When the Christians came to know that Sebastian survived the execution and got well, they advised him to leave Rome to save his life. However, Sebastian wanted to meet with the Emperor Diocletian to preach him the gospel so he might convert the emperor to Christianity and make him change his approach to Christians.
Sebastian hid in a stairwell to meet and talk to Diocletian in private. The emperor was surprised to see Sebastian alive, whom he had executed. Though Sebastian tried to preach to Diocletian, he could not convince the emperor. Diocletian told his soldiers to beat Sebastian to death with clubs and then throw his body into the sewers. The soldiers beat him with heavy clubs until he was dead. Then they took his body and dumped it into one of the city’s sewers. His martyrdom was in 288.
Soldiers threw Sebastian’s body in the drains so Christians could not revive him to life again or celebrate his martyrdom. But St. Sebastian appeared in a vision to St. Lucy (Lucina), a Christian widow, and told her the place where she would find his body hanging on a hook. Sebastian asked her to wash the body and bury it at the catacombs by the apostles. She and her servants did according to St. Sebastian’s instructions on the same night in secret. They buried him along the Appian Way in Rome.
In 367, around 80 years after St. Sebastian’s death, Pope Damasus I built a basilica at his burial site. The Basilica of St. Sebastian in Rome exhibits some relics associated with St. Sebastian, including an arrow that pierced his body and a part of the pillar on which the soldiers tied him. A community of monks in France shared some relics from his body. Authorities sent his skull to a German monastery, where they placed it in a special silver case in 934.
St. Sebastian is a “Pre-Congregation” saint. That means the Christians venerated him as a saint before establishing the modern investigations by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Local bishops, primates, or patriarchs canonized Pre-Congregation saints, often because of their popular devotion.
People ask for St. Sebastian’s intercession for protection against the plague. Construction of an altar in honor of St. Sebastian in the Church of Saint Peter in Pavia stopped a seventh century plague in Pavia, the then capital of the Kingdom of Lombards. They built the altar because a man received a revelation that the plague would cease if the people raised an altar to St. Sebastian. Historical records show that the intercession of St. Sebastian protected the City of Rome from a plague in 680.
The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, killed around 75 million people in Europe in the 14th century. During those days, people were unaware of how the disease was spreading. The pagans believed that the random occurrence of the sickness happened because the gods above were shooting them with black arrows. Christians also adopted this pagan concept and sought the help of St. Sebastian for survival from “the archery.”
Since St. Sebastian was a brave believer and dedicated soldier, he is the patron saint against plague and illness, of archers, armorers, ironmongers, police officers, soldiers, athletes, the dying, and the Pontifical Swiss Guards. Saint Sebastian’s feast day is on January 20th.
As a young and good-looking soldier, he is a favorite subject of sacred art. Artists depict St. Sebastian with arrows shot into his body, tied to a post or a tree. They did not portray his second execution. The other artwork of St. Sebastian is of St. Irene saving his body punctured with arrows.