St. Sebastian: Bastion of Catholic Identity

This post is inspired by a homily that the parish priest at my home parish in Illinois* preached about a month ago. The Rio Olympics were in full swing, and the priest commented on American gymnast Simone Biles. He related that Biles, a Catholic, had a devotion to St. Sebastian and lit candles to him. I subsequently found out that St. Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes and of Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympics were held. The full name of Rio de Janeiro is São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, which in Portuguese means St. Sebastian of the River January (the Portuguese first landed there in January). This got me thinking about St. Sebastian’s role as an icon and bastion of Catholic identity.

Here are the basics of St. Sebastian’s story. He was a Roman soldier who was martyred during one of the persecutions inflicted on the Church by the Roman Emperors. He was sentenced to be tied to a tree and shot through with arrows. He miraculously survived the arrows, so he was clubbed to death. The Christians buried him in catacombs outside the city of Rome that have been called St. Sebastian’s Catacombs ever since. Now a basilica in St. Sebastian’s honor stands over the catacombs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Sebastiano_fuori_le_mura). Here’s a photo I took of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom as depicted on the ceiling (!) of the nave of the Basilica of St. Sebastian’s Outside the Walls:

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St. Sebastian became very popular in the Middle Ages for a number of reasons**. Here, I’ll focus on just one: the all-out awesomeness of his martyrdom. I think in many Catholics’ mind, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian is the template for their own perseverance in the face of persecution and temptation. If you think of it, his martyrdom is very reminiscent of Our Lord’s Crucifixion. He was bound to a tree, with his face to his persecutors, as they pierced his flesh. He is the patron saint of grit-your-teeth-and-take-it.

I know that St. Sebastian remained a popular saint through the pre-Vatican II period. As a child, I read the one-time popular “Miniature Stories of the Saints” books by Fr. Daniel A. Lord, S.J. (great name, huh? Father Lord?). These were a series of four very small booklets, two for male saints and two for female saints. The page on the left would be a picture of the saint and the page on the right would be a brief account of the saint’s life. Almost all of the saints were from before the 1700s, in no small part because canonization used to take so long that in the early 1900s there weren’t that many saints from the previous two centuries. As a result, the books were very much slanted toward early Roman and medieval European saints.

Saints like Sebastian. You can’t over-emphasize the impact on a child of seeing St. Sebastian pierced with arrows.*** As a boy, I knew that this picture and this story were awesome. I learned that Christianity was a demanding religion. I might be called upon one day to face the “arrows” (and quite possibly the arrows, no quotation marks) of the world. I would be expected to grit my teeth and bear them. If I endured, I would merit a crown in Heaven. If I failed, I would be forgotten. If I needed help, I could invoke St. Sebastian, whose prayers God hears.

Fr. Lord’s books were typical of the sort of conditioning Catholics went through prior to Vatican II. Even today, people identify St. Sebastian’s martyrdom with pre-Vatican II Catholic formation. The best evidence for this is the episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart considers converting to Catholicism. He’s inspired by reading a comic book about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, who comes across as a sort of Catholic action hero. I suspect that the writer of that episode was familiar with Fr. Lord’s “Miniature Stories of the Saints” or similar works.****

One of my friends, a “Vatican II conservative” for lack of better terms, objected to that episode of “The Simpsons” because, he said, all of the indicators of Catholic identity on the show were pre-Vatican II. Nuns in habits, prayers in Latin, etc. But of course! The premise of that episode was that Bart and Homer were attracted to a Catholic mode of life that was distinct from their own Protestant bourgeois life. To make Catholic life distinct and attractive, the writers of the show turned to pre-Vatican II Catholic features, like awareness of St. Sebastian. If the writers had relied on post-Vatican II Novus Ordo Catholicism, Catholicism wouldn’t have seemed attractive or distinctive. It would have looked like this skit from Saturday Night Live (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiuYmM0lG6o), which is incredibly insightful, if sad.

Does St. Sebastian still show up in saints’ books for children? If he does, does he appear stripped to the waist, bound to a tree, with arrows piercing his abdomen and a halo over his head? I somewhat doubt it. I suspect he’s been supplanted by saints more in the vein of St. Francis of Assisi, but without the stigmata. Post-Vatican II Catholicism tends not to instill an ethos of martyrdom, at least not in children. It’s part and parcel of the demotion of crucifixes in favor of images of the Risen Lord, etc. It’s coddling and cloying and emasculating. Ironically, *this* is part of the martyrdom of modern Catholics, both men and women. To stay faithful amidst the lowered standards and, our pastors often seem to imply, the lowered stakes. At least Olympians like Simone Biles still know what it takes to go for the gold.

A coda: One sign of the decline in devotion to St. Sebastian came during the reign of St. John Paul II. St. Sebastian’s Basilica was traditionally numbered among the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome*****. For the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope St. John Paul II removed St. Sebastian’s from the list of pilgrim churches and replaced it with the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love (Divino Amore). St. Sebastian has had countless devotees through the centuries. No offense to Our Lady of Divine Love, but to my knowledge that shrine has but limited local devotion. But never mind. We must “speak to our times.” Out with an inspiring story of perseverance, fidelity in the face of death, and glorious martyrdom. In with yet another manifestation of maternal solicitude and “divine love.” There’s no necessary contrast here. But seeing as there’s no necessary contrast, why supplant one with the other?

*In the Driftless Area, mind you.

**For one thing, he was one of the patron saints of plague victims. The plague was seen as attacking like arrows. The plague was a major concern, so St. Sebastian was popular.

Also, his martyrdom proved popular as a subject in artwork. I remember seeing numerous paintings of St. Sebastian in the Louvre. They dated to the Late Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Because St. Sebastian’s abdomen was pierced through with arrows, he gave artists the opportunity to experiment with realistic depictions of the human torso, with foreshortening and perspective (arrows coming in and out at all angles), etc. If there were a patron saint of the human torso, it would be St. Sebastian.

***Another scene showed St. Stephen lying on the ground being stoned. I think the image of St. Lucy showed her holding a plate with two eyeballs on it because the Roman persecutors gouged her eyes out. And this was in books intended for children.

****That’s not the only reference to St. Sebastian on “The Simpsons.” On an earlier episode, Milhouse’s girlfriend is sent to St. Sebastian’s School for Wicked Girls. It’s a spoof on, you guessed it, *pre-Vatican II* Catholicism: a strict girls-only reform school run by nuns where students are given penances for kissing boys, with more intense penances for more intense kisses. Note that the girl is portrayed as *liking* the nuns, who seem joyful.

*****The other six are the four major basilicas (St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, St. Mary Major, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls) and two minor basilicas (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, Holy Cross in Jerusalem). The last basilica is in Rome; its name includes the phrase “in Jerusalem” because the Roman Empress St. Helen, mother of Constantine, purportedly built the basilica on soil she had transported from Jerusalem. Thus the basilica is “in Jerusalem.”

 

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