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Martyr (entered heaven around 288)
Have you ever considered why some saints are made “patrons” of certain things? Theologians point out that it is a practice that goes way back, and is based (theoretically, at least) on the Biblical fact that a change of name indicates a change of personal identity or social role (e.g. Abram to Abraham, Simon to Peter). Then, of course, there is the early practice of erecting churches over the tombs of martyrs. Thus there emerged the custom of choosing individual saints as special intercessors with God for a particular person, place, community, or organization. All quite logical up to that point. But then you get situations like today’s saint, who is the patron of archers and soldiers. Now, I can easily see why Sebastian would be made a patron of soldiers, since he, though born of a high ranking family in Milan, moved to Rome and joined the imperial army in order to be able to give more encouragement to the Christians whom the army was ordered to persecute (he himself was a Christian). He befriended other Christians who were part of the imperial household and soon met his first challenge.
Two future martyrs by the names of Marcus and Marcellian were being intimidated by violent interrogation and were on the verge of renouncing their faith. Sebastian approached them in their cells and exhorted them to stand firm. So moving were his words that the other guards and some bystanders were converted to the faith and asked to be baptized. Very soon afterward, the governor of Rome died, and the prisoners were let free. All the while, Sebastian showed such valor, responsibility, and keenness in his military duties that he was promoted to a captainship in the private army of the Emperor, where he continued his evangelizing efforts during a lull in the persecutions.
The lull soon ended, however, and he stayed in the city while the other Christians who were part of his circle made for a country villa, where they continued instructing the many new Christians. Many of the Christians who remained in the city (including the Pope and some high ranking nobles whom Sebastian had helped convert by performing miraculous healings) took refuge in the imperial palace itself, counting that the safest place. But notwithstanding Sebastian’s efforts, the faithful were discovered, condemned, and brutally executed, one by one. Finally, Sebastian himself was denounced, and the Emperor berated him for his ingratitude, then had him bound to a pillar and shot through with a barrage of arrows. Left for dead, a Christian matron went to retrieve the body and give it a proper burial. Finding him still breathing, she sheltered him in her home and nursed him back to life. Whereupon he took up his guard post once again, and when the Emperor first passed him by, Sebastian implored him to renounce his idolatry and embrace Christ the Lord. The Emperor was at first quite shocked (I would have been too), but shock turned to fury, and he ordered the faithful soldier clubbed to death. The devoted Christians of the city buried him under what is now the Basilica of St Sebastian.
I have to admit that some historians disbelieve the history of Sebastian; they call it a pious legend (they like to go around debunking “pious legends”; it gives them fodder for vacuous Ph.D. theses), but all agree that Sebastian was a soldier martyr – thus his patronage of soldiers. But he also happens to be the patron of archers. Now that mystifies me! The archers who tried to execute him filled him chock full of arrows but failed to achieve their objective. He ought to be named the patron of bad archers, if at all! Perhaps the Church is looking at it from a broader perspective – St Sebastian saved those executioners from administering an unjust penalty by surviving their arrows, so maybe he will intercede to save future archers from similar misfires. I don’t really know. Worth thinking about, however…
Sincerely, your uncle, Eddy