St. Sebastian: The saint crowned with a double martyrdom | Sunday Observer

St. Sebastian: The saint crowned with a double martyrdom

17 January, 2021

In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church, the feast of Saint Sebastian is celebrated on January 20 and our thoughts are particularly drawn to the hallowed National Shrine in Kandana. The devotion of the Catholics to this shrine, located just a kilometre away from the hustle and bustle of the city, down the years has always been so fervent, that for generations they have not failed to celebrate the annual feast. This shrine through which many favours have been received over the years has now become one of the biggest attractions for the Catholics in Sri Lanka.

St. Sebastian is popularly known as the ‘Most Sweet Flower of Narbonne’ and as the ‘Glory of the City of Milan.’ He lived as a glorious scion of a noble house and his exalted pattern of Christian virtues earned him many laurels. His pure soul was pleasing to kings while his intrepid valour pleased the God Almighty. His power to grant favours and work miracles is a well-known fact all over the world. The name of St. Sebastian is invoked in almost every Catholic household with pious fervour and great confidence.

The Feast of 2021

This year, the 153rd Annual Feast of St. Sebastian’s Shrine in Kandana will be celebrated adhering to all health protocols in the light of the Covid-19 epidemic. The Festive Vespers on January 19 at 7 p.m. will be with the participation of the Cardinal Archbishop of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, while the Festive High Mass on January 20 at 8 a. m. will be presided over by the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese, the Rt. Rev. Dr. J. D. Anthony. In preparation for the annual feast the Flag Mast was hoisted on January 11.

The Administrator of the shrine, Rev. Fr. Lalith Expeditus has taken steps to uplift the spiritual needs of the pilgrims as well as parishioners to their admiration. The eight Novenas preceding the feast are conducted from January 11 -18 at 6.30 p.m. The morning session, which is up up to 2 p. m. of the preparatory period is set aside for the visiting pilgrims from across the country. There will be Holy Masses offered at 8 a. m. 10 a. m. and 12 noon. The evening session will be for the parishioners and the Holy masses are at 4 p. m. and 5 p. m.

Patronage of St. Sebastian

St. Sebastian is undoubtedly one of the most illustrious martyrs honoured and venerated by the Catholic Church. After the Saints Peter and Paul, St. Sebastian is the third ‘Patron of Rome.’ He belongs to the class of ‘Military Martyrs’ of the early Christian Church. St.Sebastian is the Patron Saint against plague and illness and of the archers, athletes and as well as the dying, the soldiers, and the Pontifical Swiss Guards.

St. Sebastian was a brave young man and a dedicated soldier and it is these characteristics which have led to the various patronages associated with him. His courage in the face of death, and willingness to give up his life rather than forsake the God whom he loved and served, shows that he was a devoted, strong and holy man. Attributes such as these are important for athletes and soldiers as it is their dedication and fearlessness which helps them to succeed in their endeavours.

St. Sebastian’s story is one of courage, dedication, and of strength. Though little is known about the details of St. Sebastian’s life, the available information shows him to be a man devoted to God to the very end. Emperor Diocletian had St. Sebastian tied to a tree and shot, but the arrows that pierced his strong body failed to kill him. These arrows are still an important symbol of his sainthood. He died later as a result of blunt trauma.

He is the ‘Patron Saint of Soldiers’ as he entered the Roman Army to defend the confessors and martyrs of his day and for his goodness and bravery. He is the ‘Patron Saint of Athletes’ due to his physical endurance and energetic ways of spreading and defending the faith. Since, he was able to endure such incredible punishment archers are also known to pray for him in times of need.

During the 14th century, the ‘Bubonic Plague’, also known as the ‘Black Death’, ravaged through Europe, killing an estimated 75 million. At the time, the people were unaware as to how the disease was transmitted, and felt that catching it was a random occurrence. They likened it to being shot with an arrow, by the army of nature’s archers. In an attempt to seek help from heaven, they prayed to the saint who was associated with archery for protection and relief from this deadly disease. This saint, of course, was St. Sebastian. He became popular as one of the ‘Holy Helpers’, because of his association with being called upon for assistance during the time of the plague.

St. Sebastian is the refuge of Catholics in times of sickness and pestilence and is considered as the saint unto whom God has granted power over all diseases. Many countries stricken with plagues and other diseases had been protected through the intercession of St. Sebastian. In the year 680, Rome was freed from a raging pestilence by his patronage. Later, in 1575, Milan and in 1599, Lisbon as well as many other places have experienced the effects of his intercession with God on their behalf in similar calamities.

Captain in the Army of God

The specifics of St. Sebastian’s birth and childhood have been lost through the ages. It is believed that the Holy Martyr was born in 256 in Narbonne, France to a wealthy Roman family. He was raised as a Christian in Milan where his parents lived. It was a time when being a Christian was very dangerous.

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 suffering, he went to Rome around the year 283 and joined the Roman Army. He served under the co-reigning Emperors Diocletian (284 – 305) and Maximian (286– 305).

Emperor Diocletian, hated all Christians and ordered many to be tortured and killed. Diocletian did not know that St. Sebastian was a Christian, which allowed him to remain a faithful follower of Jesus. St. Sebastian secretly visited Christians who had been imprisoned for their faith, bringing them comfort. St. Sebastian was a man of great faith when such faith had to be hidden, and he was even known to have brought Christianity to fellow members of the Roman armed services.

Emperor Diocletian named him ‘Commander of the Praetorian Guard’, unaware that he had become a Christian. As an officer in the Roman Imperial Army he had secretly done many acts of love and charity for his brethren in the faith. His devotion to duty, his courage and his efficiency earned for him the praise and esteem of all including the Emperor himself. St. Sebastian’s prudence merited him the rank of Captain in the Roman Emperor’s Guard. His zeal and success in the service of the church brought him the name of Captain in the Army of God.

Defender of the Church

He was well known for feeding the poor and strengthening the weak unto martyrdom. He found the twin brothers Marcus and Marcellianus in prison and when they were near yielding to the entreaties of their relatives, encouraged them to despise flesh and blood, and to die for Christ. He was also God’s instrument in the conversion and cure of their crippled father, Tarquillinus.

Zoe, the wife of Nicostratus, who lost the use of speech by palsy in her tongue, fell at his feet and spoke distinctly after he made the sign of the Cross on her mouth.She with her husband Nicostratus, who was Master of the Rolls, the parents of Marcus and Marcellianus, the jailer Claudius, and sixteen other prisoners, were converted and Nicostratus, took the prisoners to his own house, where Polycarp, a holy priest, instructed and baptised them.

Chromatius, Governor of Rome, being informed of this, and also 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 affected with the same distemper. Accordingly, having sent for Sebastian, he was cured by him, and baptised with his son Tiburitius. St. Sebastian by healing the Governor Chromatius of paralysis did turn his heart from his idols and went on to obtain freedom for the slaves of Chromatius and the light of faith for all his people.

God confirmed his words by a miracle: Light shone around him while he spoke; he cured the sick by his prayers; and in this divine strength he led multitudes to the faith. He saw his disciples die before him, and one of them came back from Heaven to tell him that his own end was near. It was in a contest of fervour and charity that St. Sebastian found the occasion of martyrdom. The Prefect of Rome, after his conversion, retired to his estates in Campania and took a great number of his fellow-converts with him to this place of safety.

It was a challenge of zeal, out of a mutual desire for martyrdom, between St. Sebastian and the priest Polycarp, as to 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 among the ministers of the church. Pope Caius, who was appealed to, judged it most proper that Sebastian should stay in Rome as a defender of the church.

Double Martyrdom

St. Sebastian ever zealous for the spreading of the faith did boldly preach about Jesus Christ before the Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian would not be persuaded, and instead, ordered that St. Sebastian be killed as he was angry that he had been tricked all along by St. Sebastian keeping his Christianity hidden. He ordered that St. Sebastian would be put to death in a terrible way.

History reveals that he was handed over to the Mauritanian archers at the Emperor’s command. St. Sebastian was stripped of his clothes, tied to a tree, and treated as a target practice by his fellow soldiers. They shot him with arrow after arrow. He was steadfast in the faith while the body was pierced with a shower of arrows and he was left to die.But God raised him up again.

When they left, a Christian named Irene, the widow of St. Castulus, going to bury him, came to him, untied him, and seeing that he was still alive, took him to her lodgings, where she nursed Sebastian back to health, insisting that he remain in hiding to seek safety elsewhere.

Sebastian was very grateful but said that he was not accustomed to hiding. Once recovered, Sebastian went to hide in a passageway so that he could talk to Diocletian secretly.On the occasion of a festive banquet held at the palace he strode into face the man who had supposed him long since dead. Sebastian told Emperor Diocletian what he thought of his cruelty, and tried to preach to him about becoming a Christian.

The incredulous Emperor Diocletian stood transfixed at the presumed sight of a dead man and was taken aback when the former guard berated the Emperor for his callous treatment of the Christians. Recovering from his stupor, Emperor Diocletian gave orders to beat him to death with cudgels and his body thrown into the common sewer. St. Sebastian crowned his labour at 32 years of age by the merit of a double martyrdom in Rome, Italy in 288.

A pious woman, called Lucina, admonished by the martyr in a vision, got the body privately removed, and buried it in the catacombs at the entrance of the cemetery of Calixtus. Afterwards, a church was built over his relics by Pope Damasus and it is is one of the ancient stationary churches of Rome.

Vandelbert, St. Ado, Eginard, Sigebert and other contemporary authors relate that, in the reign of Louis Debonnair, Pope Eugenius II gave the body of St. Sebastian to Hilduin, Abbot of St. Denys, who brought it to France, and it was deposited at St. Medard’s at Soissons, on December 8, 826. A basilica in memory of St. Sebastian now stands by the Appian Way of Rome.

Holy Shrine in Kandana

A Catholic shrine, the object of a pilgrimage, is God’s work. Divine ways are very different from human ways. To do something great, God chooses generally the weak and the ignorant of this world, who are apparently unfit. His work starts in a small and insignificant way; the start is full of tears and bitter struggles. When it is on the verge of annihilation He intervenes and makes His mighty arm manifest.

The beginning of the shrine at Kandana is somewhat obscure. The story which had been handed down to us by tradition reveals that there existed a small chapel with a thatched roof around 1798 in a place called Uswatte. And it is said that an unknown person set it on fire and destroyed the chapel and escaped. Thereafter, a permanent and substantial church had been constructed in 1866 under the auspices of Rev. Fr. Joachin Albaarthu, a missionary who arrived from Goa in 1836.

During that era, the hamlets of Nagoda, Ragama, Tudella, Kal-Eliya, Wawela, Weligampitiya, Midellavita, Batagama, Dehiyagatha and Kanuwana too came under the heroic missionaries who worked relentlessly for God and the salvation of souls.

Some years later while discussions were on regarding identifying a saint for dedication of the church, a businessman from a distant place had brought a statue of a saint for sale. As the vendor was determined to fetch a good price for the statue, he had delayed the auction to the following day and had slept.

Surprisingly, the businessman had disappeared by the following morning and only the statue had been there. The people of the area had moved this statue of St. Sebastian to the newly constructed church and dedicated the church to St. Sebastian. The miraculous image now enshrined magnificently in the shrine is said to be the identical statue discovered in the manner narrated.

The old sanctuary was demolished in July 1949 as being inadequate. The foundation stone for the present sanctuary and transepts were laid on August 28, 1949 and the new building was blessed and the first Holy Mass celebrated on April 28, 1951.

The Centenary Jubilee of the shrine was celebrated with the participation of the then Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Thomas Cooray at the invitation of the then Parish Priest, Rev. Fr. Nicholas Perera on January 20, 1973.The 150th Jubilee of the shrine was celebrated under the patronage of Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at the invitation of the then Administrator, Rev. Fr. Elmo Diason January 20, 2018.

Love and Charity

St. Sebastian teaches us that Jesus loves us individually. Like St. Sebastian, we, too, have a gift to give. Our gift might be to do acts of love and charity for our brethren, but the important thing is to give our gift totally, like St. Sebastian did to the greater glory of God.May St. Sebastian intercede for us through our Lord Jesus Christ and keep us in good health all along 2021!

(The author is a parishioner of St. Sebastian’s Shrine in Kandana and this article is adapted from numerous works by him on the Saint and the Shrine.)