Because of his fit physique as he appears in the tradition of the sacred art that depicts him, St. Sebastian was made the patron saint of athletes — but his story could just as easily make him the patron saint of speaking truth to power.
That artistic tradition depicting St. Sebastian pierced by arrows has also led Catholics to assume that St. Sebastian was martyred by Roman archers. But that wasn’t what happened. Legend has it that he miraculously survived that famous attempt to execute him, and that he died later when he fearlessly denounced Christian persecution to Emperor Diocletian himself.
That makes him one of the earliest exemplars of a dilemma that deeply concerned St. Elizabeth Ann Seton her whole life: In speech, where should discretion end and boldness begin?
Pope Francis recently named St. Sebastian a model for young people.
The Holy Father cited Sebastian as one of a number of saints young people can look to for inspiration, in his 2019 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit.
“In the third century, Saint Sebastian was a young captain of the Praetorian Guard,” he wrote. Already while he was in military service, “It is said that he spoke constantly of Christ and tried to convert his companions, to the point that he was ordered to renounce his faith.”
But Sebastian wouldn’t stop. “Since he refused, he was shot with arrows, yet he survived and continued to proclaim Christ fearlessly. In the end, Sebastian was flogged to death,” wrote Francis.
St. Sebastian was from Milan, Italy, where St. Ambrose would serve as bishop a century later. Ambrose wrote that Sebastian’s willingness to suffer for God was so strong that he could not keep quiet about his Savior.
After archers thought they had killed him, Sebastian was left for dead. But, “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,” according to Father Alban Butler in his Lives of the Saints.
After Sebastian recovered from his wounds, he “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.”
But don’t think of St. Sebastian’s “freedom of speech” in the modern legal sense.
At Rio de Janeiro’s St. Sebastian Cathedral, Pope Francis spoke of the kind of “freedom of speech” St. Sebastian exemplified.
Francis encouraged young people to proclaim the Gospel with the same freedom of Sts. Paul and Barnabas, and used the word “parrhesia,” a Greek word for the “freedom of speech” necessary for truth to be proclaimed despite danger of reprisal.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton pointed to this virtue in Jesus Christ himself.
She comments in her spiritual writings on the moment in Jesus’s trial when Jesus is silent before the high priest.
“There is a time to keep silence, and a time for speech,” she wrote. “Christ, the wisdom of God, has given us an example of both. We must not speak, as to give advantage to cavils, we must not be silent as to betray the truth.”
She points out that Jesus doesn’t speak until Caiaphas challenges him, saying,“I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
“Now if Jesus holds his peace he incurs the guilt of disregarding that awful name [but] if he speaks he is ensnared,” she notes, and characterizes what Jesus says next as, “O Caiaphas no longer shalt thou complain of a speechless prisoner — thou shalt hear more than thou demandest.”
Jesus said to Caiaphas, “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Caiaphas answers by loudly decrying the “blasphemy,” tearing his garment and condemning Jesus to death, just as St. Sebastian will later be killed for his own “free speech” to the emperor.
In less momentous issues, Mother Seton herself had to struggle with “speaking truth to power.”
In arranging matters for her religious order, Mother Seton often had to approach powerful Baltimore Archbishop John Carroll.
One of her points of concern were the spiritual directors assigned to her new community that she found unsuitable. It wasn’t easy for her to speak up, she told him, but prudence sometimes demands bold speech.
“My reluctance to speak on a subject which I know will give you uneasiness is so great that I would certainly be silent — but as the good our Almighty God may intend to do by means of this community may be very much impeded by the present state of things it is absolutely necessary,” she wrote.
She said it was important that the archbishop “should be made acquainted with it before the evil is irreparable.”
Showing her concern for the question of discretion and boldness, she would continue to approach the topic gingerly in subsequent letters to the Archbishop.
In her spiritual writings about hatred of sin, Mother Seton revealed that she worried that speech was a source of danger for her.
“Lord I am encompassed with evils,” she wrote, with sins “more in number than the hairs of my head.” In a list of faults, she included “sins of imprudence and carelessness, from thoughtlessness of disposition, liberty of speech, hastiness in judging, and uncharitable suspicions.”
Her concern is a great reminder of the warning St. James gives about taming the tongue: “If any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man.”
On St. Sebastian Day, we all pray for the balance Mother Seton sought.
It is fitting that the tomb of St. John Paul II was moved to the Chapel of St. Sebastian in St. Peter’s Basilica. St. John Paul II was a model of both discretion and boldness in speech. He spoke carefully when needed to avoid provoking the communist authorities in Poland who could shut down the work of the Church, then spoke boldly when it mattered.
A traditional prayer to St. Sebastian asks, “O Lord, grant us the spirit of fortitude, so that guided by the example of the martyr St. Sebastian, we may learn to bear witness to the Christian faith.”
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
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Image: José de Ribera, Saint Sebastian / Artepics / Alamy Stock Photo