Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

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The Feast of St. Sebastian

St. Sebastian was a Roman soldier -- an officer in the imperial bodyguard under Diocletian. He was also a secret Christian, one who'd visit those of his Faith who'd been imprisoned. The Golden Legend relates what happened when he was outed as a Christian:

... S. Sebastian was acccused to the emperor that he was Christian, wherefore Diocletian, the emperor of Rome, made him come tofore him, and said to him: I have always loved thee well, and have made thee master of my palace; how then hast thou been Christian privily against my health, and in despite of our gods?

S. Sebastian said: Always I have worshipped Jesu Christ for thy health and for the state of Rome, and I think for to pray and demand help of the idols of stone is a great folly.

With these words Diocletian was much angry and wroth, and commanded him to be led to the field and there to be bounden to a stake for to be shot at. And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks, and thus left him there for dead.

The night after came a Christian woman [Ed. her name has come down to us as St. Irene] for to take his body and to bury it, but she found him alive and brought him to her house, and took charge of him till he was all whole.

Many Christian men came to him which counselled him to void the place, but he was comforted and stood upon a step where the emperor should pass by, and said to him: The bishops of the idols deceive you evilly which accuse the Christian men to be contrary to the common profit of the city, that pray for your estate and for the health of Rome.

Diocletian said: Art thou not Sebastian whom we commanded to be shot to death.

And S. Sebastian said: Therefore our Lord hath rendered to me life to the end that I should tell you that evilly and cruelly ye do persecutions unto Christian men.

Then Diocletian made him to be brought into prison into his palace, and to beat him so sore with stones till he died. And the tyrants threw his body into a great privy, because the Christian men should make no feast to bury his body, ne of his martyrdom.

But S. Sebastian appeared after to S. Lucy, a glorious widow, and said to her: In such a privy shalt thou find my body hanging at an hook, which is not defouled with none ordure, when thou hast washed it thou shalt bury it at the catacombs by the apostles. And the same night she and her servants accomplished all that Sebastian had commanded her. He was martyred the year of our Lord two hundred and eighty seven.

Early on, in the 4th century, a church -- San Sebastiano fuori le mura (St. Sebastian's Outside the Walls) -- was built over his grave, and it became one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome that are especially dear to Catholics on Maundy Thursday. Inside is a beautiful statue by Giuseppe Giorgetti showing St. Sebastian pierced by arrows.

 Statue by Giuseppe Giorgetti, at San Sebastiano fuore le mura

St. Sebastian is the patron Saint of soldiers, archers, athletes, and a holy death; he is also invoked against the plague. He can be recognized in art as a young man pierced by arrows or holding arrows, often tied to a tree, and sometimes wearing the attire of a Roman soldier.


Some may prepare for this feast by praying the Novena to St. Sebastian starting on January 11 and ending on January 19, the eve of St. Sebastian's feast. For his day itself, the Litany of St. Sebastian would be perfect, as would this shorter prayer:

Grant, O Lord, that amid the trials that we suffer for our sins, we may obtain by the intercession of Thy blessed Martyr Sebastian, that which our confidence cannot procure for us. To thee, St. Sebastian, we present our humble petition, in our trouble and necessity. Cease not to pray for those who, as long as they live, will work zealously and constantly for God’s honor. Amen.

Both the Novena -- which is rather long and includes readings and the litany -- and the litany can be downloaded in pdf format:

In Acireale, near Catania, Sicily, home of a basilica devoted to St. Sebastian, this feast day is celebrated grandly. There is a procession on the 19th, and then, at dawn of the feast itself, everyone gathers in the piazza in front of the basilica. They enter the church while declaring their love for St. Sebastian, using phrases in the Sicilian dialect:1

Taliàtilu cche beddu, rizzareddu rizzareddu, chiamamulu ccu tuttu 'u cori, viva Sammastianu!     
Look how beautiful he is, the curly boy, let's call him with all our heart, long live Saint Sebastian! 

Amamulu ccu tuttu 'u cori!   
Let's love him with all our heart!

Ogni annu sutta 'e vostri peri semu!
Every year we are at your feet!

Nun semu muti, viva Sammastianu!
We are not silent, long live Saint Sebastian! 

His statue is carried to the piazza while bells ring and fireworks explode. A priest gives a homily, then the statue is processed all over the town, making a stop at the train station where the train greets it with a whistle in memory of the departure of local soldiers on January 20 in 1915, during World War I. The statue makes its way to the cathedral, where it remains for eight days, when it is returned to the basilica. The goings-on are carried out by special devotees of St. Sebastian who wear traditional clothing and pledge to honor their patron, give wax to the church, and participate in the festivities of St. Sebastian's day.

The town of Palazzolo Acreide in Syracuse, Sicily has an equally notable celebration of St. Sebastian's feast -- but twice: on his feast day, and again on August 10 when a great summer party is held. At the latter celebrations, bread shaped into circles are blessed, as is laurel, and both are handed out from great wagons. St. Sebastian's relics are processed after being greeted first with huge explosions of confetti and paper streamers from the Baroque church named for him. Parents and grandparents hold their naked children up toward the relics as they go by in order that their children are blessed.

San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, named for our Saint, is also a place that has week-long celebrations. The Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián is filled with music, dancing, street foods, circus performances, amusement rides, art fairs, and processions -- including those of the Gigantes (papier maché giants) and Cabezudos (humans in costumes topped with oversized papier maché heads). The end of the week of St. Sebastian's feast is considered "the end of Christmas" in Puerto Rico.

In Kerala, India -- a state at the bottom of the country, on its Western side -- St. Sebastian celebrations begin with a novena during which participants bring little plates and brass arrows to his shrine as votive offerings. On the day of his feast, there is a procession of a statue of St. Sebastian, surrounded by costumed men playing drums, cymbals, and horns while women carry beautiful, colorful parasols.

Spain, too, has some very big celebrations of St. Sebastian's feast. In Palma, where St. Sebastian is patron, a big bonfire is lit in the Plaza Mayor on the 19th, and nighttime picnics and live music follow. The next day, men dress as devils and bear torches and fireworks to "chase out the plague," as St. Sebastian did for the city in 1524.

In the Basque country's town of San Sebastian, the Feast of St. Sebastian -- or Donostia, as it is known there -- is marked by a huge gathering drummers. This Tamborrada drumming session consists of thousands of people playing drums for over 24 hours. Female drummers wear traditional Basque dress, and the men dress as soldiers (the city's many dining society men dress as chefs). This drumming began in honor of the people's defiance during the Siege of San Sebastian in 1813: they mocked the invading soldiers' drills by banging on buckets, and this drumming became an expression of civic pride. This part of Spain also has a cheesecake named for our Saint, a perfect dessert for the day:

San Sebastian Cheesecake

36 ounces full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
5 eggs, at room temperature
zest of half a lemon, optional

1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 teaspoons all purpose flour, sifted
1 cup heavy whipping cream, at room temperature

Preheat your oven to 425F. Line a 9-inch springform pan with a large sheet of parchment paper.

In a big bowl, beat the cream cheese until creamy and smooth (use a hand mixer if you have one). Add the sugar one cup at a time, mixing well to combine after each addition to help the sugar dissolve. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well. Add the lemon zest (if using) and vanilla and mix just enough to combine. Add the flour, mixing gently to combine. Blend in the heavy cream.

Pour the batter into the lined springform pan and bang the pan gently on the countertop to get rid of bubbles. Bake for 35 minutes -- spinning the pan halfway around halfway through baking -- until the cheesecake is set around the edges but jiggly in the middle (the internal temperature in the middle should be around 155F). It will be caramelized a deep brown on top, no worries (in fact, this cheesecake is sometimes called "Basque Burnt Cheesecake). Let the cake cool in the pan until totally cooled to room temperature. Good with fresh berries.

As to music, Claude Debussy wrote Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, a musical mystery play about our Saint.

And there is the Missa de Sao Sebastiao by the Brazilian Antônio Carlos Gomes. Yes, it's supposed to be a Mass, but it's completely awful as such; it plays like an opera, and in that way it can be enjoyed:

Finally, there is something you should know about St. Sebastian: in the same way that St. Francis has been used by hippies and new-agers, and St. Hildegard of Bingen has been co-opted by feminists and new-agers, St. Sebastian has been abused by LGBT activists. This is due to how he's been portrayed since the Renaissance, when naturalism arose in painting. Artists began to paint him in a very naturalistic way as an especially beautiful young man  -- a young, scantily dressed young man tied to a tree, penetrated by "phallic" arrows, with an expression of some blend of agony and ecstasy on his face. The artist Guido Reni painted six portraits of St. Sebastian (click here to see the most famous of them), and some of those portraits have had a singular effect on many homosexual men, from Oscar Wilde to Yukio Mishima to filmmaker Derek Jarman whose 1976 movie "Sebastiane" is said to portray St. Sebastian in an extremely homoerotic way. St. Sebastian has even been unofficially adopted as "the patron Saint of homosexuals."

Don't let such things ruin your love for St. Sebastian. He deserves better. And if you struggle with same-sex attraction, ask St. Sebastian to pray for you to persevere in temperance, and to love Christ as deeply as he does.

Note that the evening of this feast is St. Agnes Eve.


From Geuranger's Liturgical Year

At the head of her list of heroes, after the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul, who form her chief glory -- Rome puts her two most valiant Martyrs, Laurence and Sebastian, and her two most illustrious Virgins, Cecily and Agnes. Of these four, two are given us by the Calendar of Christmastide as attendants in the court of the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem. Laurence and Cecily will come to us further on in our year, when other Mysteries will be filling our hearts and the Liturgy; but Christmas calls forth Sebastian and Agnes. Today, it is the brave soldier of the praetorian band, Sebastian, who stands by the Crib of our Emmanuel; tomorrow, we shall see Agnes, gentle as a lamb, yet fearless as a lion, inviting us to love the sweet Babe whom she chose for her only one Spouse.

The chivalrous spirit of Sebastian reminds us of the great Archdeacon; both of them, one in the sanctuary and the other in the world, defied the tortures of death. Burnt on one side, Laurence bids the tyrant roast the other; Sebastian pierced with his arrows, waits till the gaping wounds are closed, and then runs to his persecutor Dioclesian, asking for a second martyrdom. But we must forget Laurence today, to think of Sebastian.

We must picture to ourselves a young soldier who tears himself away from all the ties of his home at Milan, because the persecution there was too tame, whereas at Rome, it was raging in wildest fierceness. He trembles with anxiety at the thought that, perhaps, some of the Christians in the Capital may be losing courage. He has been told that, at times, some of the Emperor’s soldiers, who were soldiers also of Christ, have gained admission into the prisons, and have roused up the sinking courage of the confessors. He is resolved to go on the like mission, and who knows? he may come within reach of a palm himself. He reaches Rome, he is admitted into the prisons, and encourages to martyrdom such as had been shaken by the tears of those who were dear to them. Some of the jailers, converted by witnessing his faith and his miracles, became Martyrs themselves; and one of the Roman Magistrates asks to be instructed in a religion which can produce such men as this Sebastian. He has won the esteem of the Emperors Dioclesian and Maximian-Hercules for his fidelity and courage as a soldier; they have loaded him with favors; and this gives him an influence in Rome, which he so zealously turns to the advantage of the Christian religion that the holy Pope Caius calls him the Defender of the Church.

After sending innumerable martyrs to heaven, Sebastian at length wins the crown he had so ardently ambitioned. He incurs the displeasure of Dioclesian by confessing himself a Christian; the heavenly King, for whose sake alone he had put on the helmet and soldier’s cloak, was to him above all Emperors and Princes. He is handed over to the archers of Mauritania, who strip him and bind him and wound him, from head to foot, with their arrows. They left him for dead, but a pious woman named Irene took care of him, and his wounds were healed. Sebastian again approaches the Emperor, who orders him to be beaten to death in the circus, near the Imperial Palace.

Such are the Soldiers of our newborn King! but oh! how richly does he repay them for their service! Rome, the Capital of his Church, is founded on seven Basilicas, as the ancient City was on its seven hills; and the name and tomb of Sebastian grace one of these seven sanctuaries. The Basilica of Sebastian stands in a sort of solitude, on the Appian Way, outside the walls of the Eternal City; it is enriched with the relics of the holy Pope and Martyr Fabian; but Sebastian, the valiant leader of the praetorian guard, is the Patron and, as it were, the Prince of the holy temple. It was here that he wished to be buried, as a faithful guardian, near the wall wherein the bodies of the holy Apostles had been concealed, lest they should be desecrated by the persecutors.

In return for the zeal of St. Sebastian for the souls of his Christian brethren, whom he preserved from the contagion of paganism, God has made him the Protector of the Faithful against pestilence. A signal proof of this power granted to the holy Martyr was given at Rome in the year 680, under the Pontificate of St. Agatho.

Let us now listen to our holy Mother the Church, who thus speaks of her glorious Martyr, in the Office of his Feast.

Sebastian, whose Father was of Narbonne, and his Mother a lady of Milan, was beloved by Dioclesian on account of his noble birth and his virtues. Being a captain of the praetorian cohort, he was able to give assistance and alms to the Christians, whose faith he himself followed, although privately. When he perceived any of them trembling at the great tortures of the persecutors, he made it his duty to encourage them; and so well did he do it, that many would go, and, for the sake of Jesus Christ, would freely offer themselves to the executioners. Of this number were the two brothers Mark and Marcellian, who were in custody under Nicostratus, whose wife, named Zoe, had recovered her speech by the prayer made for her by Sebastian. Dioclesian, being told of these things, summoned Sebastian before him; and after upbraiding him, in very strong words, tried every means to induce him to turn from the faith of Christ. But, finding that neither promises nor threats availed, he ordered him to be tied to a stake, and to be shot to death with arrows.

Every one thought he was dead; and a pious woman named Irene, gave orders that his body should be taken away, during the night, and buried; but she, finding him to be still alive, had him taken to her house, where she took care of him. Not long after, having quite recovered, he went before Dioclesian, and boldly chided him for his wickedness. At first, the Emperor was struck dumb with astonishment at the sight, for he had been told that Sebastian was dead; but, at length, the strange event and the Martyr’s sharp rebuke so inflamed him with rage, that he ordered him to be scourged to death with rods. His body was thrown into a sewer, but Lucina was instructed by Sebastian, in her sleep, both as to where his body was, and where he wished to be buried. Accordingly, she buried him at the Catacombs, where, afterwards, a celebrated Church was built, called Saint Sebastian’s.

The ancient Liturgical books contain a great many pieces in honor of St. Sebastian. We limit ourselves to the following, which belongs to the Ambrosian Breviary.


Let us all, in humble supplication, and with becoming sweetness of voice, celebrate in song the feast-day of our dear fellow-citizen, Sebastian the Martyr.

This noble champion of Christ, fired with the love of battle, leaves his country, where danger too tamely threatened him, and hastens to the hot battlefield at Rome.

His soul enlightened with the sublime dogmas of faith, and full of heavenly courage, he condemns the worship of idols, and hopes that a martyr’s bright trophy may be his.

He is bound with many thongs to the huge trunk of a tree, and on his naked breast receives the quivering arrows.

There stood his body like a forest of iron darts, while his soul, more unflinching than brass, despises the weapons as harmless things, and bids them do their worst.

Streams of blood flow from the wounds, leaving but a lifeless body; but a holy woman comes by night, and heals the gaping wounds.

The cruel goading gives our soldier heavenly strength; again he urges the tyrant to his work, and, this time, dies under the wounding lash.

And now, most brave of warriors! now that thou art throned in the high heavens, drive pestilence away, and mercifully protect the bodily health of thy fellow-citizens on earth.

To the Father, and to the Son, and to thee, O Holy Spirit, may there be, as there ever hath been, glory for ever and ever. Amen.

We find the following Prayer in the Gothic Missal.


O God, who, by thy most blessed Martyr Sebastian, hast infused courage into the hearts of thy faithful, since thou didst make him, while concealed under the service of an earthly commander, a perfect soldier of thine own: grant, that we may ever fight for the securing thy praise; arm our mouth with the teachings of thy justice; enlighten our heart with the love of thy love, and, having freed our flesh from its concupiscence, secure it to thyself with the nails of thy cross.

Brave Soldier of our Emmanuel! thou art now sweetly reposing at the foot of his throne. Thy wounds are closed, and thy rich palm branch delights all heaven by the freshness of its unfading beauty. Look down upon the Church on earth that tires not in singing thy praise. Each Christmas, we find thee near the Crib of the Divine Babe, its brave and faithful sentinel. The office thou didst once fill in an earthly prince’s court is still thine, but it is in the palace of the King of kings. Into that palace, we beseech thee, lead us by thy prayers, and gain a favorable hearing to our own unworthy petitions.

With what a favorable ear must not our Jesus receive all thy requests, who didst love him with such a brave love! Thirsting to shed thy blood in his service, thou didst scorn a battlefield where danger was not sure, and Rome, that Babylon which, as St. John says, was drunk with the blood of the Martyrs, Rome alone was worthy of thee. And there, it was not thy plan to cull a palm, and hurry on to heaven; the courage of some of thy fellow Christians had wavered, and the thought of their danger troubled thee. Rushing into their prisons, where they lay mutilated by the tortures they had endured, thou didst give them back the fallen laurel, and teach them how to secure it in the grasp of holy defiance. It seemed as thou thou wast commissioned to form a praetorian band for the King of heaven, and that thou couldst not enter heaven unless marshalling thither a troop of veterans for Jesus.

Thy turn came at last; the hour of thy confession was at hand, and thou hadst to think of thine own fair crown. But for such a soldier as thou, Sebastian, one martyrdom is not enough. The archers have faithfully done their work—not an arrow is left in their quivers; and yet their victim lives, ready for a second sacrifice. Such were the Christians of the early times, and we are their children!

Look, then, O Soldier of Christ! upon us, and pity us, as thou didst thy brethren, who once faltered in the combat. Alas! we let everything frighten and discourage us; and oftentimes, we are enemies of the Cross, even while professing that we love it. We too easily forget that we cannot be companions of the martyrs unless our hearts have the generosity of the martyrs. We are cowardly in our contest with the world and its pomps; with the evil propensities of our nature, and the tyranny of our senses—and thus we fall. And when we have made an easy peace with God, and sealed it with the sacrament of his love, we behave as though we had now nothing more to do than to go on quietly to heaven, without further trials or self-imposed sacrifices. Rouse us, great Saint! from these illusions, and waken us from our listless life. Our love of God is asleep, and all must needs go wrong.

Preserve us from the contagion of bad example, and of those worldly maxims which gain currency even with Christian minds, because Christian lips call them rules of Christian prudence. Pray for us, that we may be ardent in the pursuit of our sanctification, watchful over our inclinations, zealous for the salvation of others, lovers of the Cross, and detached from earthly things. Oh! by the arrows which pierced thee, we beseech thee shield us from those hidden darts which satan throws against us.

Pray for us, that we may be clad with the armor of God, described to us by the great Apostle. May we have on the breast-plate of justice, which will defend us from sin; the helmet of salvation, that is, the hope of gaining heaven, which will preserve us from both despair and presumption; the shield of faith, which will ward off the darts of the enemy, who seeks to corrupt the heart by leading the mind into error; and lastly, the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, whereby we may put all false doctrines to flight, and vanquish all our vices; for heaven and earth pass away, but the word of God abides forever, and is given us as our rule and the pledge of our salvation.

Defender of the Church! as the Vicar of Christ called thee, lift up thy sword and defend her now. Prostrate her enemies, and frustrate the plots they have laid for her destruction. Let her enjoy one of those rare periods of peace, during which she prepares for fresh combats. Obtain for Christian soldiers, engaged in just wars, the blessing of the God of Hosts. Protect the Holy City of Rome, where thy Tomb is honored. Avert from us, by thy intercession, the scourge of pestilence and contagion. Hear the prayers which, each year, are addressed to thee for the preservation of the creatures given by God to man to aid him in his daily labor. Secure to us, by thy prayers, peace and happiness in this present life, and the good things of the life to come.


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