When we grow up, we typically idolize athletes of all kinds. We hang their posters on our walls, and we join community leagues or church leagues in the hopes of joining our favorite teams in high school, college, and at the professional level. A select few athletes are chosen to represent their home countries at the Olympics, known for centuries as the pinnacle of athletic achievement. We look to the stars of our chosen sport for inspiration, and maybe even follow their training and diet regimens in the hopes of attaining some level of their success in our own careers. Athletics is an industry that brings in billions of dollars the world over, and its popularity is only increasing.
For believing athletes, St. Sebastian might be a well-known patron of their endeavors since he is the patron saint of athletes.
#1 What accounts of St. Sebastian do we have today?
Not much is known about Sebastian’s life beyond his employment and ministry. His life was first relayed to the rest of the Church by St. Ambrose, then a bishop in Milan, in the 4th century. This story may be only a legend, however, and has more recently been attributed to an unknown writer in the 5th century instead.
#2 When was he born, and what was his life like?
Sebastian was likely born in the south of France, then traveled to Milan for his studies. In the year 283, he entered the Roman imperial army in order to secretly assist Christians who were to be martyred for their faith. His courage led to his advancement in the army despite his Christian faith, which remained a secret from his superiors. He eventually became a captain of the Praetorian Guard, an elite bodyguard unit for the Emperor.
#3 What were some of the main events in his ministry?
According to the tradition of his life, Sebastian ministered to twin brothers Marcus and Marcellian. They were deacons in the Christian church and refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, and they were arrested and set to be put to death. Their parents tried to force them to renounce their faith, but after Sebastian interceded and spoke with them, they became converts to Christianity as well.
He also ministered to a local official who was converted along with his wife, Zoe. Zoe was said to have been mute for six years, but when she expressed a desire to become a Christian, she regained her ability to speak.
#4 How did he die?
When his faith was ultimately discovered by Emperor Diocletian, he was ordered to be shot with arrows. When this sentence was carried out, however, he did not die. He returned to the emperor’s palace and publicly spoke out against him. The emperor sentenced him to be beaten to death, and Sebastian finally died in the year 286.
#5 What other saints are associated with St. Sebastian?
After he was shot full of arrows and left for dead, it was said that Irene, the widow of a local official who helped to hide Christians from persecution, went to retrieve his body for burial. She discovered that he was still alive, and nursed him back to health. Irene was later beatified and venerated as St. Irene of Rome.
#6 Where are his remains?
His body is said to be buried in Rome in a church built by Pope Damasus I in 367; the church is known today as San Sebastiano fuori le mura. Some other writers claim that his body was given to a French monk, who kept in safe in an abbey at Soissons in 826. Finally, his cranium is said to have been brought to a German town and was used as a chalice to be used in religious feasts held in his honor.
#7 What else is he known for?
In the Middle Ages, St. Sebastian saw a great surge in his popularity due to the belief that he could protect against the plague. The reason for this belief is a link with Greek mythology. Apollo, the god of archery, would sometimes destroy his enemies with arrows that carried a deadly plague; and since Sebastian was tortured by archers but did not die, he was believed to have the power to intercede for and protect those who suffered from the plague. This was also linked to Scriptural references of God afflicting people and nations with arrows of punishment.
He was also said to have freed Rome itself from pestilence in the 7th century.
#8 How is St. Sebastian depicted in art and culture?
St. Sebastian is most frequently depicted in the midst of his final torture, his body riddled with arrows. Some pieces of art portray St. Irene visiting him in the form of an angel coming to attend to him.
#9 How does someone become a saint?
After a person has died, their life is investigated by an official expert authorized by the Church. Their initial report is submitted to the bishop of their diocese and further investigation is performed. They may then submit the individual to the office of the Pope for recognition by the universal church. If this recognition is granted, they will have been venerated by the Church, and are given the title “Venerable.”
The next level involves further research, and if warranted the person is beatified and is given the new title “Blessed.”
The final level of investigation determines whether or not miracles were performed. Proof of at least two miracles performed by God through this person must be verified. Once this is proven, the Pope may canonize this person as a saint through a public proclamation.
#10 What about St. Sebastian makes him the patron saint of athletes?
Some Christian denominations, such as Catholicism, recognize certain saints as able to intercede before God in prayer on behalf of those suffering from a particular ailment or to pray on behalf of a certain kind of believer. Others do not believe that saints can intercede on behalf of the living when they die.
St. Sebastian is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, which are said to be effective in their ministry and intercession against sickness or infirmity. In a twist of irony, St. Sebastian is the patron saint of archers, as well as pin-makers.
A more modern association makes St. Sebastian the patron saint of athletes. This may be due to his extreme endurance under great physical stress and torture.
#11 What other patronages is he known for?
Medieval popularity makes him the patron saint of those suffering from the plague, and he is also the patron saint of a holy Christian death. He is also the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro.
Like many early saints whose accounts arose before the founding of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Sebastian may have been a legendary figure. However, his example can inspire Christians of all walks for his dedication and devotion to the Lord even under the fear of persecution and death. He boldly walked into the belly of the beast in order to minister to those who were sure to be put to death for their faith and even helped some of those prisoners escape their fate.
With his miraculous recovery, he has also been branded as a portrait of physical endurance and grace under fire, traits that are absolutely necessary for successful athletes. With the addition of other key patronages throughout history, these qualities, as well as others, have made him the patron saint of athletes everywhere, who look to St. Sebastian for focus and discipline as they train their bodies and minds for excellence. Even if we never set foot on a field or a court in our lives, we should strive to do the same ourselves as we look to our Lord and strive to do His will.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.