I’m part of a team that reviews letters from confirmation candidates (confirmands) to Archbishop Charles Thompson in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. We make sure that i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed (in the technical, not the grammatical sense!) for the confirmands to go forward with the sacrament.
In the letters, each confirmand notes the patron saint they chose and why they chose that saint. There are lots of Maria Gorettis, Annes, Michaels and Josephs. But one saint is quickly rising in popularity: St. Sebastian, patron saint of athletes and soldiers. Catholicsaintmedals.com lists him as their ninth-top-selling saint medal, noting that “often the best selling medals give an indication about popular confirmation names.”
St. Sebastian, whose feast day is Jan. 20, is believed to have been born in the middle of the third century in Narbonne in what is now southern France. He kept his Christianity quiet as he joined the Roman army with, it is believed, the hopes of helping Christian martyrs. He was promoted to the role of a Praetorian Guard captain under Emperor Diocletian, a role he continued to serve for Emperor Maximian. Neither emperor knew St. Sebastian was a Christian.
According to tradition, the saint is credited with converting at least 22 Romans to Christianity. Among them were the parents of two imprisoned Christian sons. The couple tried to convince their sons to renounce the faith, but were instead converted to Christianity by St. Sebastian. Others he converted include a Roman prefect and his son Tiburtius, who later became a saint; the prison official Nicostratus and his wife; and 16 of Nicostratus’ prisoners.
Eventually, St. Sebastian’s faith was discovered. He was tied to a post and riddled with arrows by military archers. Left for dead, he actually survived and was nursed back to health by a Roman Christian. According to a Jan. 20, 2020, Aleteia article by Philip Kosloski, “The most common depiction of Sebastian was as a young, athletic young man, riddled with arrows. It was this artistic expression, along with the story of his supernatural endurance, that made him a popular saint among soldiers and athletes.”
With his health regained, St. Sebastian placed himself where he knew the emperor would pass. He renounced the emperor for his persecution of Christians. This courageous act was St. Sebastian’s final witness; the emperor had him bludgeoned to death and thrown into a sewer.
The body of St. Sebastian was retrieved and buried in a catacomb, over which was built the Basilica of St. Sebastian Outside the Walls in 367, about 5.5 miles south of Vatican City. The church—a minor basilica—was rebuilt in the early 1600s.