St. Sebastian, a Roman military officer of the third century, is the patron saint of writers a very popular subject of Christian art. No one knows why he’s the patron of writers, but the novelist Anthony Burgess (a Catholic of sorts) suggested it was because he was bound to a pillar and pierced by arrows from all sides — and that’s symbolic of the author’s ordinary reward for publishing something. Burgess himself rejected Sebastian as his patron and took Pontius Pilate instead (there are legends of Pilate’s eventual conversion). Pilate, after all, had said, “What I have written, I have written” (Jn 19:22), and that was more representative of Burgess’s attitude.
I give so much space to goofy speculation because we know little about Sebastian, other than the fact of his martyrdom. In the later fourth century, Ambrose said he was from Milan.
He shares his feast day with Pope St. Fabian I. Now there’s a man with a story. Here it is, adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
After the death of Pope Anterus he had come to Rome, with some others, from his farm and was in the city when the new election began. While the names of several illustrious and noble persons were being considered, a dove suddenly descended upon the head of Fabian, of whom no one had even thought. To the assembled brethren the sight recalled the Gospel scene of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Savior of mankind, and so, divinely inspired, as it were, they chose Fabian with joyous unanimity and placed him in the Chair of Peter. During his reign of fourteen years (236-250) there was a lull in the storm of persecution. Little is known of his pontificate. The “Liber Pontificalis” says that he divided Rome into seven districts, each supervised by a deacon, and appointed seven subdeacons, to collect, in conjunction with other notaries, the “acta” of the martyrs, i.e. the reports of the court-proceedings on the occasion of their trials. There is a tradition that he instituted the four minor orders. Under him considerable work was done in the catacombs. He caused the body of Pope St. Pontianus to be exhumed, in Sardinia, and transferred to the catacomb of St. Callistus at Rome. The famous Origen did not hesitate to defend, before Fabian, the orthodoxy of his teaching. Fabian died a martyr (20 Jan., 250) at the beginning of the Decian persecution, and was buried in the Crypt of the Popes in the catacomb of St. Callistus, where in recent times his Greek epitaph was discovered.
If you’d like to walk in the footsteps of Saints Sebastian and Fabian, consider joining Scott Hahn and me on our Marian pilgrimage to Rome in May. But don’t delay signing up. The roster’s filling up.