The Seven Churches Pilgrimage: Basilica of Saint Sebastian
By Sr. Gini George, SSpS
The third station of the Pilgrimage to the Seven Churches is the Basilica of St. Sebastian Outside the Walls.
The site of the basilica holds a large underground burial area of the early Christians, known as the catacombs.
The first church on this site was built during the Christian persecutions, in the 3rd century AD.
According to tradition, the remains of Saint Peter and Paul were kept hidden here during the persecution.
In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine built a large basilica on this spot, dedicated to the memory of the apostles, called the Basilica Apostolorum.
Around 350 AD the relics of Saint Sebastian were also placed in these catacombs and both the basilica and the underground burial place were dedicated to this saint.
As a Christian and member of the high military ranks, Sebastian could discreetly help the Christians that were imprisoned by the emperor.
Once his actions were discovered, Diocletian sentenced Sebastian to be tortured and shot to death by arrows.
Fearing a Saracen assault, in 826, the remains of the saints were transferred to the Basilica of St. Peter.
In 1218, Pope Honorius III had Saint Sebastian’s remains returned to the Basilica.
The basilica was completely reconstructed in the 17th century.
The front facade features granite columns once belonging to the former Constantinian basilica.
The interior features a single nave with a carved wooden ceiling.
On the right-hand side, there is the chapel of the relics, which preserves a stone that is believed to bear the footprints of Jesus and an arrow that pierced Saint Sebastian, together with a fragment of the column to which he was tied during martyrdom.
Also, within this same reliquary chapel are some small relics said to be from St Peter, St Paul, St Andrew, and several other saints.
On the left hand, we see the chapel of St. Sebastian.
In 1672 Antonio Giorgetti sculpted the statue of the saint himself that can be seen underneath the altar.
The basilica also shelters the last masterpiece created by the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Il Salvator Mundi, a marble bust depicting Jesus the Saviour.
As pilgrims in this basilica, we are reminded that St Sebastian and other martyrs reflect the face of the Church.
It is an invitation to become the bearers of the Gospel message with conviction and courage.