Yesterday was the feast of Saint Sebastian, you know that Roman martyr whose body was sliced and diced with arrows. Writer Camile Paglia makes alot of fuss about Sebastian in art and other things. So we took a long, long march along the very-rain soaked pavement of the ancient Appian Way. The city bus let us off in front of the tiny chapel of “Quo Vadis Domine?” This is where Peter spoke to a vision of Christ — and returned to Rome to face a martyr’s death.
Meanwhile back on the road, Professor DGA told us that it was a mere 100 meters to the site of Sebastian’s catacombs and church. Or was it 300 meters? Or maybe 3,000 meters? Let’s say, Americans are not exactly good with the metric system. Recall somewhere in the fine print of our course title is: “We are walking in the footsteps of the early Christians.” It was our version of the “Long March of Chairman Mao,” or maybe “The Bataan Death March.”
So the speedy Italian auto traffic was aimed at us, slip-sliding away; and, then, out of a barnyard came a youthful shepherd with his flock of several hundred sheep. If you have ever seen a flock of sheep — at best they have a mind-set to strictly follow the posterior of proceeding animal. Given the road and the weather conditions, those creatures were better adapted than humans when walking in a herd.
We arrived at the catacombs, to get a breather and find our tour guide. The multi-layered labyrinth of the catacombs continues to fascinate century after century. More so — on this holy feast of the martyr Sebastian — whose relics and image are venerate. After our tour below ground, we took our seats in the main church for the Solemn High Mass.
With the start of the procession, we were directed to take a lighted candle, and went to back of the church at Sabastian’s ornate altar. In full-dress uniform, two very tall Italian carabinieri stood at attention — and flanked either side of the memorial. Here, there is huge larger than life statue of Sebastian, in creamy white marble placed us directly over his burial site, one level below the main floor of the church.
Much like a scene in a Fedrico Fellini movie, the congregation responded to the cantor — who led the ancient litany of saints; all of the saints including our patron saint: “San Sebastiano,” To which we replied “Prega per noi!” So down, down, down we went — into the ground of the catacombs. There are six miles of tunnels on five or more levels of black and brown earth. Up and down and around, echoes of sound, sometime lost, and then amplified by a sound system — and plenty scary as one woman’s hair caught the flame of another pilgrim’s lighted candle. Almost immediately extinguished, and past that danger, we proceed upward, as if on a Stairmaster toward the opening door to the main Church.
We were back in our seats– astonished from what we had just experienced. Now I’ve been around Italian Americans who have a cultural connection to their liturgical customs — such as they are at the feast of San Gennaro in New York City, or my family’s patron Saint Gerard, in old First Ward, of my home town of Newark, N.J. This Roman liturgical memorial for Saint Sebastian is the real thing. It could be the subject of a life-time of serious study in theology, history, art, archeology, music, and sociology. You name it — you can be awarded several doctoral degrees to fully appreciate this complete liturgical and historical experience.
Of course, we had reached our goal – on the main floor of the church — the holy sacrifice of the Mass that for centuries of a prayerful communion with a Roman martyr’s belief in Christ brought him, and us to this geography — above and below ground.
Father Mike R