Second Thought for the Day – 30 January – The Memorial of Blessed Sebastian Valfrè CO (1629-1710)
Blessed Sebastian’s sanctity, under God, arose from his struggles to conform himself to Saint Philip – and that was quite a task. Whereas Philip was gentle and kind by nature, Sebastian was harsh and prone to outbursts of anger. Philip had to refrain from extended prayer in public for fear of going into ecstasy. Sebastian experienced nothing but dryness in prayer and had to keep his mind from wandering. The thought of death and judgement so tormented him, that he could not sleep at night.
And Sebastian found one of the principal works of the Oratory – the hearing of confessions – so repugnant that the congregation could not prevail upon him to accept faculties until ten years after his ordination. Yet, he was able to overcome all these difficulties and always to maintain a serene and joyful expression, so that everyone considered him to be another Saint Philip.
Community life presented Sebastian with many opportunities for mortifying his short temper. When teaching theology to the novices, he had to endure a student who had no interest in the subject and showed his annoyance by constantly arguing and contradicting the professor.
Sebastian patiently answered his objections and did not betray his own displeasure, although, as he confided to one of the fathers, the very sight of the man filled him with repugnance. The novice subsequently left the congregation; more serious, however and more enduring was Sebastian’s natural antipathy for one of the fathers. He admitted that there was nothing objectively wrong with the priest but that the dislike was so strong that he had to take a private vow to endure the father’s company. Sebastian believed that he never once betrayed his feelings and was grateful for the opportunity to mortify his nature which he recognised to be imperfect.
Sebastian had a beautiful plaster Crucifix, over the prie-Dieu in his room, to which he was quite attached. He once asked a father to get some papers for him which were inside the flap of the prie-Dieu. In opening the flap, the priest let it slip and it shattered the crucifix into tiny pieces. Sebastian, although he was in the room when it happened, remained calm, told the father not to trouble himself with it and swept up the pieces himself.
The Congregation of the Oratory derives its name from a place of prayer and Saint Philip used to say that anyone who did not intend to pray should leave the community. Sebastian, although he was intent on praying, found prayer extremely difficult. He found it dry and God seemed to be very far away from him. When engaged in mental prayer, Sebastian found it hard to concentrate, although he was careful to prepare his meditations. The inability to concentrate was especially painful to him when saying his office and he seems to have given in to scruples on occasion, reciting the office more than once. And at Mass, too, he found it difficult to concentrate, although for a brief time after Communion, his soul found some peace.
Sebastian remained in this state of anguish for many years. But, although he suffered interiorly, he was able to lead his penitents in the way of Christian joy associated with his spiritual father, Saint Philip. Sebastian, himself, acknowledged the value of these torments in teaching him perfect detachment from all earthly things. Others have seen them as protecting his humility from his admiring disciples who were intent on bestowing every honour upon the Saint.
Blessed Sebastian is a model of perseverance and a great source of hope. He fought against imperfections such as his temper and repugnances and prevailed. And he persevered in prayer although he did not find any consolation there but, more often than not, spiritual torment. Yet, God used these means to purify him and present him to the outside world as a great saint full of Christian joy. His exemplary life of holiness would inspire the Church in Turin for many generations and now, he inspires the faithful in perseverance, hope and humility, knowing that we are all called to be Saints too! It is comforting and a source of consolation to realise, that the Saints too, experienced the hardships we sometimes do – let us never give up the pursuit of holiness, amen.