Saint of the Day – 30 January – Blessed Sebastian Valfrè CO (1629-1710) Oratorian Priest, Apostle of the poor, the ill, widows and orphans, prisoners, Confessor with deep insight, Writer – known as the Apostle of Turin and St Philip of Turin, Marian devotee. Born on 9 March 1629 in Verduno, Duchy of Savoy (in modern Italy) and died on 30 January 1711 in Turin, Duchy of Savoy of natural causes. Blessed Sebastian is known for his service to the poor during the famine of 1678-80 and the 17-week siege of Turin during the war between Piemonte and Louis XIV. He is still invoked as patron of Military Chaplains for his ministry to soldiers during the war. Patronage – Turin, the Oratory in Turin and Military Chaplains and soldiers. His body is incorrupt.
Sebastian Valfrè was born on 9 March 1629 at Verduno in the southern Alps. His background was humble – his mother and father were poor farmers and the dull routine of work in the fields with his parents and seven siblings took up much of his childhood. He felt a call to the priesthood at an early age but ran into difficulties with his family, who were loathe to lose his assistance with the farm work, however, he persevered and eventually won them over. He left Verduno to begin his studies in 1641 at the age of twelve and again, these days were not easy for him – at one stage he had to stay up most nights copying out books, to pay for his education, which took him, in its later stages, to Turin for studies with the Jesuits.
Also at Turin was the Oratory, which had in earlier years been influential, particularly on the youth of the city but by 1650 was rather down-at-heel – only one priest, Fr Cambiani, remained and he is described as ‘ragged and eccentric’. It can hardly have been an enticing prospect in human terms but Sebastian nonetheless joined, on St Philip’s Day, 26 May 1651, being Ordained Deacon only a week later. By the end of the year, the community had been bolstered by the arrival of three new priests, so by the time Sebastian was Ordained Priest in February 1652, the Oratory showed signs of life once more.
Turin soon began to benefit from his presence as a priest. In common with many cities of that and other ages, it had its share of poverty, which Sebastian did much to alleviate. He was not afraid to ask the rich for alms to give to the poor but he took care to be as discreet as possible, doing much of the distribution at night when it was easier to remain anonymous. These activities took on heightened importance from 1678 to 1680, when famine struck Piedmont and again, during the war between Piedmont and Louis XIV, which culminated for Turin in a seventeen-week siege which caused great hardship as well as anxiety — and which Sebastian’s prayers are said to have been efficacious in bringing to a successful end for the inhabitants.
Sebastian’s interests and influence were not limited to the duchy. He helped to found the Pontifical Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles in Rome in 1701, which was established to train diplomats for the Papal States. Under its current name of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, it still fulfils that function for the Vatican City State.
If Sebastian was esteemed by the less well-off, he was also on good terms with those who were more fortunate. In particular, he maintained good relations with the Dukes of Savoy, one of whom, Victor Amadeus II, he had helped to form, from the age of nine, into the just ruler he later became. Sebastian was the spiritual director to the entire court of the Duke and such was the esteem in which he was held, that at one stage the Duke did his best to procure the Archbishopric of Turin for Sebastian. His cause was furthered by the good reputation which he had in the Vatican but Sebastian’s humility led him to dread this ecclesiastical dignity and was profoundly grateful to be able to avoid accepting it. Additionally, through his devotion to the Blessed Mother, he inspired the duke to erect the Basilica of Superga.
Sebastian’s corporal works of mercy went hand- in-hand with the spiritual. He was very reluctant at first to start taking on the special responsibility for souls involved in hearing confessions — again, his humility is evident — but, once he did, his reputation spread throughout the city. He also searched out penitents far and wide — hospitals, schools, convents, barracks, prisons, galleys all benefited from his concern for spiritual well-being. His success in this field, as well as in his approach to life in the Oratory in general, was probably due, above all else, to his blending of careful attention to detail with a genuine compassion and, his penances reflected this. His penitents told of his ability to read souls . Sebastian’s work in the confessional was, at the very least, instrumental in sparking something of a revival of religious observance in Turin – like St Philip, it was said that he had the gift of discernment of spirits.
The life of Sebastian Valfrè was not one of extravagant and heroic deeds done for God but of the sanctification of an existence of regular routine, year in, year out and of service to God in the circumstances of ordinary life. His cheerful and attractive manner were an example to all and he also had his fair share of difficulties which he had to work hard to overcome. He was, for example, rather petulant and sensitive by nature, being easily offended – he remedied this by trying to be unfailingly polite even to those who hurt him. He also knew what it was to suffer from spiritual darkness, finding prayer a real struggle at times and study even more unattractive. But his perseverance, which manifested itself from his earliest years, stood him in good stead.
The Father who had Paradise in his eyes, Blessed Sebastian, died early in the morning of 30 January 1710. Miracles began even before he could be buried and he was Beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1834. His incorrupt body is now preserved in a silver urn in the Oratory Church of Turin.
When Father Sebastian died and his body was laid out in the church, Turin’s citizens wanted to say goodbye to the priest who walked with them, through all the joys and difficulties in life, for sixty years. Father Sebastian’s legacy was the extroversion of the faith preached by Christ for the dignity of all people, the witness of Christian charity knew no boundaries.
The Archives of the Turin Oratory possess some 22 volumes of his writings. One of his most important works was his ‘Compendium of Christian Doctrine’, a Catechism organised on a question and answer basis. This rapidly became a well-used teaching aid and lasted until the introduction of the Catechism of Pope Pius X.
In 1835, a year after Sebastian was Beatified, there was a solemn translation of his relics.
Overshadowed at the time by royalty and ecclesiastical dignitaries, there were three future saints in the crowd. There was Saint Joseph Benedict Cottolengo (1786-1842) – known as “The Labourer of Divine Providence”, who devoted himself to the care of the destitute sick; Saint Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860) “The Priest of the Gallows”, whose work with prisoners caught the imagination of all Turin and Saint John Bosco (1815-1888), whose work with children is known to the whole world and whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. All of these could draw their spiritual lineage both by inspiration and imitation to Blessed Sebastian Valfrè .
Grant us, we beseech You, O Lord, that, as You did wonderfully raise Your priest, Blessed Sebastian, for the salvation of many, so we may persevere in Your love, for the sake of helping souls. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.