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.
Blessed Sebastian Valfrè
Sebastian Valfrè was born on 9th 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 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 it on St Philip’s Day, 26th 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.
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 has 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.
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 the 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 was an example, 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.
Sebastian died early in the morning of January 30th 1710; miracles began even before he could be buried, and he was beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1834.
With acknowledgement to the Oxford Oratory