Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio, Pray For Us
I've discovered that holiness is found even in the nooks and crannies of the Church, because holiness is in her DNA.
I was staring at the computer screen while thinking to myself: “Who’s he?”
The Rite of Extraction is a tradition in the Secular Franciscan Order, done at the beginning of each year. It is the blind picking of a saint, a virtue, and a passage from Scripture, for fraternity members to pray and meditate upon throughout that year.
On a typical year, those of us in the Padre Pio Fraternity would meet for the Rite of Extraction in person, and learn the “who” and “what” only after picking out folded slips of paper from baskets. But a rare snowfall in Raleigh, plus a general concern over a recent surge of COVID-19 cases, had prevented us from gathering in person this January. Our gathering was held via Zoom instead. One of the members of our council, after having prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance, picked our saints and virtues and passages on all of our behalf beforehand.
I sat front of my computer, staring at the screen while sipping on a mug of coffee. Our names were being read, one-by-one, as they appeared on slideshow during our Zoom meeting, along with the names of our saints, our virtues and our scriptural passages for the year 2022. Having had the last name Simonson all my life, I’ve become accustomed to waiting a bit whenever names get read in alphabetical order. I watched on as the names of my brothers and sisters appeared on the screen, several of them above the names of saints whom we are all familiar with: St. Joan of Arc, St. Maximillian Kolbe, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Clare, St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Louis IX. My ears perked when the name “Zubair Simonson” was finally read out and appeared on the screen, followed by the name…
“Blessed Sebastián of Aparicio.”
I must say that I found it peculiar that the virtue picked out for me was a Spirit of Thankfulness, and that I had admitted to God earlier that week that I ought to count my many blessings more often.
But “who’s he?” was my kneejerk thought when I heard the name of my saint for 2022. I suppose that there must be other Secular Franciscans who’d had similar reactions upon drawing that name during the Rite of Extraction at their fraternity gatherings.
Fortunately, we live in the digital age, and have Google available to compensate for times in which our knowledge is lacking.
Who Is He?
Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio was born in the Galician region of Spain, on Jan. 20, 1502. His parents were poor. He spent much of his childhood tending sheep and cattle, and he never learned to read or write. But his parents were also pious, that his lifelong practices of service and prayer began at a tender age.
The bubonic plague struck his hometown in 1514. He contracted it. His parents placed him in a shelter which they’d built in nearby woods, to quarantine the boy in isolation. All they could do was pray, and cling to the narrow hope that their precious son would be amongst those few who survived the plague. According to his own account, a wolf poked her head inside the shelter while he was lying in there, helplessly sick. The wolf began sniffing at one of the infected spots on his body. She bit and licked it, before turning away and running off. He began recovering from that very moment, and lived.
Sebastián de Aparicio grew to adulthood, and eventually moved from Galicia, seeking work to help support his family and provide dowries for his sisters. The reserved young man was stricken with handsomeness, and became a target of women’s sexual advances wherever he had moved to. But he was likewise blessed with the desire to live a life of chastity, and changed employment multiple times to avoid these temptations.
In 1533, he’d boarded a ship, and watched the lands of his native Spain shrink away, never to be seen again. The ship he’d boarded landed in Veracruz, a settlement in the Americas. He moved inland, to the town of Puebla de los Angeles, which had recently been settled by Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, a missionary and Franciscan friar. He began working in Puebla as a farmhand, cultivating maize and wheat, and raising and training cattle for plowing and transportation.
Moving supplies between the settlements of New Spain remained very difficult, since roads were still scarce. Great burdens often fell upon the peoples and animals navigating mountainous terrain because of this. Aparicio recruited an enterprising partner, who was a fellow Spaniard, and they appealed to the colonial authorities for a grant to construct roads between the settlements, beginning with a road from Puebla to Veracruz. The colonial authorities agreed to their proposal. Sebastián de Aparicio went on to oversee the construction of many highways, which often required careful negotiation with indigenous peoples, and he became a wealthy man.
In 1552 he sold his transport business, and bought a swath of land near Zacatecas to farm and ranch cattle. He taught native peoples of the area how to plow, how to raise horses and oxen and how to build wagons. He remained committed to his faith, despite having had a great fortune, that he followed an ascetic lifestyle, and gave away much of his wealth to meet the needs of his neighbors.
After a lifetime of pressure, he finally married at the age of 60. The woman he married was much younger, and had few prospects of marrying otherwise, since she couldn’t afford a dowry. They had agreed a Josephite marriage, one never to be consummated. She died a year after their marriage. He married again, two years later, with the same agreement to a Josephite marriage. By the age of 70, he was twice widowed.
After a serious illness, and serious re-assessment of his life triggered by that illness, Sebastián de Aparicio began dressing simply and spending long hours in church. He felt called to consecrated life. Following the suggestion made by his confessor, he donated his fortune to a monastery of Poor Clares, and lived on the grounds of that monastery as a volunteer serving the external needs of the nuns.
After a year of living amongst those Poor Clares, he applied to be accepted as a lay brother. Friends of his had advised him not to, considering his advanced age. He discarded the advice of his well-meaning friends, and was accepted as a friar in 1574. He professed his vows in 1575. A fellow friar signed his document of commitment on his behalf, since he was still illiterate.
Brother Sebastián was first assigned to a friary in Tecali. He was returned to Puebla a year later, and tasked with traveling throughout the community, begging for food and alms which would support the friary and its ministries. He became a beggar on the very highways that he’d once overseen construction of.
The aged friar, holding the reins for oxen in one hand and a rosary in the other, became a familiar sight to travelers of the area. He was known throughout the region for his great energy (including feats of strength), his simplicity and his cry: “Guárdeos Dios, hermanos, ¿hay qué dar, por Dios, a San Francisco?” It was said that angels accompanied him, and that animals obeyed him, wherever he went.
Sebastián de Aparicio died in the town of Puebla on Feb. 25, 1600. The crowds that gathered to see this beloved man’s body as it lay in state were so numerous that it was several days before he could be buried. After having been exhumed, twice, his incorrupt body can still be seen today at the Church of San Francisco in Puebla, Mexico.
Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio was beatified in 1789 by Pope Pius VI.
Nooks and Crannies
Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio isn’t as famous as some other holy men and women, but he’s still very in our age.
Millions of us have endured isolated quarantine over the last two years. We live in an age in which birth control and pornography are widely available, and chastity often gets mocked by our culture. There are millions among us (including several from my mother’s family) who’ve moved away from the only places which they’d ever known as “home” to seek prospects in distant lands. It can be easy for all too many of us to dismiss ourselves as “too old” or “too uneducated” to begin, or renew, the call to a life of holiness. And in Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio, we have a friend who gifted us with his example in all such matters.
We Americans are very conditioned to be captivated by rags-to-riches stories. The remarkable story of Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio (a true story that rivals Forrest Gump in adventure) is one of having taken that next holy step further: rags-to-riches-to-habit.
When I was received into the Catholic Church in 2012, I very well knew such names as St. Francis and St. Maximillian Kolbe. One of the privileges I’ve had in the decade since my confirmation is the pleasure to learn that inspiration is found even in the nooks and crannies of our Church’s history. Holiness can be found in the fine details of our Church, because holiness is in her DNA.
And though I wouldn’t have known to say it just a short while ago, I’m very glad to say it now: “Blessed Sebastián de Aparicio, pray for us!”