Saint Fabian, Pope and Martyr

January 19, 2018

The Pastor's Page

Saint Fabian was the twentieth pope. He succeeded Pope St. Anterus who was in office only six weeks before dying of natural causes. An assembly was called to elect the new pope, and both clergy and laity were in attendance. Eusebius, a historian from Caesarea, reported that during the proceedings a dove mysteriously appeared and alighted on Fabian’s head. The voters took this to be a sign from the Holy Spirit that Fabian should be chosen, even though he was not well known to them, a layman, a farmer who had come into Rome, and happened to be in the audience. Fabian was elected on January 10, 236.

Pope Fabian had a fourteen year pontificate (236-250), and he is considered one of the most effective popes of the early Church. He was a gifted administrator. He directed a reorganization of the local clergy. He also subdivided the Roman church into seven ecclesiastical districts, placed a deacon in charge of each district, provided a subdeacon to support each deacon, and appointed six additional junior assistants for each district.

Pope Fabian led a number of building and restoration projects for the Christian cemeteries or catacombs in and around Rome. Not only were they burial places for Christians, they also served as worship sites, and it was customary for Masses to be offered on the tombs of the martyrs. He also arranged for a papal burial crypt in the catacomb of St. Callistus on the Appian Way, and his predecessor, Pope St. Anterus, was the first to be buried there. He also arranged for the body of Pope St. Pontian, the pope from 230 to 235, to be returned from Sardinia, where he had been in exile and martyred, and he, too, was entombed in the papal crypt.

Pope Fabian wisely appointed a number of holy and gifted bishops to preach the gospel in Gaul. He also was forced to condemn Bishop Privatus of Lambaesa, Africa, who was teaching heresy.

The Church was free of persecution during the first thirteen years of his pontificate. The Roman emperors during that time, Gordian III and Philip the Arab, both tolerated Christians. This changed abruptly and dramatically when the emperor Decius rose to power in 249. He immediately unleashed a ferocious persecution against Christians, and Pope Fabian was one of the first to be arrested and imprisoned. He was treated with extreme cruelty during his confinement, and finally tortured and executed on January 20, 250. He was buried in the papal crypt in the catacombs of St. Callistus, and sometime later his remains were transferred to the basilica of St. Sebastian (San Sebastiano) in Rome.

Shortly after his death St. Cyprian of Carthage, one of the highest ranking bishops of the Church, wrote that Pope Fabian was “an incomparable man, the glory of whose death corresponds to his holiness of life,” and that “it is encouraging when a bishop offers himself as a model for his brothers by the constancy of his faith.”

About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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