Matthew Sewell is the author of the popular “Popes in a Year” daily email series, co-founded mtncatholic.com, and co-hosts the Pit of Culture podcast. Matthew writes about intriguing stories from Church history, the messiness of the Christian life, and (occasionally) insights into Catholicism through Denver Broncos football. By day, he works at Flocknote to help parishes and dioceses build a more connected Church. Matthew lives and works in Spokane, Washington.
St. Fabian served the Church from January 10, 236 to January 20, 250 as our 20th pope, at a time when Christianity was still very much illegal. Despite that, he was able to get along with the imperial government relatively well, and was known for many good deeds -- heck, he is a saint, after all.
St. Cyprian of Carthage thought highly of him, he was known to have exchanged letters with Origen of Alexandria, and he might’ve even been the one who sent St. Denis to Paris in an effort to evangelize the Gauls. Denis, some might remember, is the guy who, after being martyred via beheading, supposedly picked up his head and proceeded to walk six miles while preaching a sermon. But I digress.
Fabian even ensured that the bodies of his penultimate predecessor, St. Pontian, and an antipope-turned-saint, Hippolytus, were brought back to Rome from the mines of Sardinia. But neither this, what had to be a monumental accomplishment in such an age, nor his saintly connections are what Fabian is most strikingly remembered for.
Pope Pontian had resigned his post in 235 -- making him the first pontiff in history to do so -- when both he and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia by Roman officials. After him came St. Anterus, but Anterus lasted a mere 43 days, likely dying a martyr’s death under Emperor Maximinus Thrax’s heavy-handed reign.
So, in early January of the year 236, the Roman Church gathered to find a new Successor of St. Peter.
Fabian, a mere layman at that point, had come in from the countryside to watch the proceedings. One can almost see this humble farmer or shepherd sitting near the back of the room, curiously looking on as the clandestine assembly discerned a new leader.
St. Eusebius, the Church’s earliest and best-known historian for that time period, recounts that many worthy candidates were proposed. Over the course of 13 days of deliberation, Fabian, “although present, was in the mind of none.”
On the final day of the proceedings, however, it’s said that a dove “flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove.”
Eusebius, writing barely 75 years after Fabian’s death, went on:
“Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that [Fabian] was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.” (Ecclesiastical History, VI, XXIX)
You can’t make this stuff up.
Thankfully, the Church’s leadership had solid intuition in placing Fabian in charge, too. The new pontiff’s reign mercifully coincided with a period of little violence, so Fabian had 14 solid years to govern and build up the Church in relative peace. He’s said to have divided Rome’s Christian communities into seven districts, most notably assigning a deacon to oversee each one and appointing subdeacons to collect stories and acts of the martyrs.
Fabian’s storied reign ended at the midway point of the 3rd Century, when Decius came to power as Roman emperor. The ensuing Decian persecution, in which Christians were ordered to worship pagan gods or be killed, saw St. Fabian become one of its earliest victims. He received the crown of martyrdom on January 20, 250.
Okay. So what’s the point? At that election, Fabian walked in expecting to simply witness the election of a new Holy Father. Granted, he surely didn’t expect himself to be called, but we would be remiss to assume that Fabian wasn’t at least open to how and when and where the Holy Spirit wished to move in his life. He did accept the papacy, after all.
Think for a moment of what must have been running through Fabian’s mind at the moment the dove landed on his head. Not only would there have been surprise at a bird perching on his face, but the simultaneous turning and shouting from the crowd, followed by a sudden urging into a role he could never in a million years have expected for himself.
And yet, Fabian responded. It’s safe to expect that Fabian was a man of prayer, and it’s obvious that he was a man of action as a result. Let us all take a note from St. Fabian, especially in these uncertain and uneasy times. Let us be people of prayer, and thus people of action, for we can never know when the Spirit will come calling in the most unexpected ways.
Pope St. Fabian, pray for us!