Pope St. Fabian and God’s Unexpected Call
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.
Image: Jacopo Bassano; “St. Fabian, St. Sebastian and St. Roch”; 1565