20 Jan Saint Fabian, Pope and Martyr
Today is the feast day of Saint Fabian. Ora pro nobis.
from the Liturgical Year, 1904
Saint Fabian, like St. Clement and St. Antheros, two of his predecessors, was extremely zealous in seeing that the Acts of the Martyrs were carefully drawn up. This zeal was no doubt exercised by the clergy in the case of our holy Pontiff himself, and his sufferings and martyrdom were carefully registered; but all these interesting particulars have been lost, in common with an immense number of other precious Acts, which were condemned to the flames, by the Imperial Edicts, during the persecution under Dioclesian. Nothing is now known of the life of St. Fabian, save a few of his actions as Pope; but we may have some idea of his virtues, by the praise given him by St. Cyprian, who, in a letter written to St. Cornelius, the immediate successor of St. Fabian, calls him an incomparable man.
The Bishop of Carthage extols the purity and holiness of life of the holy Pontiff, who so peaceably governed the Church amidst all the storms which then assailed her. There is an interesting circumstance related of him by Eusebius. After the death of St. Antheros, the people and clergy of Rome assembled together, for the election of the new Pontiff. Heaven marked out the successor of St. Peter: a dove was seen to rest on the venerable head of Fabian, and he was unanimously chosen. This reminds us of the event in our Lord’s Life, which we celebrated a few days back, when standing in the river Jordan, the Dove came down from heaven, and showed him to the people as the Son of God. Fabian was the depository of the power of regeneration, which Jesus, by his Baptism, gave to the element of water; he zealously propagated the Faith of his Divine Master, and, among the Bishops he consecrated for divers places, one or more were sent by him into these western parts of Europe.
We give, at once, the short account of the Acts of St. Fabian, as recorded in the Liturgy.
Fabian, a Roman by birth, governed the Church from the reign of Maximin to that of Decins. He divided the City into seven parts, which he consigned to as many Deacons, and to them he gave the charge of looking after the poor. He created also a like number of Subdeacons, who were to collect the Acts of the Martyrs, written by seven Notaries. It was he decreed, that, every year, on the fifth Feria, our Lord’s Supper, the Chrism should be renewed, and the old should be burnt. At length, on the thirteenth of the Calends of February (January 20), he was crowned with martyrdom, in the persecution of Decius, and was buried in the cemetery of Callixtus, on the Appian Way, after reigning fifteen years and four days. He held five ordinations, in the month of December, in which ordinations, he made two and twenty Priests, seven Deacons, ana eleven Bishops for divers places.
Thus didst thou live out the long tempestuous days of thy Pontificate, O Fabian! But thou hadst the presentiment of the peaceful future reserved by God for His Church, and thou didst zealously labour to hand down to the coming generations the great examples of the Martyrs. The flames have robbed us of a great portion of the treasures thou preparedst for us, and have deprived us of knowing the Fabian who so loved the Martyrs, and died one himself. But of thee, Blessed Pontiff! we know enough to make us thank God for having set thee over His Church in those hard times, and keep this day as a feast in celebration of thy glorious triumph. The dove, which marked thee out as the one chosen by heaven, showed thee to men as the visible Christ on earth; it told thee that thou wert destined for heavy responsibilities and martyrdom; it was a warning to the Church, that she should recognise and hear thee as her guide and teacher.
Honoured thus with a resemblance to Jesus in the mystery of his Epiphany, pray to Him for us, that He mercifully manifest himself to our mind and heart. Obtain of Him, for us, that docility to His grace, that loving submissiveness to His every will, that detachment from all created things, which were the support of thy life, during those fifteen years of thy ever threatened and anxious pontificate. When the angry persecution at length broke on thee, it found thee prepared, and martyrdom carried thee to the bosom of God, who had already welcomed so many of thy martyred children. We, too, are looking for that last wave, which is to break over us, and carry us from the shore of this present life to eternity–oh! pray for us, that it may find us ready! If the love of the Divine Babe, our Jesus, be within us; if, like thee, we imitate the simplicity of the dove;–we shall not be lost! Here are our hearts–we wish for nothing but God–help us by thy prayers. (1)
During his reign of fourteen years there was a lull in the storm of persecution. Little is known of his pontificate. The “Liber Pontificalis” says that he divided Rome into seven districts, each supervised by a deacon, and appointed seven subdeacons, to collect, in conjunction with other notaries, the “acta” of the martyrs, i.e. the reports of the court-proceedings on the occasion of their trials (cf. Eus., VI, 43). There is a tradition that he instituted the four minor orders. Under him considerable work was done in the catacombs. He caused the body of Pope St. Pontianus to be exhumed, in Sardinia, and transferred to the catacomb of St. Callistus at Rome.
Later accounts, more or less trustworthy, attribute to him the consecration (245) of seven bishops as missionaries to Gaul, among them St. Denys of Paris (Greg. of Tours, Hist. Francor., I, 28, 31). St. Cyprian mentions (Ep., 59) the condemnation by Fabian for heresy of a certain Privatus (Bishop of Lambaesa) in Africa. The famous Origen did not hesitate to defend, before Fabian, the orthodoxy of his teaching (Eus. Hist. Eccl., VI, 34). Fabian died a martyr (20 Jan., 250) at the beginning of the Decian persecution, and was buried in the Crypt of the Popes in the catacomb of St. Callistus, where in recent times (1850) De Rossi discovered his Greek epitaph (Roma Sotterranea II, 59): “Fabian, bishop and martyr.” The decretals ascribed to him in Pseudo-Isidore are apocryphal. (3)
His remains were later reinterred at San Sebastiano fuori le mura by Pope Clement XI where the Albani Chapel is dedicated in his honour.
Image: Der hl. Fabian und der hl. Sebastian, artist: Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, circa: Mid-15th century (4)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff