Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
In the present day suburbs of Rome, tour buses navigate winding, narrow, tree lined roads, to carry modern pilgrims to the catacombs of St. Callixtus. The pilgrims descend a steep staircase until they find themselves in a vast, dark, underground space. The pilgrims slowly walk by early Christian graffiti blanketing the walls to their right and to their left. Marble scraps of early Christian tombstones have etched upon them Greek and Latin epigraphs briefly describing who they honor. In 1850 an archeologist working in St. Callixtus discovered, incredibly, just one small chunk of marble. Etched upon it was the following simple epitaph: “Fabian, Bishop, Martyr.” The lifeless body of today’s saint was carried in procession to the catacombs of St. Callixtus shortly his death in 250 A.D. In the early 1700’s Pope Fabian’s relics were transferred to the nearby Church of Saint Sebastian, where they can be found today.
A 3rd century letter of St. Cyprian to the deacons and priests of Rome further confirms the virtuous life and courageous death of Pope Fabian. He reigned as Pope for 14 years before being martyred in 250 A.D. The roman emperor Decius was his killer. Decius’ persecution was vicious but not universal. He tried to kill the body by cutting off the head, and so sought the Pope’s blood. It didn’t work. About 65 years later, one of Decius’ successors as emperor, Constantine, would legalize Christianity, bringing to an end almost 300 years of on again, off again persecution.
We can only imagine what it would be like today if the Pope were to be imprisoned and killed by the Prime Minister of Italy. Imagine the outcry! A secular power actively persecuting a religious leader! Yet perhaps such events are not so unimaginable. Pope St. John Paul II was shot, and almost killed, in 1981, probably due to dark communist forces rooted in Eastern Europe. Assassins still exist, and popes are still their targets.
According to Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote a detailed history of the Church about 50 years after Pope Fabian’s time, Fabian was a layman who went to Rome after the prior Pope’s death. He was elected Bishop of Rome due to a miraculous sign. In other words, Fabian did not strive to his high office. He did not seek to be important. He accepted his role in the full knowledge that it could lead to big trouble for him. And that trouble eventually found him. Pope Fabian’s martyrdom shows why the Church survived its early and vicious persecutions – it had leaders who knew how to die. Great deaths don’t follow shallow lives. The early Popes didn’t give up or give in. They didn’t renounce the faith. They were fearless. They felt the cold metal of a sharp knife against their neck and still persevered. A religious society with such models of courage in its highest ranks had to survive. And it did survive. We are living proof of that.
St. Fabian, your high office gave your death added weight. Your papal death proved to the faithful that their leaders did not encourage in others what they would not personally accept themselves. Slaves, prisoners, women, and outcasts died for the faith. But popes did too. Help us, Fabian, to be further links in that long chain of Christians who witness to Christ no matter our wealth, our influence, or our highly placed friendships.
From the Golden Legend:
S. Fabian was a citizen and burgess of Rome, and it happened when the pope was dead that the people assembled for to choose another pope. And S. Fabian came to the election for to know who should be elect and chosen to that dignity. And anon a white dove descended from heaven and rested upon his head, and when the people saw that they marvelled much, and all they by common accord chose him for to be pope. This holy man Fabian, after when he was pope, he ordained throughout all the countries, seven deacons, and to them seven subdeacons, for to write the lives of martyrs. There was an emperor in his time named Philip, which was much sinful, and came boldly in the vigil of Easter in to the church for to be houseled and communed, whom the pope drove away and denied to him the communion, until he had gone and shriven him of his sins, and let him stand among the seculars. This holy pope also ordained the chrism in the church. Then at the last when he had been pope thirteen years Decius the emperor commanded to smite off his head, and so he was crowned with the crown of martyrdom the year of our Lord two hundred and fifty-three.